We’ve all heard the leadership adage: “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” We understand it is focused on successful teams being comprised of unselfish individuals who put the interests of the group ahead of their own interests.
We know that even the star player alone does not make for a winning outcome. Our own New England Patriots exemplify this, as is clear when one considers the way the team’s roster has changed week to week throughout the season.
However, it’s most often a solo founder, or perhaps a couple of co-founders, who are creating a startup. So what does it mean for them to think about successful teams? It doesn’t mean that building a team to reach success gets put off until the company starts hiring. I would argue it’s critical to start building a team from the outset. A strong team can help reduce risk and better define a startup’s future. A team leverages the skills and capabilities of the individuals to the benefit of the company and its customers.
A team can be more effective due to the complementary skills and talents. Indeed, the right team is one that brings varying perspectives and thinking to the table. These different viewpoints can be critical in the very early stages of a startup, as it is seeking to define its value proposition and understand its customers. A solo-founder, or even dual-founder, startup is quite likely to be developing the business with a narrower view of the information it is gathering in customer discovery than a startup with a broader team.
My suggestion to create this broader team does not mean hiring before you’re ready. The focus should be on identifying individuals who can add value as advisers to the early startup efforts due to their talent, experience and expertise, people who will take an interest in the vision of the founder(s). Taking this approach will require devoting time and energy to the task, but with the right team your company will be positioned to go farther, faster, more effectively. So I recommend getting started, sooner rather than later.
Building the successful team means doing some planning, making some directed effort and having a bit of good fortune. You have some control over all of this, even luck. The Roman philosopher Seneca is quoted as saying, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” So prepare well, and seek out opportunity.
Preparation for effective team-building starts with determining which resources (skills, talents, expertise and experience) are needed to succeed. The attributes of a complete and successful team are quite likely broad. While most skills and expertise are common across different types of businesses, some are highly specific, and for some there is a big gray area. A founder must figure out the depth of skill and expertise needed to add value in the varied business areas of the company: product, technology, sales, production, distribution, marketing, finance, accounting, customer service, operations, legal, etc.
Each of these is relevant to greater or lesser degrees for a startup, with the requirements changing as the startup progresses. In the earliest days working toward product market fit, advisers with deep experience related to product and customer development can add significant value, while the same depth may not be necessary among other specific advisers. So the stage of the company’s development, not only the narrow field in which it operates, will drive the team needs and priorities for building it.
Knowing what you want, effort must go into seeking opportunity. Founders looking to find advisers who meet their needs may find serendipity often plays a role, but being deliberate will lead to better luck. Know who you know, and who the people you know, know. Use the tools at your fingertips through business and social networks to reach into the market of people with the skills you are seeking. Look for organizations that could lead you to those people. For some founders, Alpha Loft is such an organization. For others it could be SCORE, NHSBDC, chambers of commerce, buy local groups, etc. Dedicating some time and energy creates opportunity.
A final important bit of advice: Be someone an adviser wants to help. A compelling vision is just one consideration for someone considering working with you. Transparency, curiosity, being coachable, respectful and not being defensive are important characteristics. Demonstrating you value input is key, and a sense of humor can go a long way. Remember you are developing relationships that have to endure the many challenges a startup company will face.