The Startup Team: 4 + 3 = 1

The days of building something really innovative on your own are long gone. Edison – the prototypical inventor – had a huge lab and many assistants. Steve Jobs led teams of innovators. I have been arguing for a while, in corporate environments and my blog, that no sane company should reward individual contribution/results and settle instead for rewarding team results.

The same is true for a startup. At SBT Venture Capital we always say that the startup team is the key to its success — a solo founder needs to quickly find either co-founders (preferred), or great colleagues to join her. They will complement the founder, and performing as a team, can really get the company going. In a world where “leaders” are praised and presented as the reason for a company’s success (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, etc), it is worth repeating that no startup can succeed with only a leader.

Four key roles: visionary, technologist, salesperson, customer support.

The visionary leader, while not able to succeed by herself, is still the first ingredient of success — the visionary is the one that understands the market and technology trends and has a view of where the company is going. The role is usual performed by the CEO, but it can be the CTO, even the VP of Engineering. I have seen CEOs that occupy the chair because they were previously CEOs of startups with an exit – useful role, but don’t expect them to be the company leader. We have also seen startups with more than one true leaders/visionaries, and we think that such a situation is orders of magnitude better than the “one leader” startup. Also, beware of the perceived visionary that is really an evangelist — good at explaining to others, but not understanding anything in depth at the level of chart8ing a path for the company.

At least one team member, and usually more, needs to be able to build the product/service. Starting with one, moving to a development team, adding as needed architects, scalability experts, testers, technical writers – the business of software development is not a simple one, and doing it in a professional manner, while not a guarantee of success, is a necessary condition for it. Outsourcing development to an arm’s length, cheap team on a Pacific island or in Eastern Europe is not having a team – and too many failed startups learned this lesson the hard way. The typical role is CTO or VP of Engineering, but teams can start with only one senior developer, and move up from there. And no, one or two students that know how to put quickly together a web site is not a good idea. A closely related role is “project delivery” — can be performed in early days by senior members of the technical team, specialist team members joining as the company grows.

The next key team member is the one who knows how to sell – that includes many aspects, from selling to businesses, to partnerships, to direct sales to customers. Usual role is VP of Sales, Chief Revenue Officer, but we have seen many CEOs that excel at selling, and performing the role in early company days. One risk to manage is to have the “sales expert” team member trying to decide the company direction based on the latest customer interaction – that changes every week. A startup direction takes constant adjustments, and sometimes a pivot, but teams should avoid becoming a custom development shop for their B2B customers.

A successful startup is able to sell its product or service — and now has to deal with all those “evil spawned customers” (quoting Dilbert). While customer support is “everyone’s responsibility”, it always helps the team to have a specialist, dedicated to implementing the right processes, adjusting them as the company grows, and having “laser focus” on helping customers. Of course, customer support comes after product vision, product development, and sales — but it pays to think about it early if planning to have a successful startup.

Three support roles: marketing, finance, legal.

Marketing is going through major transformations world-wide – and the team member that will work on that needs to be quite versed in social media and marketing automation – again, the CEO can do it in the beginning, and teams need someone with at least two years of experience to go through the basics of what they need to do to get the word out. There is the temptation of hiring an external agency for this function – I have seen mixed results and recommend a DYI approach.

Different story for finance and legal help. Most startups that I have seen do not have a full time CFO and lawyer – in early days, these are part-time jobs. My view is that it pays to hire an expert for each – mistakes are too costly in these areas and the fields are quite mature.

Once the team is in place, the challenge is to have it perform as a team, not as a collection of stars — but that’s for another post.