Building a Kick-Ass Team: 5 Lessons

My fellow moderator, Stephanie Zeppa from Sheppard Mullin, sits with, from left, AdRoll’s Aaron Bell, Floodgate’s Arjun Chopra, Cisco’s David Ulevitch and Luxe’s Curtis Lee.

Silicon Valley Bank, along with Sheppard Mullin, recently co-hosted a panel of seasoned entrepreneurs at Runway on “Building and Motivating a Kick-Ass Team.”

The combined experience of these panelists was incredible, and we heard some great advice about how to build and manage teams, which sometimes requires ignoring conventional thinking. The following are five of those suggestions.


1. Hire for Now

The Information reported that Snapchat has an unprecedented four-year vesting period for new employees, with the goal of encouraging long-term loyalty. It’s conventional wisdom that hiring people for the long term is beneficial for any company.

But Curtis Lee of Luxe challenged this idea for early-stage startups, “Everyone says you want to hire for the long term, but that’s not good for hiring. You need to find someone who can fill the role now.”

Cisco’s David Ulevitch, founder of OpenDNS, gave a specific example to back this up. “When you’re a small team you want people who can work independently,” he said. “The type that will put on headphones and get things done. It doesn’t matter if they work well with others. With bigger teams, you want the opposite. You want teams to work collaboratively.”

It is more important to hire the right people at the right time and this doesn’t necessarily mean they will be the right people all of the time.

“This is not the market of previous generations,” added Ulevitch. “People you hire aren’t going to be lifers.”

2. Stay in Touch with Your Stars

In today’s competitive talent marketplace, early-stage startups need to pay extra attention on their superstars.

“It’s important to check in with your superstars on a regular basis,” Aaron Bell of AdRoll advised when asked about retaining top talent. “I sit down regularly to find out if they are happy, and, if not, what I can do to make them happy.”

Ulevitch agreed. “I keep a relentless pulse on the superstars, checking in frequently,” he said.

The entire panel agreed that giving recognition — bonuses, stock options, etc. — to top performers is important motivation. Identifying the non-performers and letting them go are also crucial to prevent them from dragging the team down. And for those who sit somewhere in the middle? Ulevitch recommended that companies invest in growing their potential.

3. Recruiting Is the CEO’s Job

Luxe’s Lee, pictured above, explained his view of what makes for a successful early-stage CEO. “There are three things a founder/CEO needs to focus on: fundraising, setting the vision and recruiting,” he said.

Though most people understand the first two roles, he added that they often leave off the recruiting part, thinking this is something that can (and should) be outsourced. However, leaving the important role of finding talent up to an external recruiter is a bad idea.

Here are some things an engaged CEO might do:

1. Keep lists of great talent

2. Ask your top performers who they know in the market, update regularly

3. Tell a great story on your “About Page”

4. Get in the market and become a dynamic presence (make people want to work for you)

Lee holds what he calls a “recruiting hour” every week with his top performers to make lists of potential hires with whom they can start building relationships. In fact, building these relationships before you need to make the hire is key.

Bell agreed. “A lot of the greatest hires I’ve made came after recruiting for over two years,” he said.

4. Be Transparent

Long gone are the days when a leader needed to put on a brave face to keep employees feeling secure. The panelists all agreed that being transparent is the way to face even the biggest issues.

“In times of crisis, it’s especially important to not go behind closed doors,” Arjun Chopra said. “Trust comes from transparency.”

With the speed of news today, keeping something under wraps is next to impossible. Transparency is how you better manage the news, and once you’ve built trust with your team, it goes both ways.

Day-to-day, it’s important as a leader not only to be transparent about what’s happening, but also to help your team understand how to communicate what’s happening.

As Ulevitch said, “If you want to get people invested, you need to tell them why you are doing the things you are doing, not just what you are doing.

5. Diversify for Better Decisions

Ulevitch believes. “Cultural fit isn’t about shared interests,” he said. “It’s not about enjoying the same hobbies. Shared values are more important than shared interests.”

Bell agreed that cultural fit is often misinterpreted, and that usually leads to companies hiring people who are alike, which can limit creative thinking

“We didn’t work hard enough to diversify early on, to our detriment,” Bell said of his early hiring decisions at AdRoll, “Diverse companies make better decisions. You need to hire for diversity in the early days.”

Bell described AdRoll’s approach to reinforcing company culture. They identify shared values and then assign each value a spirit animal and employees are encouraged to celebrate the value in their unique way. For example, at the Runway event, Bell wore a shirt with an image of a jellyfish, which at AdRoll, represents transparency.

We want to thank Curtis, David, Arjun and Aaron for joining us and sharing their experience and lessons.

If there is one key takeaway, it’s that despite all of the challenges and demands facing today’s founders and CEOs, putting time and effort into hiring and managing a kick-ass team is critical for success.