HOW TO BUILD A STARTUP TEAM?

It goes without saying that a successful startup needs a team. So what do you have to consider when hiring to make sure you will have a perfect team?

Steve Jobs once said: “My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys who balanced each other and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. That’s how I see business: great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.”

It’s hard to disagree with the ingenious business leader of our times. You cannot achieve great things in business on your own. But what should one consider when building a startup team? We have done some online and offline research to identify several team models that exist and confronted them with real life examples. Tom Povey, the founder of My Future Cloud and Ankur Modi, the CEO of Status Today tell me about their experience with building a startup team.

Startup Team Models and are they relevant?

There are several ‘’perfect team models’’ that can be found online, that supposedly are going to make your startup like The Beatles. The ‘Geek & Suit’, ‘3 x H’ or ‘Hacker, Hustler, Designer, Visionary’ — just to name few of them. Startups in their early stage are often duos composed of one ‘’geek’’ and one ‘’suit’’. The Suit is the ‘’front-end’’ of the business, the one who does pitches, meets potential investors and clients, recruits and gives the general direction. The Geek is the tech guru, that transforms the idea into the matter. The Geek builds the product, whereas the Suit builds the market. Geek and Suit are supposedly a perfect match for a new startup.

‘’The Geek and Suit model works well for founding teams, especially in the technology sector.’’ — says Ankur Modi, the CEO of Status Today, a London-based startup that revolutionises security using AI that understands human behaviour. ‘’To some extent, it has been quite effective at StatusToday. While we aren’t the classic geek and suit, we still have several similarities to it.” — Ankur laughs and adds: ‘’Both of us (co-founders at StatusToday) have strong technical backgrounds. Mircea Danila Dumitrescu, our CTO co-founder, is stronger on the back-end and system architecture while I have a strong product management and data science background. He thus assumed the role of CTO and product architect as we launched. As an ex-Microsoft data science expert, I specialize in big data based behavior analysis and project partnerships, which allowed me to assume the role of the CEO. So, in a way, we are in that model, the geek and suit, the big difference being that both of us have the necessary tech foundation to understand the product core.’’

‘3 x H’ are Hacker, Hustler, Hipster — (or in other words: Tech, Marketing and Design). The Hacker will take care of the technical side of the product, the Hipster will make it look cool and the Hustler will make sure people will crave for it.

‘’It’s important to establish whether your idea is one that people are willing to pay for’’ — Ankur comments -, or it’s one that’s just, cool’’. Most startups focus too much on cool ideas that never solve a real problem. Our business proposition started out from a really novel product, and morphed into something that is incredibly useful! And that’s what I prefer: a combination of cool and useful.’’

Hacker, Hustler, Designer, Visionary is a team-hiring rule that has been generated by an American entrepreneur, Steve Blank, during his years of experience. The Hacker has the tech skills — he or she is the one who knows about the coding, hardware, science, etc. The Hustler will search for the business model, customers and research the market. The Designer will take control of the user facing design (UX, mobile apps), and the Visionary is the one who has the long term vision and coordinates the process of product development. Altogether, according to Blank, they are a perfect mix of skills that are basic for a startup to function.

Are these models relevant to the UK startups?

I asked Tom Povey, the founder of My Future Cloud, digital and communication strategy agency, whom I met at his office in Moorgate, to find out what is his experience with building a startup team. ‘’Respecting that these models have been developed by experts, I think the number one principle with the startup is that you have to be totally flexible.’’ says Tom. ‘’Any set of rules can in actual fact — on one side be very beneficial, because it gives you structure and guidance, but on the flip side, they can be actually quite restrictive. Trying to stick to specific rules, one could simply miss different opportunities, to meet or employ somebody else!’’ According to Tom, having the flexibility to identify the right person is pretty much one of the key skills in a startup, because the success of the startup is going to depend on the people you work with.

When to recruit?

‘’We started hiring right after closing our seed round of investment.’’ — says Ankur. ‘’A common mistake startups make is to hire people too early, sometimes even on day one. Besides the obvious problem of premature scaling, most startups don’t realize that without securing at least 6 months of payroll in the bank, there is a real risk that a slight cash flow situation results in loss of key staff’’. Ankur admits that it is easy to say ‘I am not going to pay myself a salary’ but doing so with people you employ is not an option.

From Ankur’s experience, the only lean way to know that you need to hire new staff is when you have more to do than can be done yourself. If you find yourself unable to finish mission critical tasks after a 16-hour stint in the office, it’s time to expand.” And it’s not because you are inefficient, it’s just because there’s so much more to be done!’’ — explains Ankur. — ‘’That approach guarantees that you are recruiting on need rather than on ego or perceived growth, which can be dangerous.’’

Also, what Ankur has noticed is that recruitment is not a ‘’calendar activity’’. ‘’You cannot say that I’m going to start recruiting today and find a candidate within a week.’’ — he says. ‘Never recruit on the tight schedule, as the right people are worth waiting for.’’ For Ankur it was especially a struggle to find data scientists with strong industry experience. ‘’That remains one of the hardest skills to find people for in London. Part of this is because it’s a new and emerging field, so proven experience is limited. But the bigger cause continues to be the high demand and severe shortage of talent in London. This has driven the local tech recruitment scene to it’s absolutely extreme. If you find a good person and don’t make an offer right away, you lose them. For these highly skilled positions, jobs are plenty, people are rare, and salaries too high to justify.’’

How does one recruit?

