15 Things That Make a Startup Team Truly Great

We have all heard these old mantras:

"I rather have an A-class team with a B-class idea than a B-class team with an A-class idea."

"A-players hire A-players while B-players hire C-players."

The reasoning being that B-players don't want their weaknesses exposed, therefore choosing to hire people who will not threaten them.

But seldom do those who proclaim the above offer any additional information on how to attract and select "A-class teams".

What are great startup teams made of?

A startup team should consist of at least one business co-founder who can figure out "what to build" and one or two technical co-founders who knows "how to build it".

The "what to build" include the domains of design thinking, pretotyping, customer development and business modeling, while the "how to build it" includes prototyping and agile software development. At the cross-section of all of these domains you'll find lean startup and innovation metrics/analytics.

Rei Inamoto, Chief Creative Officer for AKQA, coined the terms "The Hacker, Hustler and Hipster" and Janice Fraser talks about "Desirability, Viability and Feasibility".

This is what Andy Ellwood writes in his article "The Dream Team: Hipster, Hacker and Hustler", published in Forbes Magazine.

"When the Hipster brings the creative design and cool factor, the Hacker brings their utility belt of technology solutions, and the Hustler finds the right way to package it all up and take it to the masses in the form of sales and partnerships, it is a combination that is tough to beat."

And this is how Janice Fraser frames "Desirability, Viability and Feasibility".

  • The designer is responsible for desirabilityof the product. Talking with customers, understanding their needs, making sure the experience doesn’t suck.
  • The engineer is responsible for the feasibility. S/he must determine if the product can actually be built, how, and for how much.
  • The business person is responsible for the viabilityof the business model. S/he acts as the scales of justice when feasibility conflicts with desirability.

Yet other's talk about "the Executive, the Geek or Developer and the Creative" but really mean the same thing.

Whatever the semantics, it's extremely rare to find these skills in the same person. That's perhaps the main reason why teams perform better than individuals, and why VCs and leading startup accelerators consistently choose to invest in teams rather than individuals.

Teams also help when:

  • reflecting and discussing challenges and opportunities
  • sharing the multiple tasks required to build a company
  • picking each other up when things are tough
  • celebrating when things go well

Many of the most successful companies were all started by at least two co-founders. Google (Brin and Page), Yahoo! (Yang and Filo), Apple (Jobs and Wozniak), Intel (Moore and Noyce), HP (Hewlett and Packard), and so on.

What characteristics should we look for in a startup team?

Much has been written on the subject of desirable startup team characteristics. Here is an attempt to summarize these points of views, while drawing on my own experiences.

  1. An ability to execute and grow

A relentless focus on dominating one problem or niche before expanding. Great teams say 'no' to things that doesn't help them to hit their weekly growth numbers. Great teams understand that trying to be "all things to all people", or going to every startup event in town,  is not going to build a successful company.

  1. Coachable

Ability to take in and assimilate different points of view. If you know it all already, don't bother asking anyone for advice.

  1. Committed

Willingness to put in the hours and live and breath the startup 24/7. Doing a startup isn't a 9 to 5 job, it's a full-time mission.

  1. Decisive

Ability to make quick decisions on less than perfect data. Not being afraid of failing. Remember "fail fast, succeed faster"?

  1. Disciplined and creative at experiments design and learning from data

Ability to design and run quick and cheap experiments to validate your most risky assumptions, while separating emotions from what the data tells you to enable enhanced learning. (Read that again 🙂

  1. Integrity

Trustworthy and honest individuals who believe being "smart" doesn't mean to trick other people and getting away with it.

  1. Obsessed with customers

Social skills and genuine interest to go and talk with customers. This should start before coding and continue throughout product development. The founders should do customer development and not hire externals prior to problem / solution fit. As Paul Graham points out, early on do stuff that doesn't scale to learn. Resist PR and marketing campaigns before you're ready to scale.

  1. Passion

Having found a problem worth solving. Something that the team is passionate about fixing. Passion fuels energy, which in turn drives the ability to execute and grow, also when things don't look so bright.

  1. Positive grit

A positive "get it done" mentality rather than giving up in the face of adversity. A long-term focus on achieving the vision. Winning the marathon becomes more important than succeeding at each sprint.

  1. Raw intelligence and talent with superior problem-solving skills

Creative, curious minds that like to experiment and build stuff from an early age. Think "lego" rather than "barbie dolls". Being good at hacking complex situations rather than treading old paths and following rules. Working smarter rather than harder.

  1. Realism and business acumen

Being grounded in reality but with a vision, e.g. "we are building the greatest company on earth" and not "we are asking USD 100m for our idea". Great teams understand the difference between "actionable" and "vanity" metrics, for example measuring active users or retention instead of number of page views or signups. As David Cohen says, teams must understand that there's a big difference between "exciting technology and an exciting and fundable business model".

  1. Relevant knowledge and experience

We understand the industry that we're attacking. In addition we have built a couple of startups before, one failed the other one succeeded - we have learnt from our mistakes.

  1. Expert skills and insider information

We have kick-ass developers who are world leading experts at XYZ. We have also worked for the companies that we aim to disrupt. Prior startup experience is great. Coming from a big corporation background with no understanding of startups and how to leverage technology and business modeling, can be a real drag on learning and speed.

  1. Team chemistry

Having been through the highs and lows together builds mutual respect. In great startups, everybody is giving everybody else credit, and there's a willingness to share both good and bad news.

  1. A compelling vision and purpose

The value of a shared vision and purpose that the team can communicate to the outside world, cannot be understated. Cofounder breakups are one of the leading causes of death for early startups, the other being scaling too early. Not competitors or lack of funding, as most people tend to think. Make sure you have the glue in the form of a compelling vision and purpose to rally behind and keep you together.

I leave you with this quote to ponder from David Ogilvy:

"If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants."

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