Building your startup team is the most important thing you’ll do in the life of your company. The team includes the people who work on it every day as well as your advisors, investors and in certain cases, partners. At Rival IQ, we are hiring for a marketing leader and another developer to add to our team, so I have been thinking about the best approach and I believe it’s a blend of fit, skills and experience, in that order.
Fit – Doing a startup is hard with tons of stress, long hours and a million decisions. Finding people who have similar value systems, approaches to living and problem solving is critical. There are no absolute right answers on fit. Different people fit into different situations and many great people will not fit your culture. I suggest creating 3-5 statements or philosophies about the company that attempt to define you and your culture and therefore better assess fit. My friend, Rand Fishkin, at Moz has created this Tagfee, which pretty clearly articulates what they care about. Bart Lorang at Full Contact openly expresses things they value, some of it illustrated in his post about “paid, paid vacation“. At Rival IQ, we are developing our own culture using phrases like “freedom with responsibility” (self-motivated), ”data drives decisions” (analytical and specific), “everyone has a voice”(respectful and opinionated), “a team that works out, works out” (healthy) and “it takes a village” (family, friends and community matter) and correspondingly we can approach “fit” for new people. As a founding team, you should also determine bigger issues like “what does success look like” (lots of impact, lots of money, building a big company, building a fun company…) as this will determine fit for potential team members and drive much of your ongoing decisions. Write it down, evolve it (I suggest quarterly or with a funding milestone) and test your culture with people you think you want to hire and make sure they fit while at the same time really understanding your own company.
Skills – Every company has a set of goals and tactics they need to employ to achieve them. Skills are how you get shit done. Time also usually equates to more skill as people get better as they practice. Think hard about what needs to be done and what critical skills are required. Hire for these. Also, hire for people who can demonstrate the acquisition of new skills (learners). ”What did you learn over the last year?” “What do you want to learn in the next 6 or 12 months?” are good questions to test for this. The best people come with demonstrated, quantifiable skills but are very good acquiring new ones. Map your skills into the business needs for the next 3-12 months and fit it into the puzzle of what you already have on the existing team and don’t overweight into one category. Skills, of which learning is one, are second to fit in importance.
Domain experience – Most valuable industries are moving fast so deep industry knowledge can be as much a curse (these are all the ways this won’t work) as they are a blessing (here’s how we can work the system to our advantage). The key is to find people who don’t overweigh their domain experience and take from it the opportunities to lead and re-invent. Also, as you move more toward B2B or complex selling or PR/marketing where industry connections and relationships are important and take a long time to foster, the value of domain experience is higher, but still falls behind fit and skills. If you are hiring someone for experience, work hard to see how their connections translate directly to the things you need to achieve (usually customers, partners or other people). If the line is not clear, run away.
This approach of blending fit, skills and domain experience applies to your advisors (I recommend 2-3) and investors too. Some investors want you to be frugal, others spend like crazy. Some want you to focus on people and systems, others not so much. Some care more about the technology, some the customers, some the growth. Some are happy with an early exit; most want only a home run. Some will want you to work 100 hours/week while others think it’s a long haul and you need to stay fresh, happy and rested. Like fit, there are no “right” answers here, just different ones, but if you end up with mis-matched values and expectations you will spend more time fighting than building the business. Brad Feld and Steve Hall were investors in my last company and we all really “fit” so building the business together was fun, rewarding, stimulating and very productive.
Hiring and building a team is an art and takes time. Start hiring early, before you need people, by defining your values and finding the people who fit, who have the core skills to do what needs to get done. Focus on fit, skills and domain, in that order!