Monoculture Sucks.

Michael Overell
Jul 27, 2014 · 7 min read

The case for diversity in startup teams.

Our startup team at RecruitLoop just hit 16 people. This is tiny in the scheme of things, and compared to where we’ll be in another 12 months. But we started the year with only 5 full-timers, so in relative terms, we’re now huge.

Tripling on any metric over 6 months — let alone people — is the sort of awesome growth every startup shoots for. But people are not just a metric. They’re humans, with completely different stories, personalities, skills, communication styles, dietary restrictions and shirt sizes. If you believe the first 5, 10, 20 employees define a company’s culture and future success (I do), then we’ve just made our bed.

And we are wildly diverse. This struck me in the face during a team event last week — a hike with our San Francisco team.

I don’t mean diverse in the stereotypical and unfortunate tech startup sense of ‘hey, we just hired a woman on the marketing team’. I mean diverse in the sense that we didn’t have a US-born employee until our 8th hire. We’re clearly not all white, 25 year-old guys from Ivy League universities. As a white guy myself, I’m actually in the minority.

To give you a sense, our team of just 16:

  • Is dispersed across 3 (soon to be 4) physical locations — San Francisco, Sydney, the Philippines.
  • Ranges in age from 21 to over 50
  • Was born in 8 different countries: Australia, USA, Philippines, Russia, Bulgaria, Singapore, Canada, and Spain. Only 6 were born in the US, and only 3 in California.
  • Speaks 8 different languages: English, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Brazilian Portuguese, American Sign Language, Russian, and Tagalog.
  • Is split exactly 50/50 between women and men.

I’m perhaps most proud of the final point, given recent attention to the lack of women in tech. Although it’s sad we can claim to be proud of a ratio that only just mirrors the distribution of genders in society.

Racism, ageism and sexism are all very real and serious problems in the workplace. These macro issues often manifest at the micro level — particularly in tech companies — in mono-cultured teams of white (sometimes Asian) men, aged somewhere between 23 and 35, with degrees from similar universities.

Personally, I’ve tended to avoid macro debates and hand-wringing on these topics. Not for lack of interest, but lack of perceived impact. Yes, I know these are real issues. But as single startup CEO, focused on building a great company with limited resources, what can I really do to make a difference? Do I even have time to worry about the overall gender split, or representation of minorities, in the tech sector as a whole?

I thought not.

While I genuinely care about these issues, it’s always felt pointless spending time or mindshare worrying about them. I’m focused on building product. Raising our next round of funding. Bringing crazy value to our clients — current and future.

And building a great team.

Not just great individuals, but a great team. With a culture and experience that changes their lives, the trajectory of their careers, and that attracts other great people.

And so I realised, when I thought about it in this context, somewhere on a narrow sloping trail in the Marin Headlands: Diversity Matters.

Specifically, diversity in your startup team matters.

Don’t worry. Before you ask, this was not a kumbaya-style team event with hand-holding, chanting, and motherhood statements about changing the world (although that would be a fun experiment).

Team diversity is one example of thinking global and acting local; where doing ‘the right thing’ in a macro context actually helps at the individual level. Assuming you want to build a globally relevant, meaningful and sustainable company (we do), as opposed to a quick flick acqui-hire, a diverse team will help you win.

There is a business case for diversity in startup teams. Diversity matters; in terms of team culture, performance and future prospects.

Diverse teams are better. Here’s why.

You make better decisions.

Also known as: avoiding group think. Yep, diverse teams make better decisions.

We all know what happens when people who look alike, with similar backgrounds, get together to make big decisions. They do dreadful things like invade entire countries; drink the Kool Aid (literally); and invest in Color.

When all the voices around a table sound the same, there’s no-one to challenge our assumptions, inspire debate, or force us to step outside our comfort zone.

Management textbooks suggest assigning a ‘devils advocate’ to challenge group discussions. But you don’t need the devil if the people on your team inherently tackle a problem from completely different points of view.

It makes future hiring easier.

Imagine you’re a team of 10 white guys. You’re looking to hire a VP of Product, and the unanimous standout candidate is a woman. She’s deciding between your offer, and a competing one from another startup the same size, but with 4 other women. Who’s she going to pick?

I’d be lying to say I wasn’t somewhat conscious of this when we made our first key hire: a female Head of Growth, with far more experience than me. We didn’t hire her because she was a woman. She was clearly the best for the job. But I also knew we didn’t want to get to a team of 5-6 people without a single woman.

The same consideration could apply on any measure, whether it’s age, race or gender. How much harder will it be to hire a great candidate over 40, if you’re a group of 23 year olds straight out of college?

I’m not suggesting you specifically look to hire a specific gender, age or minority group for any role — in a startup that would be suicide. And possibly illegal. But every person you add has a material impact on your culture and team identity. Be aware of your current team identity, and how it will change with each new person you add.

In my mind, the goal isn’t simply to hire the best individuals for every specific role. It’s to design the best team.

Global perspectives to build a global company.

If we were solving a first-world problem, specifically for people within a 50 mile radius of San Francisco (laundry, anyone?), you probably don’t need a global perspective.

But if you’re trying to build a global company, solving a global problem, it helps to look a little further afield.

I moved to San Francisco after RecruitLoop had 12 months of traction in Australia. We were forced to think global from day one, if only to access the US market. But I’m consistently amazed by examples of narrow-mindedness from folk in the Bay Area: as if something that didn’t happen here is entirely irrelevant.

A diverse team, with global experiences, will give you an edge in understanding different users, use cases and needs.

In our case, it’s given us faster access to a broader client base. Chad, who just joined our sales team, grew up in Wisconsin but has lived in Spain, Brazil and Vietnam. He speaks 3 languages, and was excited to join our team precisely because of our global outlook and diversity. Within 2 weeks of joining, he’d built rapport with a few potential clients, in Spanish!

It’s not boring.

One of my cofounders grew up in Soviet-era Moscow. He’s a developer who trained as a graphic designer and mathematician. A vegetarian who meditates daily and doesn’t touch coffee or alcohol. He’s a fascinating human, who approaches problems (and the world) from a completely different angle than most of us.

Paul, our other cofounder, is old enough to remember recruiting before online job boards existed — let alone LinkedIn! When it involved newspaper job ads, faxed resumes, and 50 cold calls a day. I’ve never even used a fax machine.

We have wildly different interests and preferences. We communicate and approach problems in completely different ways. But it’s never boring. There’s always someone with an opposing point of view, or a new way of tackling an issue, or with insight from a prior life.

If I only worked with other 30-year old former management consultants, or MBAs, lunchtime discussions would be terribly dull.

I’m not suggesting we selected our team based on diversity (nor should you). It’s partly in our DNA. And it’s not always easy. We need to overinvest in clear communication, patience and tolerance for other styles and viewpoints.

But the benefits of team diversity — at the micro level — far outweigh the challenges in making it work. Take a similar approach, and you won’t just be doing your bit at the macro level. You’ll also avoid awkward confessions like this once you’re a big public company.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store