5 Steps in Finding the Right Team for Your Startup
This is my site Written by Alora on October 26, 2010 – 11:40 am

I was recently talking to a single friend about his misadventures in dating. He was telling me about different approaches he’d take, the types of questions he’d ask and then — inevitably — the crazy type of mismatches he’d find himself with. I couldn’t help but think about this conversation as I read Tim Berry’s great blog post called, “5 Ways to Build a Team that Builds Itself.”

As with most of Tim’s advice, he breaks down a meaningful topic into accessible pieces. He notes that values, empowerment, metrics, feedback and embracing mistakes as learning opportunities are all invaluable tools in building a successful team. And I would agree.

In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that the only times I’ve ever seen a team suddenly go from success to failure, it was always because a new influence (usually a new boss) entered the picture and eliminated at least one of these factors — and usually destroyed morale in the process.

The thing that Tim doesn’t address, though, is how you find the right people in the first place. Like my friend with the crazy — and often doomed — dating stories, you can only build quality relationships (a.k.a. teams) if you start out with the right quality of individuals. And, just like in dating, this is the first step that someone can easily get hung up on for years before ever being able to move on to Step #2.

When I look at the partnerships I see in the startup space — particularly among bootstrappers and eager enthusiasts trying to drive innovation — I see a lot of churn in the hunt to build the right team. But I also see some pretty clear milestones that, once hit, start making all the difference.

1. Find the Right Language
Often times, this is the hardest part. An entrepreneur (or a would-be entrepreneur) can have an amazing idea. But if they haven’t found the right language to share their idea with others, they can spin their wheels for years and not make any headway. If the idea is too big, too imprecise, too confusing or even just too radical, it’s hard for it to resonate with other people. And if it’s not resonating, then finding others to help you build it is not going to happen.

So practice. And if people aren’t responding, then change it. And then practice some more. Get feedback. Watch people’s reactions. Find ways to pre-empt the most common pushback you hear from people, and then practice some more. A funny thing will happen: the right combination of words will eventually start to fall into place. And when that happens, all of a sudden you’ll go from getting blank stares to true interest — and you may not even be entirely sure why the change occured. Just recognize that it did, and it’s often more about language than you imagined.

2. Don’t Make Assumptions About People
Another common mistake I see among entrepreneurs with ideas they find exciting is the mistaken assumption that the people they want to be onboard with them will also find their idea exciting. When someone is feeling unsure of themselves, it’s often easy to look to friends and family for validation and participation. This is sometimes a dangerous choice, because we tend to place a lot of stock in the opinions of those we care about. And if friends or family don’t like or understand the idea, it’s sometimes a devestating blow to an entrepreneur’s focus and motivation.

Depending on a person’s normal social circles, I often recommend starting with strangers, and waiting to circle back to friends and family. A stranger is often a blank slate: no assumptions, no speculation, no baked-in expectations about you, your background or your capabilities. The idea has the chance to sink or swim on it’s own — based on the words you use — when it comes to a stranger. Strangers are often nicely baggage-free, and a great place to start.

The flip-side to this is in being too focused on what types of people — either personality types or skillset types — that you need in order to make things work. People are an endless and amazing source of constant surprise. If you spend all of your time telling yourself, “I need a rock star biz dev guy!” and close yourself off to other possibilities, then you could miss the former network engineer turned project manager who is so passionate about your idea that he manages to morph into the best power networking evangelist you could possibly ask for.

Be flexible, and start with people who resonate with what you’re trying to do. You may not be able to use them all right away, but trying to wedge in the right role with only a half-hearted passion is not as effective as a passionate person who can figure out how to take on the most urgent needs of a new role.

3. Don’t Be So Protective of the Idea that You’re Unwilling to Discuss it
This is a hard one for some entrepreneurs. They are so concerned with their intellectual property or the fact that someone might “steal” their idea that they are afraid to say too much. But the fact is that, unless you can do everything yourself, you need to talk to people, tell them your idea and get their (verbal and non-verbal) feedback. That’s the only way you can hone your message and the only way you can flesh out your team.

Just remember: building a new business is an insane amount of work. Yes, it’s true, someone could steal your idea (or parts of it), but you are never going to make traction on it if you don’t talk about it. What good is it to protect something that you never end up using? Most of the people you meet aren’t going to be interested enough to bother (sorry, but it’s true). While they may find the idea interesting, it would really have to touch a nerve with them to bother trying to go for it themselves. Odds are better that they’d join you in your efforts, rather than trying to start out on their own from scratch.

4. Network Like a Maniac
Again, friends and family may be viable options for team members, but strangers have tons of value to an entrepreneur with a perkulating idea. And no matter how shy or introverted you may be, if you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you need to find ways to push through your shyness and talk to people. So pick half a dozen or so local social events in your space (or related spaces), and start attending. Make a goal before you walk into the room that you are going to spend at least X minutes having conversations with at least Y different people. And then stick to your goals. It really will get easier over time.

And, in the immediate term, this approach will help you test out your language, find the core ideas that are resonating with people, and start dialogs that can help you improve both your idea and your messaging about it — all while being on a tacit man-hunt for a prospective team. The great thing about networking events, is that as your language gets crisper and your passion for your idea becomes more recognizable to those you meet, it opens secondary sets of doors. The person you meet at the event may not be a great fit, but they could know someone who is. You’ll never know until you try talking to new people.

5. Devote Time to Following Up
The biggest mistake people make after attending a networking event is not immediately following up. This is especially true if the person said they knew someone else who they wanted to connect you to. You have a short window in which you are memorable enough to take advantage of that potential connection, so don’t let it pass. Reach out to follow-up within 24 hours. Don’t let it slip.

And then, once you have someone who is interested — whether directly or via a referal — arrange time for a face-to-face. Coffee, lunch, whatever, just get together in person. Something relaxed and non-threatening that gives you both the chance to talk is the best way to see what common ground you have, and whether or not it makes sense to keep talking.

All in all, building a team is quite a bit like dating. You can spend all your time looking in the places where you’re “supposed” to find someone compatible, and then get into a fender-bender on the freeway with the person who turns out to be the world’s most ideal fit. You can’t ever predict where they’ll come from. The only way you’re going to find them, is by opening up the possibilities, considering options you haven’t previously explored, and engaging with new crops of people on a regular basis.

People can be gloriously surprising when you give them the chance.  Don’t rule someone out just because you think you know what they can do and that it’s not what you need.  If in doubt, ask them what it is they’d like to do or how they’d ideally like to contribute.  You could find that the former sales guy wants to get back to his developer roots, and is just looking for the right opportunity.

Then, once you think you’ve found the right person (or people), re-read Tim’s post. His suggestions are good ones — once you find the right people to bring on the bus.