How to Make Your Startup Team Its Most Valuable Asset
Startups are nothing without their people. That’s easy to forget, especially in the tech world. We get caught up with the newest products, the fastest-growing markets or the latest development disrupting the industry, and we forget that the quality of any idea is secondary to the quality of the team bringing it to reality.
With this in mind, how should an early-stage startup leader approach the task of recruiting? Many prospective hires are already comfortable in established jobs, with supportive networks, benefits and routines that cause them to think hard before leaving their lifestyles behind.
Startups, on the other hand, can offer something we call the “culture of achievement” -- a unique environment where the daily stressors of a fast-paced business are offset by meaningful accomplishments resulting from employees’ drive to conquer new challenges individually and as a team. This culture resonates heavily with some, is quickly discarded by others and is generally one of the most misunderstood qualities of startup employee management.
As an executive building or scaling a startup team, you might find it tedious when recruiting occupies a significant portion of your time. However, this task is almost sacred -- there’s nothing more crucial to the success of your company than the composition of your team and the organic roots of its culture. If assembled correctly, a team will thrive in the culture of achievement, celebrate group wins and set the bar higher for one another each day.
Below are some of the guidelines we’ve applied as we’ve built our teams over the years.
Team motivation: missionary vs. mercenary
Perhaps the most grievous mistake an entrepreneur can make is luring candidates with superficial perks like titles, money, stock, free food or beer. While these things can contribute to your overall atmosphere, they simply have nothing to do with driving meaningful outcomes. Startups are stressful. Even the most talented people will find themselves in positions of great uncertainty. Unless your team is intrinsically motivated to succeed, there is nothing that a "kegerator" or a Ping-Pong table will do to alter your results. If you’re banking on offering employees these sorts of perks, consider that they will likely be forgotten in times of immense -- even soul-crushing -- stress.
Successful teams are not motivated by short-term or superficial rewards. People who thrive in the culture of achievement are motivated by meaningful goals, the freedom and control to achieve them and measurable progress.
Every individual I’ve had the privilege of hiring in the last decade has been able to cite a previous job or work experience that lacked at least one of these, and in turn, eventually became stale. As an executive, you must get to know your employees personally in order to assess what motivators will resonate with them. Then, set realistic, yet challenging goals that will help team members grow their careers and achieve results for the group.
Clarity keeps people sane
In an entrepreneurial environment, it is easy to have the advantage of focus; the entire team should be able to rally around a clear purpose, with every individual having an impact on its success. So it is imperative to establish a collaborative environment where staff members are expected to work independently, responsibilities are linear and well communicated and questions are encouraged.
Another benefit of running a small organization is that you do not have to let problems fester. It is always preferable to make deliberate but swift decisions to solve problems -- both with the business and the people. In the end, a motivated team deserves to have every possible ambiguity removed. They will respect you even if some decisions are unpleasant. This won’t always make for the most serene work environment but no one comes to a startup in hopes of a job they can coast through the workweek. The people who thrive in a sometimes-crazed environment can achieve their best work if they see that everyone on the team is committed to the same goals.
One reason people get comfortable in established companies is because they can. Layers of tried-and-true habits and overlap have been established by enterprises and small businesses over time to screen mistakes. The tough decisions get postponed, or worse, are made in illogical, politically motivated manners. Unfortunately, this can lead to a vague, watered-down culture laden with bureaucratic processes that suffocate innovation. The resulting lack of control and perceived unfairness, by far, is one of the most common issue of people leaving their jobs.
Experience is the best risk management
If you’re carving out a culture for your startup and expecting a high-performance work environment, as you review prospective candidates, remember there’s no substitute for managers who have experienced the startup cycle in the past. For the same reason experienced engineers and marketers are keenly adept at working through iterations and unpredictable development cycles, startup managers are veterans of the emotional rollercoaster that defines the early life of a company.
Despite the many anecdotes to the contrary, a startup is a horrible place for a founder to take leadership risks. For every natural Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, there are a thousand others who will make costly mistakes and consume copious amounts of time. Training new leaders is best left for after the organization has matured somewhat.
Finally, no discussion of startup hiring in technology can ignore the quirkiness of the typical early-stage workforce. If you are inclined to hire only the buttoned down, well-mannered and polished, be prepared for a shock. It’s not that you won’t find a few of these types; it’s just that, invariably, your best people will make you uncomfortable. The best leaders already know this, and know how to deal with being the dumbest person in the room (or at least pretending to be.)
Think you can make people fall in line by being heavy handed? Think again. Whether she’s coding, selling or working on marketing plans, anyone who thrives on the culture of achievement is bound to be unpredictable and unmanageable from time to time. You need to sense the delicate balance of providing the tools they need to succeed and pushing them too far off the brink into an overwhelmingly stressful environment.
The quirks of startup culture are often a fixation for the media but TV and movie depictions of game rooms and kegerators miss the point. This culture of achievement goes deeper than the jargon and perks that may or may not coincide with it; the heart of every startup is a team that thrives on the prospect of breaking new ground and one-upping itself as it works to change its industry’s game. As a startup leader, whether you’re embarking on a new initiative or expanding your now-established team, preserving and motivating this culture should be one of your primary concerns.