The single most valuable asset of your company is the people. People build the product. People sell. People support. People serve. People are who investors back. So why do founders approach team building with the wrong perspective, and often harm their company’s chance to succeed? From our experience and the experience of fellow founders, we learned some of the most common biases and how to approach them with a different mindset. Learn this now, and you'll save yourself learning it the hard way.
Founders Have to Manage Themselves First
Founders, if you can’t manage yourself, you can’t manage and, more importantly, lead others. Managing oneself is multi-faceted for a founder. It's more than the operations of running a big company with lots of systems, processes, and procedures.
Rather, it's the ability for founders to manage their time, energy, and resources effectively for maximum return. Everything matters in a startup, but everything doesn’t matter equally, right now. Founders gravitate to what they believe they are best at and what they enjoy the most. Some days this will align with what the business needs - but not on all days.
Founders must avoid falling into the comfort zone trap and work on the items that are currently the most important, not necessarily the most urgent or most enjoyable. Too many founders are procrastinators around the most important, hard things - yet go all in on the unimportant, easier things.
Don't Wait to Team Up
Founders want to begin building a team as soon as they can for a myriad of reasons. Having a team improves the speed of everything, and that's especially important when there is a ton of work to do and comrades are a few.
So what does "as soon as they can" mean? It's not before your advisors, mentors, or close confidants have seen you prove you can manage yourself - and begin telling others about your business. The early team will reflect the perspective and habits of the founder. Thus, a high performing founder equates to a high performing team - and the opposite is true. Founders are ready to begin building their team when they can unequivocally say after a sustained period of time (at least 30 days, probably more like 60-90 days) they have the ability to work in a disciplined and focus manner against the most important things.
Being able to manage yourself starts with being self-aware. Know why you think the way you do about everything? You should. Your ability to understand what you believe and why you do what you do is crucial to knowing how you react to people and situations. Founders who are self-aware act in a consistent manner that engenders confidence from the team, investors, partners, and vendors. If you find yourself in a situation where you aren’t sure why you acted the way you did, step back and understand why. The self-reflection is worth the time. Put it off, and you might keep repeating the mistake.
Founders benefit greatly from quiet, reflective time to become more self-aware. Whether it is meditation, running, yoga, or some other form that disconnects you from the chaos, it is worth it. It is nearly impossible for most founders to be grinding away at the company to be self-aware without being able to disconnect from it periodically. This belies a lot of advice founders get that they must go fast. Pace and scale are critical, especially if you have taken investment. But the momentum needs to be moving in the right direction, and the most important obstacle to remove from your way is yourself. This is going to seem counterintuitive, but continually operating at full throttle actually does more harm than good.
Being self-aware is a powerful attribute. People will recognize it and value it - especially those you are asking to join you to build the company. Self-awareness is a talent and high-performer magnet. People want to follow a leader that is able to be both gritty yet introspective. People can sense when someone is self-aware and they believe it will create an environment of acceptance and empathy where everyone can thrive. Taking this a step further, it only makes sense, then, to hire people who are also self-aware. Founders should ask questions and take the time to get to know a candidate’s level of self-awareness.
Be Clear and Purpose-Driven: The Why Drives the Who
Founders, there are a lot of talented people who will be happy to receive a paycheck from you. Let them work somewhere else unless they can also communicate and demonstrate they understand and are passionate about what the company is doing.
Skill matters, but passion matters more - as it's the latter that will keep them learning and growing to suit the needs of the company. The two combined, skill and passion, are a wickedly powerful force, and the mark of great founders. Lots of skilled people won't care about what you're doing, but if one the primary reasons isn’t because they love what you are doing and why you are doing it - keep looking. Founders, have the patience to wait for the people that are highly skilled and who have an appropriate level of passion. It’s worth it.
A word of caution around passion from candidates though: some candidates will want to deflect from discussing their capabilities and skills and will only want to talk about how great they think the company is, you are, and how big the company is going to be. This won't be a good fit: you might later discover their false passion was a cover for a lack of skill. Founders can get a sense of someone’s level of passion and skill by weaving in and out of both topics during discussions. Someone who is truly skilled and interested in what you are doing will be able to navigate a multi-faceted discussion effectively, whereas someone who isn’t will struggle.
Be Ware of Startup First-Timers
People that haven’t worked in a start-up don’t know what it is like. They can’t, and they shouldn’t. Founders, you should consider this when building your team. Especially with key team members.
Most people are not wired for the chaos and fluidity of working in a startup. Why? Because people are normal. They want a normal work week, they want to be able to take time off on some regular basis. You have to be a little odd (okay, more than a little) to want to willingly and knowingly subject yourself to the torment of working in a startup. If someone hasn’t experienced being part of a startup team, they don’t know what it is going to be like. Founders can tell them. They can read a bunch of posts. But until you have done it and lived it, you don’t know.
Founders, if you build a team full of startup newbies you will likely have a lot of turnover, and fast. To the greatest extent possible, founders should build a team of people who have build other companies. This will give the founder the best chance of having a team that has both delivered and knows the context in which they will be delivering.
It's Not a Forever Thing
Founders, it is okay to hire someone that aligns well with what you need now and will for the next year - or 2 or 3 - but who isn’t going to be part of the team long-term. Most assuredly, people who are considering joining the team aren’t thinking about whether the company is their forever place. If it works out that way - great. For right now, people want to feel good about what they are doing, who they are doing it with, and if they are getting fairly compensated to do it. Founders, although you want your team to stay forever, the reality it is good for people to move on once the mutual value has been consumed.
Use Team Building as Validation
The ability to attract and retain a high performing team is a key role for a founder - just as important as selling and raising money. A founders ability to build a superstar team is a direct reflection of a founder’s ability to sell themselves and the company.
If a founder struggles to build a team, the founder is probably ineffective at selling the mission and value of the company. Just as with customers and investors, people need to be convinced to join the team. Founders need to manage a recruiting pipeline just as they do for customers and investors.
A fancy, expensive applicant tracking system isn’t needed early on, but using a CRM to manage the process and communication will make a big difference in managing potential team member relationships effectively. Using a CRM to manage the recruitment relationships will also provide founders with important metrics about the progression and timespan of recruiting conversations, and ultimately wins.
Founders who are not managing the recruiting process effectively and who are not getting high performing people to join the team, need to rethink and rework the process and their approach. Getting the right people to join the team is a critical validation for the founder and company. It needs to be treated and managed as such.
The next post in the series, Founders Fighting Human Nature, will be on Funding The Company.