Building High Potential Start-up Teams

Over the span of my career, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing recruiting and team building at companies of various shapes and sizes — from small startups to multi-billion dollar companies to not-for-profits. Most recently, I spoke at TechTO in Toronto on the topic of building high potential start-up teams. Often times we read that a company’s success is hinged on the intangibles which include things like culture, people, teams and norms. So much has been written about the formulas that drive large Fortune 500 company success, but very little on the things that drive early stage companies — probably because there really isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” approach. 
 
We exited our last company when it was still a relatively small size. At its peak, we had a team of 12 young and dedicated people. After the exit, we were engulfed by a major US media company. It was still a privately traded company at the time and we saw it, within 6 short months, transition to a massive public company trading on the NASDAQ at a $1 billion market cap. 
So what leads to a high performance early stage start-up team? Each stage requires different ingredients for success:

Phase 1 — Idea

Idea Phase: Believers and Swiss Army Knives

This is the most nascent stage of company building. Congratulations on making the leap — you’ve done something that most people won’t. The most important types of people to bring onboard during the early days are believers and swiss army knives.

Believers are visionaries themselves. They are risk takers and are able to share in your crazy vision for what the future holds. They don’t follow the status quo and in times of trouble, their conviction in your shared vision will help push the company forward. They come from all walks of life and your shared reality distortion fields will help propel the company forward. Often times, you don’t find them; they find you. Example: A friend you’ve known for a long time who believes in you.
 
Swiss Army Knives are do-ers, hustlers and just get shit done. Whether your company needs to make its first hires or to find its first users, these hires will play a significant role in filling the many gaps of an early stage company. They are creative, adaptive, multi-talented and should have a deep sense of humility. This hire doesn’t necessarily need relevant experience — their ability to wear many hats will give them the edge you need. Example: A new grad who will “do whatever it takes” at a start-up.

Phase 2 — Product

Now that the foundation of your team and company have been built, it’s time to build your product. The time it takes to get from ideation stage to product stage varies; sometimes it happens concurrently and sometimes it doesn’t. What’s important is realizing that you will be looking for a different skillsets when hiring. At this stage of company building, it is important to find builders and product enthusiasts.

Product Phase: Builders and Product Enthusiasts

Builders are your architects. They love creating something out of nothing and bringing a vision to reality. Their strength lies in their utmost focus to create and ability to ignore distractions and noise. These are your engineers. Often times they are still early in their careers and would rather sit down and build than manage a team. The best builders are those who are able to think outside the box and not just do as they are told. It is also extremely important for them to be vulnerable and open to feedback and suggestions. Example: A software engineer who has been coding since they were young and super passionate about what you’re doing.
 
Product Enthusiasts would not only love to use your product; they want to help create it. The best hires during this stage of company building are people who are end consumers of what you are looking to build. If you are building an app for millennials, hire millennials. If you are building an Enterprise SaaS product for marketers, hire a marketer. Find people who understand your target market and have them poke holes in your product and ideas. Example: A hardcore product lover; ProductHunt enthusiast and former Product Manager.

Scale Phase: Strategists and Corporate Rebels

Phase 3 — Scale

Now that the product is launched and you have customers, it’s time to dial it up a notch and grow quickly. Assuming that you have a deep understanding of the unit economics of your business (i.e. how much does it cost to acquire a customer? how much is that customer worth to you?), it’s time to scale. To scale properly, you need to hire strategists and corporate rebels.
 
Strategists are thinkers. In the early stages, you needed a lot of do-ers; now you need people to challenge the status quo. They will help you enter new markets, streamline costs and win new business. Now that you have a core business in place, how do you grow it? Where do you grow it? At what cost? Where should you start? These are all the questions they will help you answer. Example: A former strategy consultant who’s looking to dig their teeth into a start-up
 
Corporate Rebels have been working for “the man” for too long. They see huge opportunities in their industry but know it will take too long to innovate within their behemoth company. They have a certain outlook on the industry and want to join your company to help realize it. They have garnered a wealth of experience and tools within large corporations and are now ready to take the leap to join you in your adventure. It is important to find the right people who fit within your start-up’s culture; but once you do, they will arm you with tools from the incumbents. 
 
There is, however, a fine balance when seeking corporate rebels. They’ve learned of industry opportunities at their corporations; however, they’ve had to operate within the confines of organizational structure. Should Uber hire people from Hertz? Should AirBNB hiring people from Marriott? Ensure that you empower them with the tools to see past the constraints they were previously faced with. Example: Jet.com hiring someone from Amazon.
 
 Although I’ve outlined very specific types of people needed at each stage of company building, it’s also important to realize that this is simply a guideline and the unpredictability of start-ups will likely mean that there will be exceptions. Each stage of company building clearly involves different skill-sets and it will be up to you to attract them!

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