The Startup Team

Individuals play the game, but teams beat the odds
SEAL Team saying

Over the last 40 years Technology investors have learned that the success of startups are not just about the technology but “it’s about the team.”

We spent a year screwing it up in our Lean LaunchPad classes until we figured out it was about having the right team.

Startup Team Lessons Learned
During the last 12 months we’ve taught 42 entrepreneurial teams with 147 students at Stanford, Berkeley, Columbia and the National Science Foundation. (As many teams as most startup incubators.)

Get into the Class
When I first started teaching hands-on, project/team entrepreneurship classes we’d take anyone who would apply. After awhile it became clear that by not providing an interview process we were doing these students a disservice. A good number of them just wanted an overview of what a startup was like – an entrepreneurial appreciation class (and we offer some great ones.) But some of our students hadn’t yet developed a passion for entrepreneurship and had no burning idea that they wanted to bring to market. Yet in class they’d be thrown into a “made-up in the first week” startup team and got dragged along as a spear-carrier for someone else’s vision.

Step One – Set a Bar
So as a first step we made students formally apply and  interview for the Lean LaunchPad class. We were looking for entrepreneurs who had great ideas and interest in making those ideas really happen. We’d hold mixers before the first class and the students would form their teams during week one of the class.

But we found we were wasting a week or more as the teams formed and their ideas gelled.

Step Two – Apply As A Team
So next time we taught, we had the students apply to the class as a team. We hold information sessions a month or more before the classes. Here students with preformed teams could come and have an interview with the teaching team and get admitted. Or those looking to find other students to join their team could mix and market their ideas or join others and then interview for a spot. This process moved the team logistics out of class time and provided us with more time for teaching.

But we had been selecting teams for admission on the basis of whether they had the best ideas. We should have known better.  In the classroom, as in startups, the best ideas in the hands of a B team is worse than a B idea in the hands of a world class team.

Here’s why.

Step Three – Hacker/Hardware, Hustler, Designer, Visionary
As we taught our Lean LaunchPad classes we painfully relearned the lesson that team composition matters as much or more than the product idea. And that teams matter as much in entrepreneurial classes as they do in startups.

In a perfect world you build your vision and your customers would run to buy your first product exactly as you spec’d and built it. We now know that this ‘build it and they will come” is a prayer rather than a business strategy.  In reality, a startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. This means the brilliant idea you started with will change as you iterate and pivot your business model until you find product/market fit.

The above paragraph is worth reading a few times.

It basically says that a startup team needs to be capable of making sudden and rapid shifts – because it will be wrong a lot. Startups are inherently chaos. Conditions on the ground will change so rapidly that the original well-thought-out business plan becomes irrelevant.

And finding product/market fit in that chaos requires a team with a combination of skills.

What skills? Well it depends on the industry you’re in, but generally great technology skills (hacking/hardware/science) great hustling skills (to search for the business model, customers and market,) great user facing design (if you’re a web/mobile app,) and by having long term vision and product sense. Most people are good at one or maybe two of these, but it’s extremely rare to find someone who can wear all the hats.

It’s this combination of skills is why most startups are founded by a team, not just one person.

University Silos
While building these teams are hard in the real world, imagine how hard it is in a university with classes organized as silos. Business School classes were only open to business school students, Engineering School classes were only open to engineering school students, etc. No classes could be cross-listed. This meant that you couldn’t offer students an accurate simulation of what a startup team would look like. (In our business school classes we had students with great ideas but lacking the technical skills to implement it. And some of our engineering teams could have benefited from a role-model to follow as a hustler.)

So the next time we taught, we managed to ensure that the class was cross-listed and that the student teams had to have a mix of both business and engineering backgrounds.

I think we’ve finally got the team composition right – relearning all the lessons investors already knew.

But now on to the next goal – getting our mentor program correct.

Lessons Learned

  • Finding product/market fit in startup chaos requires a team with a combination of skills
  • Hacker/Hardware, Hustler, Designer, Visionary
  • At times an A+ market (huge demand, unmet need) may trump all
  • Getting the Mentors right is the next step

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