According to a survey, a whopping 60% of startups sink due to poorly constituted founding teams.
This figure may come as a shock, especially at a time when industries are echoing with buzzwords like “solopreneurs” or romanticizing the idea of founders acting like Atlas, who singularly shoulder the weight of the startup.
But I, for one, can get behind this statistic - and this belief is grounded in reality and based on experience. Primarily because, my previous ventures such as Fyber, Remerge, Dalia Research, Back, and Soba Studios emerged as wunderkinds thanks to our excellent founding teams. They deserve full credit for keeping the passion aflame and moving uphill tirelessly even as we climbed the roughest terrain while scaling the ladder of success.
However, as magical as they may seem, building a world-class founding team does happen “by chance.” It is not all luck, as stories of being at the right place at the right time want you to believe. On the contrary, one can say that it is almost science - involving a fair amount of learning curve - which can put together a highly functional A-team.
On that note, let me share a few tips on how to build a world-class founding team that can carry you towards success.
Work on Yourself
Do you remember that phrase “like attracts like”?
Well, that is true in the case of building world-class founding teams.
And so, as oddly philosophical as it may sound, the search begins with you - the founder.
You are the epicenter of your startup, and you will attract a team that is as dynamic and capable as your leadership. So, begin by exploring yourself - your strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities. Evaluate your soft and hard skills and identify the gaps that need to be worked on. This self-awareness will prepare you for the journey you are about to make and ease you into the role of a decision-maker even when things get tough.
Handpick Your Partner in Crime
While not entirely necessary, startups have 1.72 founders on average - which means you are more likely to involve at least one co-founder in your venture.
And when it comes to co-founders, have you noticed what most successful companies have in common?
They have founders and co-founders who are in sync with each other. They could be childhood friends, college roommates, or long-standing colleagues - regardless of the background, they are often well-acquainted. They have worked together and share common work ethics. Not only that, but they also complement each other - one may be great at innovating and developing technical solutions while the other can charm their way into the customer’s good books.
Do you recall the gaps that you may have discovered while exploring your role as a founder? A co-founder will fill in those gaps and act as a missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle that brings together the larger picture.
I would go to the extent to say that it is a marriage of sorts, with the startup itself acting as a sign of your commitment. And considering how much is at stake, you need to maintain the level of chemistry to function like a well-oiled machine. Remember, if your team is a horse, then you and the co-founders are the jockeys responsible for steering it.
Unfortunately, about 65% of startups fail due to co-founder conflict. From what I have seen, most challenges can be overcome through complementary skills as discussed above, along with two other qualities. The first is deeper cultural alignment, where the founders firmly believe in the startup to pull it through or go down with the ship. And the second is the founder mindset, which calls for a certain degree of malleability where they can pivot their ideas to match up with changing currents.
This trifecta defines the perfect co-founder who you would want to work with for several years to come!
Ink Your Operating Principles
Now that you have propped up the pillars of a winning founding team, it is all about fleshing out the details and putting it in ink.
Upon analyzing yourself and the co-founders, you will have a well-rounded understanding of your skills and personalities, as well as organizational goals and visions. So before you formalize the hiring process, outline the operating principles that will govern the process.
Start by identifying the key positions that need to be occupied on priority. Typically, a well-rounded will have at least one each of the following founding team members:
- A visionary to act as the North Star for your organization.
- An operations manager to spearhead all the actions and actualize plans.
- A team leader to make decisions and resolve conflicts.
- A product expert who knows the ins and outs of your offering.
- A sales whiz to market your wares and attract paying customers.
- An accounting expert to keep an eye on the cash flows.
Ensure that you have covered these bases. And if you are stuck in a partnering versus hiring dilemma, ask yourself the following questions:
- How critical is the role to your startup? If the position is instrumental to your success, then seek a founding partner. Else, you can outsource or hire an employee.
- How much time would the individual have to invest to deliver tangible results? If the answer is “significant” then involve a co-founder.
- How soon do you need to fill this position? If the need is instant and urgent, it would be wiser to have a co-founder as hiring may pose financial, legal, or regulatory constraints.
Once you have created a hire to retire roadmap, you can proceed with putting together your dream team.
Get Your First-Hires Right
Let me tell you, your first hires are going to be special. After all, they will form the backbone of your startup!
That said, do bear in mind that startups leave little to no room for mistakes and so, you will have to ensure that these hires are the “right fit” the first time around. As such, do not rush through the process and “settle” when you can have more.
Seek the following qualities in your first hires and you will never go wrong:
- A hustler, who gets work done.
- Shared morals, ethics, goals.
- Experience but with eagerness to learn.
- Commitment to the multivariate roles in the startup.
- Mutual trust and dependability.
- Personal and professional compatibility.
- Subject-matter expertise.
- Intellectual width and depth.
- Accountability and resolve.
Believe me when I say this, the quest for finding the perfect candidate may be long, arduous, and frustrating. But avoid making compromises and practice patience during the process. At the same time, set a well-defined timeline for such recruitments - a bit counterintuitive, I know, but you do not want to be left hanging forever! The trick lies in finding the fine balance between the wait and calling off the search.
Foster a Growing Environment
In case I haven’t mentioned it so far, startups are grueling, which means that your founding teams will be taxed and maxed with changing scenarios. And while it is crucial to keep the hustle going, you also need to maintain high levels of employee engagement and satisfaction to keep up the momentum.
Have employee-friendly policies, whether it is the freedom to work remotely or mental health breaks. And don’t just have these on paper but implement these from time to time. Apart from these intangible perks, outline monetary incentives for realizing goals and support professional growth by augmenting your team’s capabilities. Investing in your founding team is no less than investing in your startup.
A happy, productive, and motivated workforce is a key ingredient for your startup to succeed.
Align the Product and Market
Excellent business ideas like Doughbies and Quincy were ready to disrupt the world. But they failed to take off due to the lack of product-market alignment. If you want to avoid falling into this pitfall, then train your team to bridge the demand and supply.
I find the sports analogy to be very true in this scenario. Treat your founding team as a sports team in the following ways:
- Assign dedicated roles and keep the ultimate goal in sight,
- Hold teams and individuals accountable for their performances,
- Maintain agility to change as with the game, and
- Analyze the competition to stay a step ahead.
Such measures will position your team for the win with every contribution snowballing into an avalanche of success.
Reach Out to Wider Talent Pools
Maintaining diversity in your founding team is the key to sustaining your startup’s growth. And most successful startups follow a “hire slow, fire fast” approach to keeping the team highly dynamic and up to pace.
Against this backdrop, I would advise you to discover a few off-beat recruitment channels to spread your outreach message far and wide. Tapping into your networks and hiring through referrals is an excellent starting-off point. I also highly recommend WeWorkRemotely, LinkedIn, and Angel.list for scoping talent. And while we’re on the topic of hiring and retaining, it bears mentioning that you will have to primp up your company to attract top talent. Present your startup as the ultimate workplace destination and you will automatically observe better quality hirings.
So that about wraps up my thoughts on building world-class founding teams. Take the above advice with a pinch of salt as these are not a sure-shot mantra to success. You may have to tweak certain elements to conform to your startup or its corresponding industry. However, these tips can surely lend direction in navigating the choppy waters of putting together a lasting founding team.
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