Entrepreneurial learning journey: building your startup team

Posted by Ian Brookes on Tue, May 16, 2017

Lean startup thinking is based around the concept of a MVP as a means of sharing your product vision with your target customers, containing sufficient value to attract early adopters. Asking the right questions of your MVP is key, it’s as much a process as a pilot version of your product, and guides you broadly around your business model assumptions, many based on your hunches.

Testing all aspects of the business model, not just the product features, is vital, and this applies to developing your ‘Minimum Viable Team’ (‘MVT’)?  As Steve Blank states, a startup is a temporary organisation used to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. Having a talented team is an essential ingredient to startup success and scaling, as any aspect of the business model.

Most startup founders work on the basis that they will find the folks they need to scale their business either by word of mouth within the startup community, or within their own network, when they need them.  Alas experience tell us those serendipitous moments don’t always occur. The route of chance isn’t always successful, or even best financially in the longer term.

So what are the key considerations in your startup team building strategy, when seeking to create a key part of your business growth engine? Here are some thoughts.

1. Hiring Philosophy

What is the vision for your MVT in terms of its purpose, values and principles held as underlying attributes that will make a difference?

Rockstars gives leverage You’re looking for rockstar starters who can create 10x more leverage – ‘moonshot thinking’ -  than an average employee. The effectiveness gap between employees can be multiple orders of magnitude. In startup hiring there are few shades of grey, go for those that can add rocket fuel to your momentum.

Culture-contributors are better than culture-fitters A startup culture is part of the business model and customer experience. Just like we want people to contribute new skills and ideas, we want people to contribute new culture. Hiring culture-fitters does not make your culture better. The founding team will soon be outnumbered by new hires. They will decide your future culture, not you.

Hire for potential & learning not experience & experts Potential and experience are not mutually exclusive, but potential is far more valuable. Everyone usually hires for experience, but for a startup my view is to hire those whose potential will explode when they join you, pulling you along with them. Interviewing for experience is easy because you are discovering what someone has done. Interviewing for potential is hard because you are predicting what they will do. How do you do this? They get excited talking about what they could do rather than what they have done.

Static expertise quickly becomes obsolete. To survive and grow we must be a learning organisation. The clearest signal of a learner is curiosity. Curious people, by definition, love to learn, while experts talk about what they know.

Experimentation is a crucial mechanism for driving breakthroughs in any startup. If you want to create a successful, hyper-growth company, you've got to focus on empowering your teams to rapidly experiment.

Hire for difference not similarity There is a natural bias to hire people ‘like us’. Fight this bias. Hiring similar means we value repeatability and efficiency over creativity and leverage. Hiring different brings new skills, paradigms, and ideas, which are the sparks and catalyst of leverage. You will naturally want to hire people you connect with. Fight your instincts.. Don’t default to ‘she’s like one of us’.

2. Focus on Personality

Simply, what sort of people did we want in our team alongside us on our startup journey? I’ve developed this simple framework, a combination of attitudes, character and behaviours, to check for ‘togetherness’. They are:

·     Openness: We look for free spirits, open-minded folk who will enjoy the startup adventure and new experiences – the highs and the lows.

·     Conscientiousness: A startup can be a bit chaotic and disruptive, so we look for people who are organised and dependable.

·     Extraversion: We look for energisers, live-wires who tend to be more sociable and keep noise and energy levels up – not office jesters, but people who can keep the lights burning

·     Agreeableness: High scorers for this trait are often trusting, helpful and compassionate. Empathy is an invaluable trait to have when building your startup to balance the searing ambition.

·     Emotional stability: People with high scores for this trait are usually confident and don’t tend to worry often.

We are social creatures, and a deeper understanding of who we (and others) are can provide a valuable tool for working with others. You can build a more effective MVT using personality traits as part of your hiring decision.

In terms of the attitudes and behaviours we sought, these maybe summarised as follows:

They would much rather act than deliberate Generally, startup business plans are less useful than the planning process, as things change so quickly. Before the plan shoots out of the printer, things have already changed and ‘the plan’ is already outdated. Stuff happens.

Very few startups resemble their original plan, and that’s a good thing, because it means they’re pivoted and reshaping their businesses to meet the needs of their customers. Great startup employees are the same way.

They have an appetite to get out of the building Great start up people obsess over the customer, they understand calories are best spent making a real difference for customers. Every business has finite resources. The key is to spend as much of those resources as possible on things that matter to the customers. Fretting over trivial things doesn't help anyone. It's just a waste of energy.

