Building a Great Team is Hard

At the core of any startup are the people. The founder(s) and whoever they bring on as employees are the lifeblood of that business. When a company is small, but growing, building a great team is a priority.

The challenge of building a great team confronts all startup companies. Small businesses must demand a high level of return on their investment (employees), whereas large corporate or bureaucratic organizations can afford to have a handful of employees who do close to nothing. At a small company though, this could potentially be deadly.

This is not to suggest that one employee should be so valuable that if they were to leave, the organization would collapse. (Think of the hit buy a bus theory). Rather, if one employee does not share the same passion and alignment with the company goals that others in the organization do, it could potentially cause negative effects.

Bringing together 5, 10, or even 15 people to operate, grow and expand a small company is no easy task. This is something I am learning first-hand at MarketSmart.

Sam Altman recently published his Startup Playbook. The second section of his guidelines for startup companies talks about building a great team. It is important.

I am learning first-hand at MarketSmart what it takes to build a great team. A so-so team will not build a great company. It takes a united group of people to create something special.

How to hire

Hiring must be treated as a numbers game, it simply must. Think of a sales funnel. At the top you have hundreds of prospects, at the bottom you have a five signed contracts. At every step of the funnel you refine your prospects, leaving you with your most promising sales leads.

Hiring at small companies should employ this same tactic. The consequences of not talking to enough candidates is deceivingly expensive and disruptive.

At MarketSmart I have worked closely with our CEO to develop our Careers micro-site. On the site there is a short 10 question survey for all interested applicants. Questions attempt to make the applicant think, a noble cause in a world of “click-to-submit” job postings.

This survey serves a dual purpose for MarketSmart and the candidate. One, it weeds out candidates who obviously are not interested in MarketSmart. Two it allows us (the company) to spend more time talking to people who genuinely are interested in us.

For the candidates it has the same effect. Candidates will “opt out” and simply not apply if they are intimidated by the survey, or vice versa, candidates will relish at the opportunity to express themselves and share their interest.

The more I interview, phone screen, and watch the hiring process play out, the more I think of it as dating. Dating is not easy, hiring is not easy.

Be honest and transparent

If you are trying to build a great team you should probably be honest with your employees. That extends to potential employees as well.

When interviewing candidates I like to ask them about their most recent previous work experience. What did they like? What did they dislike? Why did they leave or get relieved? Etc.

I am young and naive, but I find it interesting the number of people that mention being lied to by their previous employer.

I doubt these organizations flat-out lied to these people – I simply can’t imagine that. What I suspect is that these companies “misspoke” during the hiring process. They needed you (the candidate), and were willing to tell you what you wanted to hear to make sure you took the job. Then, three months down the line when you were unhappy you went back on the job hunt and ultimately left.

That is my suspicion, and from talking with candidates that is the story I have heard.

So, when building a great team how can you avoid this? How can you avoid “misspeaking” during the interview process? At a small company one employee may very well wear many hats which makes outlining a specific positions roles and responsibilities difficult.

One surefire way to avoid lying to candidates is to create a timeline. At MarketSmart we explain that the roles and responsibilities you are taking on can vary day to day, month to month. What I do during an interview is layout a twelve month timeline to help the candidate understand what role they would be filling now, and what role they could potentially be in then.

I am honest, candid and forthright. Some people I talk to find this refreshing, others are intimidated by the lack rigidity in the plan.

By being honest, open and transparent with potential candidates I am helping MarketSmart find the best fit. Building a great team is difficult, but being honest helps.

Look for character

Sam Altman wrote in his Startup Playbook:

Good founders have a number of seemingly contradictory traits. One important example is rigidity and flexibility. You want to have strong beliefs about the core of the company and its mission, but still be very flexible and willing to learn new things when it comes to almost everything else.

The same idea that he touches on applies to all employees of the organization. Good employees have strong character and contradictory traits.

Traits are differentiated from skills. Skills can be learned, traits are more innate.

At a startup company candidates who are willing to learn and of high character will be of more long term value than a similar candidate who has high technical ability but a limited desire to grow in the organization. When a team is small, 15 people are less, you need a core group of individuals who have traits that align with the company’s mission.

As the company does space will open up for other individuals who are simply “looking for a job”.

Building a great team is hard. It is necessary. And, it is fun.

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