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How to build your dream start-up team

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash


As all start up founders and investors will testify is one of the most critical factors (many will say the most important factor) that determine how far will you go and how great your start up will be. However unlike software and hardware this is the most difficult thing to get right. Its even harder when you are a single founder and you don’t have enough money or network or brand equity. It is easier if you are more than one founder or you have one of those three things. However if you want to be a one-man start-up this will not matter and you might well read the rest of this piece for academic purpose.
This topic can be delved in-depth on different dimensions which I will cover in my subsequent posts. But this article’s focus is on recruiting and retaining those key members in your team who can form the second line and help your start-up scale rapidly. Over the years with my personal experience as founder to couple of ventures and advisor to many I have realised that there are 5 things which are vital in this effort.

1. Sell a dream – The guys who join you when you don’t have anything substantial to offer in terms of salary have to be sold on your dream. In later stages, this dream transforms itself to your company’s vision. Use simple words and examples to paint your dream vividly so that it is easier for them to visualise. Importantly, they should connect your dream with their own life-goals. Having sold them your dream, hold on to it and reinforce it on a periodic basis. When I see the big picture and believe that I can be part of it my near term worries and uncertainties will get addressed to a great extent.

2. Look for attitude more than skill– This is something I used to say whenever I gave pre-placement talks for one of the start-ups I am associated with. It’s also something that is always there in bold letters in one of my slides. Skills can be learned and capabilities can be developed. But you can’t inject the right attitude. It is difficult to put a definition to the ‘right attitude’ but when you interview such a candidate you can always make out whether he is looking forward to a life in a start-up or just looking for hygiene factors of employment like security, salary et al. If I were the candidate I would be talking about what all I can do in your start-up and ask (sometimes uncomfortable) questions like can I contribute in the area X as well (where X is not part of the standard job description).

3. Avoid burnouts– Here the Pareto principle comes into play – 80% of impact work is done by 20% of your workforce. As a result there is a natural tendency to keep loading more and more work on this 20% workforce. And the biggest danger is they don’t mind it. Actually they take the work as their mission in life. Long hours, multiple responsibility, getting into varied areas of operation are some of the symptoms. This is a huge risk especially if you are reliant on boot-strapping at your early stage. You should be aware when such things happen and intervene. Work will always be there and so will be deadlines – but it is your job to force your team member to take breaks. After all you are planning to running a marathon – you will need them to keep healthy, energetic and motivated.

4. Communicate regularly– Talk to them frequently and bring out the issues and frustration in them (which invariably, will always be there). Often they are either unwilling or incapable to talk to their heart out to you. Engage them in conversation – sometimes in group and sometimes one-on-one. These conversations should happen both in in formal and ad hoc ways. Comprehend issues from their point of view. Also share your challenges with them and to an extent express your vulnerabilities to explain situations where ‘you wish you could have done something but could not because of other pressing priorities’. In this way, this will build up their faith in you and help you build ownership-driven teams who can drive the next big initiative.

5. Be fair– You may end up liking one team member over other and sometimes it can also be personal given the amount of time you will be spending most of your waking hour with them. Don’t let the personal YOU override the professional YOU. Be very objective while you share feedback on performance, office behaviour and incentivisation. Contrary to normal perception this is easy to do with a small team (most of you will have a small team to start with, anyway). This will also help in inculcating the same principles to the key team members when they lead their teams in future.

Well, there may be more than these 5 factors. Maybe someday I will write a post like ‘7 (or 9 or 10) factors to remember when you set up your first team’ someday. But I think if you take care of the points I have mentioned here, a lot of challenges can be pre-empted. Also it is you who is responsible for the well-being of your team.

As an entrepreneur I know what wonders we can do if we have a dream team.

I would love to hear what has been your experience while starting off. And what is your formula?

(I had written this in Linked In Pulse in June 2014)

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