They don’t see money as the solution to every problem One of the key lessons founders learn in a startup is resourcefulness. How do you take limited resources and turn them into something remarkable? That’s also true of the best startup employees. They're remarkably resourceful. They're constantly looking for creative ways to make the most of the resources they have.

3. The concept of ‘Tour of Duty’

Start-ups succeed in large part because their MVT is highly adaptable, motivated to go the extra mile and create something different. However, entrepreneurial employees can be restless, searching for new, high-learning opportunities, and other startups are always looking to poach them.

However, if you think all your MVT will give you lifetime loyalty, think again. Sooner or later, most employees will pivot into a new opportunity. When Reid Hoffman founded LinkedIn, he set the initial employee engagement as a four-year ‘tour of duty’, with a discussion at two years. If an employee moved the needle on the business, the company would help advance her career. Ideally this would entail another tour of duty at the company, but it could also mean a position elsewhere.

A tour of duty has a defined end, but that doesn’t have to be the end of an employee’s tenure. One successful tour is likely to lead to another. Each strengthens the bonds of trust and mutual benefit. If an employee wants change, an appealing new tour of duty can provide it within your company. This is a more effective retention strategy than appealing to vague notions of loyalty and establishes a real zone of trust.

The tour-of-duty approach for a startup works like this. The business hires an employee who strives to produce tangible achievements and who is an important advocate and resource in the MVT. A tour-of-duty is established, either two or four years. Why two to four years? That time period seems to have universal appeal. In the software business, it syncs with a typical product development cycle, allowing an employee to see a major project through. At the end of this ‘tour’, the business could pivot to a new direction, and thus the MVT needs to pivot too.

Properly implemented, the tour-of-duty approach can boost both recruiting and retention for a startup. The key is that it gives both sides a clear basis for working together. Both sides agree in advance on the purpose of the relationship, the expected benefits for each, and potentially a planned end.

The problem with most employee retention conversations is that they have a fuzzy goal (retain ‘good’ employees) and a fuzzy time frame (indefinitely). The company is asking an employee to commit to it but makes no commitment in return. In contrast, a tour of duty serves as a personalised retention plan that gives a valued employee concrete, compelling reasons to finish her tour and that establishes a clear time frame for discussing the future of the relationship. Personalised tours produce even positive feelings.

Thus when working with MVT employees, establish explicit terms of their tours of duty, developing firm but time-limited mutual commitments with focused goals and clear expectations. Ask, ‘in this relationship, how will both parties benefit and progress in the lifetime of the MVT?’

4. Lessons from Google

A company's culture and core values are the bedrock of innovation and effective teams, and Google has established a suite of practices for you to use when building your own effective startup team.

Back in 2013, Google conducted a rigorous analysis deemed Project Aristotle to identify what underlying factors led to the most effective Google teams. Over 200 interviews were conducted across +180 active teams over the course of the two-year study. More than 250 attributes were identified that contributed to both success and failure.

Their hypothesis was that they would find the perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for a stellar team. Turns out they were dead wrong.

 The researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together. Here are the top five keys to an effective Google team, in order of importance:

Psychological safety Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking a risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk-taking. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question or offering a new idea.

Dependability On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time (vs. the opposite - shirking responsibilities). Perfection is not optional. The enemy of great is good. Always strive for the best possible product, service or experience.

In a decentralised team working remotely, this core value is extremely important. Always trust your teammates are doing their best work with good intentions. Don’t jump to conclusions or judgments.

Structure and clarity An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance are important for team effectiveness. Goals can be set at the individual or group level, and must be specific, challenging and attainable. Google often uses Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to help set and communicate short- and long-term goals.

Meaning Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness. The meaning of work is personal and can vary - financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, or self-expression for each individual, for example. The self-directed employee takes responsibility for her own decisions and actions. Having a team that can constantly say “We can figure it out” creates a competitive edge.

Impact The results of one’s work, the subjective judgment that your work is making a difference, is important. Seeing that one’s work is contributing to the organisation’s goals can help reveal impact. The world’s most precious resource is the passionate and persistent human mind. Get your team to embrace long-term thinking.

Every member of the team needs to embody a growth mindset: the belief that they can learn more or become smarter if they work hard and persevere.

That media fervour for the unicorn startups and their celebrity founders can suggest that it only takes the one or two entrepreneurs to build exceptional companies on their own, or with a co-founder. I think that’s rarely the case.

 Henry Ford once said, Why is it that every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a mind attached? In a startup, minds dramatically amplify the value of hands and they become even more powerful when they’re able to engage with like-minded, stimulated other folk in the team.

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