How To Build Your Startup Core Team

by Sep 9, 2009Talent Management

I had a really fun conversation with a founder of a great company with fantastic potential today and we covered many topics, one of which prompted me to write this article. Securing money and investors are not always the biggest issue keeping startup founders awake at night. Assembling the right team from the very beginning can be a much bigger issue. I’ve previously talked about the traits you may want to look for in a possible co-founder and have covered the importance of a demographically and culturally diverse team. Today I will get down to the basics of how to start assembling your team from scratch. There are many perspectives on this subject, but I wanted to share with you what I have seen work.

Let’s start by debunking one common analogy – building a team is not like putting a puzzle together.  The number one rule I’ve learned from the best startup teams is that one trick ponies need not apply. In early to mid-stage startups, generalists should compose the majority of your team. There are two kinds of generalists: those who are Jacks-of-All-Trades and masters of one or two areas, and those who are masters of none (general management, which you don’t want).

Here are the rules of thumb I like for assembling a team:

  • Until you reach a “comfortable” level of revenue, forget about specialists. (See my separate article on this issue). What makes one an asset versus a liability is the ability to step outside of the proverbial silo and competently get hands as dirty as needed. In addition, many times you can only afford one specialist for an area, which becomes a huge risk that I like to call “what if he/she gets hit by a bus?”.
  • Don’t hire titles. Bring in people who are passionate about their areas of expertise and who love your industry. Passion for ones’ craft + love for mission of the company = talent worth their weight in gold. Plus, titles aren’t good for startups anyway.
  • When building your team, take inventory of your strengths (even if it is just you), but more importantly, pay extra attention to your weaknesses. The best teams have members who complete each other. I like to build a matrix with the headings: “can do”, “can learn”, “can’t do” for each skill set and team member. Using this matrix allows me to keep better handle on areas we need to strengthen.
  • Stay away from the “this is my baby” syndrome. Each member of your core team should be willing to build and hand off – you cannot grow your company if this is not the case. There is nothing worse than a person who micromanages or hogs an area of the business they consider “theirs”.
  • Bring in people who have been at the level you want to be at in the next several years. There is no reason to bring on a big shot from a major multi-national corporation if you have no chance of being at the staffing, resource, revenue level that person is used to managing. If you are at $1MM revenue, get someone who has been at $50MM, but not $200MM or more. They will only get frustrated, cost you money, and leave before you know it.

Lastly, remember that there are always exceptions to every rule. I like to say that what makes you an expert is recognizing an exception for every best practice or rule of thumb.

Illustration credit: LuMaxArt

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