I like startups. I love building things and moving fast. I love the experiment process and the feedback loop embedded in building a new product. For the past ten years, I have been involved in many startups. I have seen a couple of them succeed and the rest struggle. My role in them has varied but the experience has been quite similar. This has allowed me to see some emerging patterns.
We already know that 99% of startups fail, but the question is why? We have heard the standard rhetoric: bad timing, poor execution, wrong product, weak team, what else?
The early years of a startup are crucial for the company’s triumph. Each startup comes with finite resources, the most important of them, money. As a startup founder or the CEO, how you handle that money is crucial to your survival. First of all, that’s not your money, it’s your investors’; those people that have trusted you and provided you with the means of success. you will have at most two years to stabilize your company and prove the product market fit. Most of the times, the majority of that money will be spent on your team, the people that are going to make the product.
Here I will argue there are two important aspects to a startup: product and team. If one fails, the other fails and the failure of the company will ensue. I’m not saying that no other factor plays a role in here, but these two aforementioned elements are of the utmost importance.
In this write-up, the focus will not be on the product itself but on the team and the needed attitude to build a successful one. Here are my tips to the existing and wannabe founders.
Find your dream team
The team you put together, in the beginning, will play a huge role in your future success or failure. Make sure you assemble the right team and your path towards success will be smoother. Gather the wrong team and you are doomed. You always want to hire A Players. If you hire B players, they will end up hiring C Players and at the end, you will end up with a bunch of Z Players. Is that where you want to be as a company?
After a couple of months, if you are sure that this team is not what you need at this point, make the required adjustments; if something needs fixing, fix it. Don’t procrastinate. The more you linger, the more money you lose.
Respect your team
After you got the team, it’s time to stop acting like a know-it-all. No one is questioning your contribution as the founder/CEO to the company; your employees are aware that your grit and perseverance have formed the company in the first place but now it’s time to act like a real leader.
Your team is invested in the company as much as you. They are putting their time and energy in. Ask their opinion and treat them with respect. You will be the ultimate decision-maker but knowing different angles on the matter could help you make a better decision. That said, there is a lot of research around the science of collective decision-making.
Trust your team
The team is your true asset. You fail them, the product fails. They fail you, the product fails. There is a mutual dependency at work here.
The fact that you have assembled a team means you don’t have the capacity or knowledge of doing it all alone, at least not anymore. Now it’s time to trust your team’s judgment. keep them accountable but let them do their job. If you are a non-technical founder or CEO, stop second-guessing the technical decisions made by the team. You don’t have the knowledge, so do everyone a favor and stay out of it.
If you make a promise, try to hold it; otherwise, next time no one will believe you. Don’t lie to your teammates. Create a transparent culture. If you talk about transparency, show it with your actions; less talk and more action will take you farther for sure. The people are not blind; they will judge you based on your actions and not your rhetoric.
Motivate your team
Be the leader that everyone wants to work with. Learn how to empathize with people. They have emotions and they need to be understood. Ask them to work smart. This is been mentioned so many times but still, lots of founders/CEOs fail to notice it. To ask your team to work overtime for months is like banging a hammer against your head: it will curb the team’s productivity and results in an influx of negative emotions. Stay away from it; once you open that can of worm, your reputation as a capable leader will be questioned. There is no going back from there.
Allocate a budget for your team’s personal development
Inevitably, work gets boring at some times but it’s important to keep your team motivated and on-track. One good way of doing so is to assign a certain budget for each individual’s personal development. They might use that budget however they see fit; it could be attending a couple of conferences a year or enrolling in an online course. It may also be something not technical, some people love to learn pottery and ice sculpting; some others will enjoy a meditation retreat in Northern California. If it makes them happy so be it, let them do it. As a founder, if you don’t have a budget for this, you are hurting yourself on many fronts. When it comes to recruiting, a lot of candidates are going to pass on your company because they will perceive you as someone that doesn’t care about their well-being.
The image of your company depends on this; right after your team is formed, establish a plan for their personal development.
Let your team keep you accountable
As the founder/CEO, you are not the only one that needs to keep people accountable. There should be a difference between running a company and running an autocracy. I don’t buy that crap about early-stage founders being the benevolent dictator of the newly established enterprise. That could hardly work in 1% of the companies but it will fail you almost all the times.
You should be kept accountable by your employees in the same way that the board and investors keep you responsible. Ask your team to keep you liable and promote that culture within the company. You shouldn’t be the only one asking questions, your team must be able to do the same.
There are two pillars to a startup: product and team.
As a founder, there are thousands of product decisions that seek your attention. You must focus on them for sure but that doesn’t give you a free pass to ignore the team part. The pendulum has swung so far to the side of Product for a very long time, that it’s time for the Team to rise. However, in order for the company to be in symbiosis, these two elements need to support each other on this journey of innovation.
To sum up, learn not to ignore your team. They are people and the people could be hurt if neglected; trust me, as a human we don’t want to hurt our fellow humans.