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How to build a great startup team

- September 28, 2022 4 MIN READ
Photo: Oceans Twelve/Paramount
You can’t build a great team if you can’t recruit a team.

Think about what you have to offer a potential cofounder or team member, and what that must look like to them vs not working in a startup.

No wonder persuading people to join a startup is hard:

 

Working for a startup Working for a normal employer
Long, unpredictable hours Reasonable, predictable hours
Too much change Not quite enough change
Minimum viable compensation Good compensation
No job security Job security
Great individual responsibility Responsibility is shared
Have to stack and unstack the dishwasher Somebody else stacks and unstacks the dishwasher
Pizza, beer and ping-pong Lavish corporate parties and retreats
Eventually this equity might be worth something Most likely, that startup friend’s equity will end up worth nothing, I’ll keep my job thanks.
Do I really have to be friends with these people? Nobody expects us all to be friends

For every hundred job candidates with similar skills, there might be only a few in a personal, financial, legal and emotional state that allows them to consider joining a startup. And it’s very likely that many of those people are the founders of a startup of their own.

If you don’t know how to find these people, start to learn now

It’s a common but potentially fatal mistake to wait until you have a job before you start learning how to recruit a candidate. Since we’re hiring a very difficult to find sort of candidate, for a very different kind of business, we need to think outside the box. 

You will need to experiment with different messaging, different distribution channels, and different interview processes to maximise our chances of finding the right candidates for your startup team. 

Keep the following in mind, and raise them with the founders of other startups you get to know:

  • What small, underground, secret job boards to experienced founders and team members find each other?
  • Are there things other than job boards that people use to find this kind of role with a startup?
  • If you can’t offer a lot of money, great working conditions, job security or a trusted brand, what can you offer instead?  

Test some of your own ideas; design experiments that let you establish whether your ideas are validated or not. It might take some time to get your team member acquisition strategies to work effectively — maybe a year, or more. Do you want to do that year of experimentation before you need to hire someone, or after you need them to start work? 

 

You don’t get to call all the shots

Another very common mistake founders make is to think that startup jobs are a one-way,  linear process, where the employer or hiring manager writes a job description and a job advertisement, collects a bunch of candidates, interviews them, and employees the best candidate to do the job, as specified by the job description.

You don’t have the time to see enough candidates to find the perfect candidate to perform the duties in the job description! What you need to do instead is allow for some collaboration and negotiation with some of the talented, motivated and/or experienced people who are interested enough to consider taking a huge risk in joining your startup.

They’ve got their own set of skills, experience, aspirations and motivations, and one thing you can offer them in lieu of job security, great pay and regular hours is the opportunity to collaborate on what their job description should be.

In six months, the job will have changed beyond recognition. So hire for attitude, hire for potential, and hire for raw talent.

 

Don’t:

  • Specify minimum years of experience
  • Specify particular academic qualifications

 

Do:

  • Ask for interest in developing skills further
  • Look beyond qualifications and years of experience
  • Consider drive, determination, self-reliance and chutzpah

 

Don’t jump in with both feet

If possible, don’t hire full-time employees, because if you can’t afford the time to hire one person for a role, you certainly can’t afford the time to hire their replacement if they don’t work out. 

Hire each team member for a short project associated with the kind of work you would like them to perform first and evaluate the results; then hire them as a part-time contractor, then as a full-time contractor, and in time, eventually, make them a full-time employee.

Some tips on startup teams

  • Having a shared purpose is the first prerequisite of building a great team. You sharing your vision with the team is not having a shared vision. Collaborating on what the vision should be, might be a shared vision.
  • The shared purpose isn’t a mission statement at the beginning of a business plan, it’s something you and the team should revise, test with customers, learn, and change over time.
  • I learned training my dog that I get more of the behavior I reward, and the same is true of working with people. You don’t get what you hope for, ask for, or demand — you get what you reward. Negative rewards are as powerful as positive rewards — sometimes people will repeat behaviour because they’ve been disciplined for performing in the past because that attention is valuable to them even when it’s negative attention.
  • Diversity is the key to high performing team. If everyone comes from a similar background, they will think similarly, so how will the team think differently to find new, better solutions to customer problems? 
  • Micromanagement doesn’t scale down to the small size and low staff budget of a startup. Collaborate on setting the destination and the timeframe, and then let the team members plan and then commit to how they’re going to get there. 
  • Author Dan Pink says people need autonomy (control over their work). They want to pursue mastery (work that helps them become better). They need a strong purpose (working on what matters). They also need to feel like you trust them to get it done. 
  • Rituals are powerful. Establishing rituals (daily stand-ups, weekly meetings, one-on-ones, retrospective meetings) are a powerful way to ensure that team stays on track. However, rituals often become a goal unto themselves instead of a mechanism for achieving a goal. Don’t let the importance of the ritual of having a stand-up be greater than the importance of making rapid process and being flexible to individual needs.
  • If there’s one founder superpower more powerful than any other, it is the ability to have uncomfortable conversations right now, rather than putting them off. Feedback validates the direction and helps you with course correction. The sooner you correct course, the shorter time it will take to get there.
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