What do all successful billion dollar startups have in common?

They build long-lived teams that beat all competition

Garry Tan
Garry Tan
Oct 8 · 5 min read

How long do you think it takes to win a championship? Did you know that it takes a pro-level basketball team an average of 4.5 years to maximize their odds of winning a championship? Today we’re talking about teams and how teams win championships together. But not just any team, very, very long lived teams.

Long-lived Teams Succeed

Humans stay in good relationships and they get out of bad ones. This is one of the most important things that you need to think about as a founder as you put together that team. Don’t just get whomever you can get. You actually have to build for the long haul. Team risk is a real thing. If people don’t know each other well or haven’t worked on things together, then you don’t actually know if that team is good at the fundamental things needed to do great work.

All great teams share these traits:

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The Warriors Championship Team, 2017–2018

Those five things together result in people putting the interests of the group way ahead of the individual, much like the Warriors did in 2017–2018. When you’re part of a team like that, it’s amazing, it’s really life-changing. And this is why Mark Suster talks a lot about investing in lines, not dots:

“When you start out, an investor sees you as a single reference point, there’s no prior observation, so there’s no way to tell what your trajectory is, but over time clearly you can see a line. You can see a trajectory on where teams are going.”

One of the first things we asked about teams of co-founders at Y Combinator was, “Have you know each other for a long time? Have you worked together before? What kind of projects have you worked on together?” If things go bad at a startup–and they always do–it’s important that founders have something other than just the startup keeping people together. Otherwise the first hiccup will almost always be the last.

The Best Litmus Test

Do you feel like you know your co-founder(s) the way you would on a really long backpacking trip? One where things go wrong… you might be stuck on a mountain, it’s raining, it’s cold. How are you going to treat each other in that moment? Because that’s what it’s going to feel like when your startup hits the skids. Are you going to blame each other? Are you going to get mad at each other? Are you going to break apart? Or are you going to look at the situation around you and say, “Well, here’s what we can do, and let’s split up the tasks like this, and let’s get to a better situation together.”

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All you have is the people around you in that situation. That’s a really good example of what it’s going to feel like when you actually work on a startup together with those people. Can you get through fire together? That’s a really important question.

Charlie Munger says:

“The right culture, the highest and best culture, is a seamless web of deserved trust. Not much procedure, just totally reliable people correctly trusting one another.”

Now you might ask, “How do we get a culture of trust?” Well, the universe is one where like attracts like. The best way to find trustworthy people is to be trustworthy yourself. Ali Rowghani over at YC Continuity says this:

“Integrity means standing for something meaningful beyond oneself rather than being motivated by narrow personal interests. It means being able to admit when you have made a mistake, rather than acting like you are always right, and having the humility to receive critical feedback openly and work to improve. It means avoiding behavior like favoritism, conflicts of interest, inappropriate language, inappropriate work relationships, things like that that erode trust.”

Don’t Be a Sociopath

This is a tough trap for some managers and leaders frankly. I suspect you know the type of manager and leader I’m talking about (read: sociopath). There are some people you run across in your career who scrap, fight and claw their way to the top, however they can, sometimes without regard to the methods used. They might lie, cheat or play dirty to get ahead. They manage up and tend to funnel crap down. These people may get the max contract or manage to win a scoring title or two, but they rarely win championships. And that’s because in order to win championships, you’ve got to manage and cultivate teams for years and years. And in sharp contrast over long periods of time, if you are a giver instead of a taker, you’ll find you’ll succeed. Adam Grant summarizes this:

“If you’re willing to maintain high standards and you’re good at attracting people who are talented and also share your tendency toward giving, then those same people are going to come back, they’re going to work with you over and over. And over time, you’re going to get better and better at collaboration. And that should increase your odds of doing really great work over the course of a career.”

So if you’re a giver, know that there’s hope for you yet. In fact, it’s almost the only way you can win a championship.

Adam Grant’s TED Talk about the best teams’ secret weapon

Final Thought

I’ll leave you with this final quote from “Five Dysfunctions of a Team.”

If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry in any market against any competition at any time.

This is the best news for any startup founder out there. The majority of organizations are not rowing in the same direction. They’re fighting each other, full of managers and would-be leaders who are trying to wage war against each other. There’s not the alignment needed to succeed. And often these things start at the top and are top-down. Earlier in my career, I would be surprised at how ineffective organizations were. Why were there so many people and yet so little good outcome working at a given place? But it became clear that that’s the average. People are not aligned, and you, yes, you can do better. And if you do, you can dominate any industry, any market against any competition at any time.

Thanks for reading! To watch my full episodes that go into detail about these ideas — and more — head over to my YouTube channel.

Initialized Capital

Stories and thoughts on early-stage entrepreneurship from a…

Garry Tan

Written by

Garry Tan

Managing Partner, Initialized Capital. Designer/engineer turned early stage VC.

Initialized Capital

Stories and thoughts on early-stage entrepreneurship from a venture capital firm. We fund and help startups with their first check. https://initialized.com/our-startups

Garry Tan

Written by

Garry Tan

Managing Partner, Initialized Capital. Designer/engineer turned early stage VC.

Initialized Capital

Stories and thoughts on early-stage entrepreneurship from a venture capital firm. We fund and help startups with their first check. https://initialized.com/our-startups

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