For Tom, recruitment has been a very organic process. ‘’First and foremost, it was my network.’’ says Tom. ‘’They are people who I have worked with before, or they have been referred to me by someone trustworthy.’’

Whereas Ankur, asked for recruitment tips, says: ‘’I’ve learned one thing: Never rely on a single source of talent. It just doesn’t work. No matter where you look, your best candidates will always be at the places you are not looking at.’’ and he continues: ‘’The best people that I’ve hired — now, or in the past — were people that were not looking for a job, in a position that did not exist! For me that’s the true purpose of recruitment, to connect talented people with resourceful companies. That makes it fun, and not just another task.’’

Both Tom and Ankur agree on the fact that it is not the set of skills, but it is personality that matters. ‘’Technical skills or ability, you can tick off of any CV, but who they are as a person is most important.’’ says Tom.

In Ankur’s opinion, a lot of people, when recruiting, say: I want to have a specific person, with a specified experience, with this background and those kind of skills. ‘’Surprisingly or unsurprisingly — says Ankur — in a startup world, recruitment is all about finding the right match, rather than the right skills. If a candidate matches the startup’s personality and working culture, they’ll thrive and grow, if not, they’ll certainly leave. That’s why it’s vital to be open to unstructured communication when finding that hidden talent.’’

At My Future Cloud it is the team that decides if the newbie matches the crowd. ‘’So we’re recruiting potentially a new salesperson or an account manager.’’ — describes Tom — ‘’I would have done all the preliminary interviews, but next week on Tuesday the whole team and the candidate — we’re going out for a drink. And that’s sort of final interview for us, because as I say, tick-boxing in terms of ability is very simple — can they do XYZ, yes or no? — but it’s about personality, the cultural fit, that’s most important. Specially in a startup, when you’re working long hours, together in a close proximity.’’

Diversity

Especially in London, the most multicultural capital in the world, a diverse team is something that may be very common.

‘’Diversity matters’’ — says Ankur firmly. “People often ignore it! If all your team comes from the same background and the same mindset, you’re limiting the flow of idea and creativity. We have people from seven different countries in our team of eight. The majority of our team members have lived in more than two countries over the course of the last 5 years. The youngest person in our team is 24, while the oldest over 50. All of this has changed the way we work and imagine the future of our products. It has made a huge difference’’

Team-building activities

So now, how to bring all these individuals together? Team-building activities is what connects people not only on professional, but on the personal level. Team-building activities are the icebreakers, especially for a new team. These are the activities that make you suddenly say ‘’my friend that I work with’’ instead of ‘’my colleague’’. Whether you go bowling, karaoke, or just go out for drinks, this is the time when the team bonds together.

Status Today is a very young team and they have not had many chances to do that much. However, one of the strongest team building activity for them is to make people believe in each other’s strengths. ‘’The confidence in your job and the team, comes partially from your own skills, and partially from the people around you.’’ — explains Ankur. ‘’If the person on your right is a genius, and the person on your left is a genius, before long, you would start working and feeling like one too.”

‘’I made sure that we had a Christmas party.’’ — says Tom when asked about team-building activities. ‘’That was fun! We didn’t just go for a meal, we actually went and did a cocktail masterclass! Another thing that My Future Cloud has been doing for team-building is the digital art exhibition. The artworks are going to be based on our experience of delivering digital projects, that we’ve produced for clients. It gives an opportunity for individual members of staff to showcase their work form a creative perspective, but also to work together on a project that’s outside of work. This is our own project, that we can invite friends and family, and clients too. The process of planning and organising it it’s team building in itself.’’

But it is also important to support each other from Monday to Friday, 9 to 5.

‘’It happened actually only yesterday.’’ — says Tom. ‘’We’re incredibly busy at the moment and Marine got flu. She’s truly hard-working, so it took two of us to actually send her home! Health is more important than any project or any client, so she went home for a day of forced rest.’’

Tom’s staff also gets individual training budget. ‘’If they want to go on the course, they come to me and we look into it together, and the company will fund it.’’ — explains Tom. ‘’So from a professional perspective people are supported. We also use a third party employment law provider, so all the contracts are properly drawn up, giving everybody peace of mind. As a part of that, there’s also a helpline that they can call, completely confidential. If they’re suffering from stress, anxiety or ill health — whatever it is — they can phone and will get a correct support, totally independent of the company.’’

At Status Today, Ankur introduced ‘’core hours’’ to make it easier for the team to work around their personal life. ‘’It works and is something we are proud of.’’ — says Ankur. ‘’At StatusToday, everyone is available, if not physically present in the office, between 10am to 3pm. Outside these, they can choose their own hours. With some members in the team having kids, some attending part time degree course and some going for language lessons, it’s important to have this flexibility in order to maintain performance.

Team culture

As Richard Branson says: ‘’There’s no magic formula for great company culture. The key is just to treat your staff how you would like to be treated.’’

‘’From a startup perspective, the people you work with will make or break your business. ‘’ — says Tom. ‘’Work is going to get really stressful and really intense, that is why you need people that you love working with. Being in such a small team, your clients are going to meet all of your team members, so you need to make sure that everyone is on the same page, everybody understands company values and missions, so that there is a consistency across the board.

But most importantly, as a team leader, just… be nice! Don’t expect too much of people, understand that they are human beings, not just employees that receive a paycheck every month. It’s one of your main duties to make sure that your team is supported.’’ — says Tom and adds: ‘’Without the team, you can have the best product in the world, but the project will fail.’’