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Founder Insights: How to Foster Collaboration on Your Team Three entrepreneurs share their insights into getting your employees to work together and exceed expectations.

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One thing every leader of a growing company needs is a skilled team that can work together to accomplish ambitious goals. But having a staff that gels and excels doesn't usually happen by chance.

Fostering collaboration starts with the founder; it's a concept and a practice that should be engrained in a company's culture from Day One.

We asked the founders of The Town Kitchen, Bitsbox and Leesa Sleep about how they promote collaboration at their companies--each of which was named a Startup to Watch last year by Staples and Entrepreneur.

Here are their thoughts on collaboration and how to achieve it within your own company (edited slightly for length and clarity):

What have you done to facilitate collaboration?

Bitsbox co-founder Scott Lininger: Every quarter, Bitsbox gathers the whole company for a cross-team SWOT exercise (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats.) Before the meeting, I make a set of eight to 10 categories, things like "Technology infrastructure" or "Knowing our customers better." Then everyone spends five minutes brainstorming on paper SWOTs for those topics.

We then discuss each category and dump the ideas into a document.

Brainstorming on paper encourages people to contribute even if the topic is outside their team's usual purview. It also helps draw out our brilliant but quiet introverts.

Leesa Sleep co-founder David Wolfe: Everything about Leesa is based on collaboration. Our organization structure, our recruitment, our management processes, our incentive programs and even our physical environment is set up for collaboration. At its core is a shared set of values that puts family first, then community and then business. For instance:

  • Environment: Our staff works in one huge open area.
  • Recruitment: It's important to hire people who share our values. We measure our shared success as much by our impact on the world as we do by our sales and profits.
  • Compensation: We try to pay people well and reward as much for group achievement as we do for individual contributions.
  • Process: Our regular meetings, our individual work, our project focus, the setting of unrealistic goals that we constantly achieve to our continued amazement, the sharing of our successes and our failures. Everything is intended to work together, think together, celebrate together, play together and cry together.

The Town Kitchen co-founder Sabrina Mutukisna: Our vision is to bridge the gap from supplier to consumer so we're always identifying opportunities to get our artisan suppliers, youth employees and Fortune 500 clients in the same room. It sounds cumbersome to organize but there's a financial incentive too. We've found that collaboration leads to increased client and employee retention.

Internally, The Town Kitchen fosters collaboration with quarterly all team-building projects. Since we're in a kitchen, they usually consist of competitive cooking challenges where we pair up our kitchen team with our account management team.

What's an example of a project that would have failed without collaboration?

Lininger: Bitsbox was lucky enough to be featured on Shark Tank earlier this year. That whole process was a team effort, from pitch to audition to shooting to handling the post-show sales. I hollered "All hands on deck!" so many times that it became an office joke.

Mutukisna: Every year we organize Hashtag Lunchbag Oakland (California) where we donate Thanksgiving meals to those in need. Over 100 corporate volunteers join us in our kitchen which means every Town Kitchen employee has to work together to manage the "new crew."

For the experience to be fun, we have to work together and be organized. It's a truly rewarding experience. Last year, we prepared and delivered over 1,400 meals to seven non-profit organizations in Oakland.

What's the hardest part about encouraging collaboration?

Mutukisna: Setting clear expectations. Without them, it leads to frustration for all parties. Most often than not, one person will end up taking on the brunt of the work. But with clear communication and clear expectations (be sure to outline anticipated time commitment!), collaborating produces great results.

Wolfe: The biggest risk is understanding that collaboration takes different forms at different times of development and that you can't allow individual teams to get too big. The goal isn't collaboration. Collaboration is a means to achieve your financial and social goals and even your personal life goals. You avoid the pitfalls of inefficient collaboration by hiring like-minded people and encouraging a shared set of values.

Lininger: There's a balance between getting everyone's input and executing efficiently, especially when one of the collaborators is the boss. As bosses, we have to TRULY delegate, or we run the risk of slowing down all of our people who--let's face it--are smarter than us anyway.