The United States of America has a bench 18 people deep to succeed the President. Redundant? Perhaps, but most startups could learn from the example. Founders have long been the focus of mythology, fetishization and funding in the startup ecosystem. However, as high profile shakeups at startups like Genius, née Rap Genius, Tinder, Git Hub, Radium One and others have unfolded in 2014, the risk of a single point-of-failure becomes all too clear.
Related: Creating a Strategic Plan for Growth
Upfront Venture’s Mark Suster calls it ‘hit by a beer truck’ planning though perhaps ‘hit by a lawsuit or pr fiasco’ is more fitting for the current crop of executive shakeups. No matter the name, building a team behind the founding team is perhaps the single most important task for an early stage company.
Team building is not just to mitigate risk in case founders leave. Many of this century's tech success stories have been built on the backs of rank-and-file employees. What would Twitter be without Jack Dorsey, the low-level Odeo engineer whose obsession with interconnected grids gave us the best way to follow news in real time? Ryan Graves, the head of operations at Uber who was also briefly the CEO, found his way to the transportation giant through a tweet from founder Travis Kalanick. Long before Mark Zuckerberg was press ready, then-Facebook manager and now Path founder, Dave Morin, was on stage at Le Web evangelizing the service to an audience far beyond the college crowd.
Having world class employees will make or break a business, so we asked founders and recruiters how they staff to win.
1. ‘A’ players Attract ‘A’ Players. Mariah Chase sold her first company to QVC. For her second act, she joined plus-size ecommerce brand Eloquii.com as CEO. She suggests that the best way to hire amazing talent is to have an already solid team in place.
Chase says, “I was originally attracted to ELOQUII because of the incredibly experienced, talented team already in place and their proven commitment to this market opportunity. I wanted to work with them and I was actually the last member of the senior team to join.”
2. Hire for excitement and passion, not just talent. Ellen Johnston, founder of DIY graphic design startup Makr, understands the value of engaged employees. “As a founder, I look for two things when hiring. Talent and ability are critical but I've found enthusiasm for the product to be equally important,'' she said. "If people aren't excited – really excited – about the vision and working on the team, it's hard to create the most innovative products.”
3. Give credit where credit is due. Chase says “Each person is so crucial in the early days of an organization's development - not only for culture, but also for level of work, experience, connections and domain expertise. I personally think investors and press often give too much attention to founders when credit for the heavy lifting and an organization's building blocks should really be apportioned to those initial dozen or so key employees.“
4. Staff for recognized areas of executional risk. Founder of Fortis Partners and longtime headhunter, Tom Nieman, entreats executives hire to team members who make up for shortcomings across the rest of the company.
He suggests “founders should look for hires who can fill in holes and make up for executional weakness in the current team. If the founders all have deep finance experience but aren’t as strong in sales, a head of business development might want to be more focused on winning deals than financial modeling.”
Thinking beyond the founding team to hire for success, no matter how big or small the role, gives startups an edge. Kevin Systrom was an intern at Facebook long before founding Instagram - which in turn sold back to Facebook. How are you staffing your organization to ensure that the next billion dollar Unicorn is hatched by one of your employees?
Related: Hiring Your First Employee