Startup Strategy: The Team

In a startup, just as there is a minimum viable product, there is also a minimum viable team. Putting together an early team and making your first hires is one of those crucial things to get right and unfortunately, no matter how much prior experience you may have, it’s very easy to fail at it.

Don’t confuse passion for fit

For a long time I’ve felt very confident in hiring people that shared a great passion for our product, especially if I got on well with them, but now I find that to be a particularly dangerous combination. What if the product iterates (which it will)? Will there still be the same passion and fit going forward?

The importance of the first hire(s)

The first hires are amongst the most important ones when building the team and growing your company. Apart from the founders vision and values, it’s that early team which sets the tone for the company culture that extends well beyond the startup and into the growth stage.

Early employees are key to whether investors view the startup as investment-ready and if it’s a viable opportunity to put funds in. They know that the product changes over time, but the core team that executes the vision shows the founders maturity and skills in whom they’re hiring, so it forms one part in the investors due diligence process.

Can they grow with you?

Most founders fail at transforming themselves from being founders to handling the specific role they’ll eventually have in a growing organization. This is particularly true for the CEO role and while I’ve experienced this a couple of times now, I still suck at it.

Whether the members of this early team are able to step up themselves when the time comes is also something to be aware of when assembling the team. Those are eventually the people that can really support you in this quite transformative journey from a pure startup to a growth stage company, something which inevitably follows when the company is successful. Alternatively they leave or make this transformation much harder.


Managing expectations is also a tough one at this early stage. On one hand everybody needs to be pumped up and excited about the opportunity. On the other side however, it’s very normal that pretty much everything can (and often will) change in an early startup – just ask somebody who has been at an accelerator program!

Success always takes longer than expected and when it happens is often viewed as an over-night phenomenon. Early team members do well to understand this still mysterious phenomena.

A team can exist not just of full time hires. Sometimes it is worth for a startup exploring other avenues of putting together an early team by tapping into using freelancers, contractors and even investors as part-time resources. It’s a dangerous game though. Investors don’t like it and it’s much harder to keep the team aligned when some work part-time and some full-time. At least your core hires therefore should be working slolely for your startup.

Closing remarks

  • Allowing people to work remotely has become a standard today. In the case of an early startup this is very tempting and often happens naturally. In reality it’s very difficult to do this successfully though. At Unified Inbox, we’re all completely distributed from day one – in countries as diverse as New Zealand, Germany, India, Singapore and the UK. But I made it a point to at least have my Co-Founder, Head of Operations and Head of R&D with me often and in the places I spend most time in. I’ve realized that if you’re working across many timezones, you definitely need a clear remote working strategy, even at a startup.
  • Make the on/offboarding of new or leaving team members as easy, transparent and painless as possible. These are two of the most important processes in an organization and somebody has to truly own and be responsible for them. They can make or break an otherwise successful hire or turn a friendly leaving team member into an unnecessary enemy.
  • Be aware of people offering investment along with getting a job. Often this sounds too good to be true. I’ve had quite a few of those around over time and it always ended badly. Their experience might be tempting, their money needed and their C.V. look impressive, but unfortunately, they’re often a waste of time, both from the investment and the employment side. A good sign is if the person putting in an investment and taking the job, is not using his investment to pay himself – at least at a very early stage.
  • A team weekend in a neutral place where new experiences and thoughts can be formed together often helps to invigorate the team spirit and breath fresh life into the product and processes of the organization. Even better: don’t wait until there is a problem. Do this regularly every 3-4 months – it’s one of the best things you can to for your startup overall.

I for one am off to one of those later ones here in Singapore next week to celebrate our first Unified Inbox mobile app at CommunicAsia – the largest ICT event in Asia-Pacific. If you’re there, too, feel free to connect.

I look forward to continuing this series in a couple of weeks time.

3 thoughts on “Startup Strategy: The Team

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