Lessons learned in SaaS startups: Chapter 5. Build a great team.

Lessons learned in SaaS startups: Chapter 5. Build a great team.

I used to really take the saying “if you want a job done, do it yourself”, literally. I did everything myself: design, coding, marketing, customer service, and making the coffee.

When I built my first startup in 2005 I had no choice. There was no-one else who would do it, and besides it was a lot fun doing the coding and design myself and not having anyone else telling me what to do.

My first startup was a musician search engine. It was really successful, in fact we had about 40,000 registered musicians before I sold it. I remember designing the logo in Photoshop and all the other assets like buttons, icons and banners. I also did all the coding; building the entire database, tag-based search engine, user registration and the other fun stuff in PHP.

Oh, and there were no PHP frameworks (that I knew of anyway) in those days. I did it all from scratch. It was a lot of hard work, and I spent many full days and late nights coding — I didn’t have kids then.

My next startup was easier as I had some experience and there were PHP frameworks available that made things like establishing database connections really simple and easy, basically a couple of lines of code. So again, I did everything myself.

However, this time things were more serious. This was a business, and I wanted to generate good revenue from this startup; enough to allow me to work full time in SaaS and not have to do client service work. I was also married and had to balance my time between family and work. I didn’t have the luxury of my parents cooking me breakfast, lunch and dinner while I just worked away in my bedroom 14 hours a day (a few exaggerations there).

It was a lot harder, but I still managed to build a great app, and a successful business.

I think I was also quite lucky in those days, because the Internet community were a lot more forgiving for cloud based apps. This was 2009–2010, and the cloud was becoming more and more popular. People were just starting to depend on the cloud for things like file storage and secure document sharing. But because it was all new, people would be gracious when it came to speed, glitches, bugs, and real-time customer service.

Today, people expect a lot. They expect page load times of 500ms or less, they expect instant customer service because of the prevalence of companies like Intercom, and they expect your app to be fully mobile with apps on iOS and Android — no question.

That means, sadly Stu, you just can’t do it all on your own any more.

You need a great team.

So, go build one. It’s easy right? Just find a couple of other Stus and get to work.

It’s not that easy, as I discovered in my last and more recent startup, but it is possible. Even in cities like ours where the tech scene is a little lagging behind (but we’re pushing it forward!), it is possible to find great talent.

From Interns to Employees

The first thing I did was to look to my local university for talent. I couldn’t afford to just get an agency to hire people for me, and give them big salaries. This startup, though angel funded, didn’t have the funds to just shell out $150,000 on experienced, salaried employees. I needed to be creative.

I heard about companies running internship programs, and was curious how this might work out for us. There was the option of getting unpaid interns, who would come and work for you for the experience but not get paid. I didn’t like this idea because I like people to feel valued and I want them to want to come to work in the mornings because they love it.

So I set up a few job offers on the local university computer science and art & design bulletin board. It soon got picked up by one of the staff at the university and he sent it out to his email list, as it looked like a great opportunity for his students.

Within a week I had 10–15 applicants and I set up about 6 interviews.

Though most of the candidates were studying computer science, we ended up hiring someone who was studying art & design, with a focus on front-end design and coding — perfect. She was smart, and showed aptitude and initiative, which is what I was looking for.

So we had our front-end designer and coder, now we needed someone else who would help in marketing and sales.

One of my friends actually heard about the internship program and said he wanted me to consider him. I thought it was very brave that he should just put himself out there; a jazz major with no experience in tech at all. I took a punt and brought him on.

Both interns were amazing. Within a few weeks they had learnt about the business of SaaS, realized what we were trying to do with our new app, and had started wire-framing, designing logos, branding, interviewing potential customers, doing competitive research and coding the landing page with Twitter Bootstrap.

Through word of mouth, in an awesome community of people here, we ended up finding a really smart front-end Javascript developer who was itching to start building apps. He liked what we were trying to do in this city, and liked the plans we had for our new team communication app. So we hired him too.

Now we have an awesome team, who believe in what we are trying to do, but also love doing their job — whether it’s marketing and analyzing spreadsheets or building a user interface with Ember.js.

How to keep a great team

So building a great team is possible, and we did it. But the next step is to keep the great team and keep the team great.

We try to have catchup meetings every day. No, we don’t have bike meetings or swim meetings (we do have a pool though, maybe we should do that more often given that we live and work in Florida). In our catchup meetings we all talk about what we’re working on.

The developers know what the marketers are doing, and vice versa. It’s important that we all know every aspect of the business and we share every pain and burden together, along with sharing every little moment of joy, like when the front-end dev bursts out in excitement because he figured out how to connect Ember to a web socket.

Keeping the team great means communicating often. That’s what our whole company is about. Communication. If we can’t do it well here, then how can we educate our customers on how to communicate well in their teams?

We try to communicate as often as we can. Whether it’s here in the office, or chugging a Belgian Pale Ale at the local brewery which is one minute down the road and serves a variety of interesting beers.

We have a very relaxed schedule, where the team can come and go as they please, and work from coffee shops if they so desire. We just have targets we try to achieve each week, but if we don’t achieve them it’s no biggy. My goal is to keep them happy and motivated and loving their company, more than just being productive.

Working in a great team is essential for success in today’s tech world. I’m so glad that we’ve been able to build such a wonderful team and am hoping that together, we can make the world a better place.

Build a great team.