How to Build a Great Startup Team
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I have played a part in 5 startups over the past 10 years (4 of them with my Hubba co-founder). Over this period, I have worked in roles that ranged from development to management. I’m proud to say I’ve had a lot of success. However, what I really value are the lessons I’ve learned from mistakes (mine and others). Based on this experience – here are some guiding principles for how to build a great startup team.
Make it personal
There is nothing more personal than a company that you start. It represents you. Your core values and beliefs are tested daily in ways that are farther reaching than just business.
This is how you want everyone on your team to feel about your company. If you hire right, everyone on the team will feel that the company reflects who they are and share your sense of ownership. All of this starts with personally connecting with every person you hire – without exception. Ask questions that will help you understand and connect with the candidate on a personal level. After an interview, if you don’t feel like you and that candidate are rooting for each other’s success, keep looking.
Corporate culture is everything! Enhance it and protect it as closely as you do the bottom line.
You get what you pay for
Good engineers cost dearly and good engineers know their worth. Good engineers are several orders of magnitude more productive than mediocre ones. They produce the best quality code, solve the most complex problems and do it quicker than their peers. Good engineers also like to work with other good engineers, so attracting and retaining talent is easier when you have top-tier staff on your team.
If you only remember one thing about this post, remember this advice; find really really good developers and pay them properly. It will be worth every penny.
Know what to look for
Forget about the number of degrees, industry certifications or Ivy-league education. The best developers can show you their code and explain their design decisions. They are proud of the complex problems they’ve solved and are happy to walk you through how they solved them. They have strong opinions and love to explain why they think a particular technology is the bees-knees.
There is no short cut here and for a startup there is no excuse for taking one. When you are interviewing candidates, have them walk you through their code from previous projects. You’ll not only see their technical and communication skills at work but their enthusiasm for technology as well. The DNA of a good developer is written in source code.
Don’t hedge your bets the traditional way
There are many traditional risk mitigation strategies, such as exhaustive documentation, that are supposed to protect companies from staff turnover. The goal of these techniques is to retain ‘institutional memory’ in the face of staff turnover. These techniques generally do nothing more than divert costly developer resources away from building the product. The truth is, there is no way to mitigate this risk. If people leave the team, it will cost you time and money and no amount of documentation will change that. Focusing on keeping your team together is a much better use of time and energy. Focus resources on the needs of your team.
At Hubba, everyone’s opinions count. We make development decisions by discussing competing ideas and reaching a consensus based on logic. We respect and encourage a balanced life outside the office because it makes people better inside the office. We encourage people to experiment and be creative. And we work in physically close quarters to encourage open collaboration and strengthen friendships.
Diverse but unified
A world-class team is diverse yet unified.
Team members need to have different skills, hobbies, interests, culture, age and life experiences. These ‘differences’ gives each person on the team a perspective on a problem that no one else has. This is extremely valuable. It gives your team 20/20 vision.
Equally important is a unified team. A unified team is composed of people who despite their differences are committed to the success of the group. I believe this is only possible if all the members are ‘good’ people (in the Socratic sense). So I am proud and happy to say we only hire ‘good’ people at Hubba.
Art vs. Science
Building a great startup team means hiring the right candidate every time and keeping them for as long as possible. If you do it right, the developers are well paid, the company is hitting all their targets and EVERYONE is happy doing a job they love with people they admire. And the best part? Its cheaper to do it this way. I admit accomplishing this is more art than science but, like art, there are principles you must follow to make your team a masterpiece.
Have you learned anything from your mistakes or those of others? Leave a comment about your experience. I’d love to learn from you as well.