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Finding the Right Team to Lead Your Startup to Success

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Q: I'm working on doing a startup fashion line for young adults. How should I go about the process of forming the right team?

--Adonis Stephens

A: Forming the right team is the universal first step to building a strong and sustainable company.

You succeed or fail not on the strength of your idea or your product, but on the strength of your team. Venture capitalists fund teams, not business plans, as they know these plans can change every day as market conditions change and new opportunities present themselves. They are looking for a solid team to make these adjustments and be able to quickly pivot.  

At 140 Proof, our original team shared several core philosophies, the most important of which was a commitment to launch quickly and imperfectly and let the market tell us how to perfect what we had launched. We were on our fifth idea before we landed on the product that sits at our core today -- and even that is always evolving.

Related: 6 Tips for Building a Strong Founding Team

So looking back on the lessons I’ve learned about building startup teams, I have this advice:

Don’t start with a layer of executives.  If you hold the vision for your company, you most likely need functional roles more than a roster of VPs. We started with two co-founders. We complemented each other in every way: a business guy and a creative engineer. While we were like a yin and a yang, we had to make sure we would get along. The only co-founders you need are people you wish you’d see when you look in the mirror.

Bring experience to functional roles. Startup culture today almost fetishizes inexperience. You may be a founder or CEO for the first time in your startup, and there’s a lot of on-the-job learning you’ll go through. Don’t surround yourself with other people who are making it up as they go along. Experience matters.

Related: The 5 Habits You Have That Are Driving Your Employees Crazy

Generalists are undervalued. In the early stages, you’ll need people who can do many things, who can brainstorm outside of their function and see how their roles affect others. To ensure this framework is rooted in your young company, hire the core technical skills you need but surround them with "deep generalists," or people who have a specific role but the proven ability to cross into others.

Look for failures. People who have failed and recovered are better than people who have never failed. Failure is a great source of insight, but more than that, people who are not hobbled by failure and can figure out how to rise again have the right personality for a startup.

Don’t hire people like you. You need diverse experiences, philosophies and talents to cross pollinate.  That said, hire people you like because you’ll spend a lot of time with them.

Related: 3 Steps for Assembling a Startup Dream Team

Always focus on the next step. Everyone you hire is a magnet for future hires. Never hire an asshole, no matter how talented the person is and never hire an ego, no matter how accomplished the individual is. They will do more damage to your culture than their talent can possibly make up for. (And if the egotistical asshole is you, admit it and get some help.)

Defer to other people’s greater experience. You don’t know what they know, or you wouldn’t have hired them. That said, always seek to understand how they are applying their experience to your business. You’ll learn, and you’ll be able to guide how the pieces fit together.

There is no substitute for passion. If you are like many startups, you can't pay top dollar for talent, and you don’t want to be a stepping stone to a bigger salary at a corporation. So you need your team to share your passion for what you’re doing. They should see getting to change the world through your business as a valuable, if non-monetary, part of their compensation.  If they aren’t passionate, if they don’t feel they're changing the world with you, they'll treat your passion like their job and you will hate that.

Manage out under-performers quickly. If you’re starting from scratch, you need to see the business move forward every day. You can’t fund anything but A players.

Every successful company has an equally successful team behind it. The first step is to build and foster a team that can drive your business -- whether it be fashion, technology, hospitality or however else you seek to change the world.

Related: Build a Stellar Sales Team

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