Building Great Founding Teams

There’s been a lot written about the individual characteristics of what makes a great founder, but a lot less about what makes a great founding team and how that’s different from a great founding  CEO


I think we’ve been imprecise in defining three different roles. In doing so we’ve failed to help founders understand what it takes to build a great founding team.

Here are my definitions.

Founders – the idea
A Founder is the one with the original idea, scientific discovery, technical breakthrough, insight, problem description, passion, etc. A founder typically recruits co-founders and then becomes part of the founding team involved in day-to-day company operations. (However, in some industries such as life sciences, founders may be tenured professors who are not going to give up their faculty positions, so they often become the head of a startup’s scientific advisory board, but aren’t part of the founding team.)

A couple of caveats about founders with “ideas.”  It’s important to differentiate between ideas that have been or can be patented and ideas thought up late night in a dorm-room. One of the hardest concepts for my students to grasp is that “an idea is not a company.”  The reality is that in most cases, without the company to commercialize it, the idea is worthless (except to a patent troll.)

Even if they become part of the founding team, it’s not a given that the founder, having come up with the idea has a “guaranteed” leadership role (CEO or VP) in the new company. For some entrepreneurs this idea that the founder is not necessarily the CEO, is a surprise. When I hear, “What do you mean I’m not CEO? It’s my idea!” I get nervous that the founder is clueless about what makes the founding CEO special, and what else it actually takes to build a company. (Read on to see the difference in the roles.)

Founding Team – the rock on which to build the company
The founding team includes the founder and a few other co-founders with complementary skills to the founder. This is the group who will build the company. Its goal is to take the original idea and search for a repeatable and scalable business model- first by finding product/market fit, then by testing all the parts of the business model (pricing, channel, acquisition/activation, partners, costs, etc.)

In web/mobile startups the canonical view is the founding team consists of a hacker, a hustler, and a designer. In other domains, the skill sets differ, but the key idea is that you want a team with complementary skills.Band of Brothers

There’s no magic number about the “right” number of founders for a founding team, but two to four seems to be the sweet spot. One of the biggest mistakes in assembling a founding team is not thinking through the need for skills but instead settling for who’s around. The two tests of whether someone belongs on a founding team are: “Do we have a company without them?” and, “Can we find someone else just like them?” If both answers are no, you’ve identified a co-founder.  If any of the answers are “Yes,” then hire them a bit later as an early employee.

Key attributes of an entrepreneur on a founding team are passion, determination, resilience, tenacity, agility and curiosity. It helps if the team has had a history of working together, but what is essential is mutual respect. And what is critical is trust. You need to be able to trust your co-founders to perform, to do what they say they will, and to have your back.

Most startups that fail over team issues fail because co-founders hadn’t dated first, (spent time together in a Startup Weekend, worked together in an incubator, etc.) but instead jumped into bed to start a company.

Everyone has ideas. It’s the courage, passion and tenacity of the founding team that turn ideas into businesses.

Founding CEO – Reality Distortion Field and Comfort in Chaos
Idealistic founders trying to run a venture with collective leadership, without a single person in charge, find that’s the fastest way to go out of business. Speed, tempo and fearless decision-making are a startups strategic advantage. More often than not, conditions on the ground will change so rapidly that the need for immediate decisions overwhelms a collective decision process.

The founding team CEO is the first among equals in the founding team. Ironically they are almost never the most intelligent or technically astute person on the team. What sets them apart from the rest of the team is that they can project a fearless reality distortion field that they use to recruit, fund raise, pivot and position the company. They are the ultimate true believers in the company and have the vision, passion and skill to communicate why this seemingly crazy idea will work and change the world.

In addition, the founding CEO thrives operating in chaos and uncertainty. They deal with the daily crisis of product development and acquiring early customers.  And as the reality of product development and customer input collide, the facts change so rapidly that the original well-thought-out product plan becomes irrelevant. While the rest of the team is focused on their specific jobs, the founding CEO is trying to solve a complicated equation where almost all the variables are unknown – unknown customers, unknown features that will make those customers buy, unknown pricing, unknown demand creation activities that will get them into your sales channel, etc.

They’re biased for action and they don’t wait around for someone else to tell them what to do. Great founding CEO’s live for these moments.

Henry V

FIgure out who you are
Many founding teams fail because they’ve never had the conversation about founder, founding team and founding CEO.  Spend the time and take stock of who’s on the journey with you.

Lessons Learned

  • Founder, Founding team, Founding CEO all have word “founder” in them but have different roles
  • Founder has the initial idea. May or may not be on the founding team or have a leadership role
  • Founding team – complementary skills – builds the company
  • Founding CEO – reality distortion field and comfort in chaos – leads the company

Listen to this post here:

Download the podcast here

An MVP is not a Cheaper Product, It’s about Smart Learning

A minimum viable product (MVP) is not always a smaller/cheaper version of your final product. Defining the goal for a MVP can save you tons of time, money and grief.

Drones over the Heartland
I ran into a small startup at Stanford who wants to fly Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) with a Hyper-spectral camera over farm fields to collect hyper-spectral images. These images would be able to tell farmers how healthy their plants were, whether there were diseases or bugs, whether there was enough fertilizer, and enough water. (The camera has enough resolution to see individual plants.) Knowing this means farms can make better forecasts of how much their fields will produce, whether they should treat specific areas for pests, and put fertilizer and water only where it was needed.drone over farm

(Drones were better than satellites because of higher resolution and the potential for making more passes over the fields, and better than airplanes because of lower cost.)

All of this information would help farmers increase yields (making more money) and reduce costs by using less water and fertilizer/chemicals but only applying where it was needed.

Their plan was to be a data service provider in an emerging business called “precision agriculture.” They would go out to a farmer fields on a weekly basis, fly the drones, collect and process the data and then give it to the farmers in an easy understandable form.

Customer Discovery on Farms
I don’t know what it is about Stanford, but this was the fourth or fifth startup I’ve seen in precision agriculture that used drones, robotics, high-tech sensors, etc.  This team got my attention when they said, “Let us tell you about our conversations with potential customers.”  I listened, and as they described their customer interviews, it seemed like they had found, that – yes, farmers do understand that not being able to see what was going on in detail on their fields was a problem – and yes, – having data like this would be great – in theory.

So the team decided that this felt like a real business they wanted to build.  And now they were out raising money to build a prototype minimum viable product (MVP.) All good.  Smart team, real domain experts in hyper-spectral imaging, drone design, good start on customer discovery, beginning to think about product/market fit, etc.

Lean is Not an Engineering Process
They showed me their goals and budget for their next step. What they wanted was a happy early customer who recognized the value of their data and is willing to be an evangelist.  Great goal.

They concluded that the only way to get a delighted early customer was to build a minimum viable product (MVP). They believed that the MVP needed to, 1) demonstrate a drone flight, 2) make sure their software could stitch together all the images of a field, and then 3) present the data to the farmer in a way he could use it.

And they logically concluded that the way to do this was to buy a drone, buy a hyper-spectral camera, buy the software for image processing, spend months of engineering time integrating the camera, platform and software together, etc.  They showed me their barebones budget for doing all this. Logical.

And wrong.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
The team confused the goal of the MVP, (seeing if they could find a delighted farmer who would pay for the data) with the process of getting to the goal.  They had the right goal but the wrong MVP to test it.  Here’s why.

The teams’ hypothesis was that they could deliver actionable data that farmers would pay for.  Period.  Since the startup defined itself as a data services company, at the end of the day, the farmer couldn’t care less whether the data came from satellites, airplanes, drones, or magic as long as they had timely information.

That meant that all the work about buying a drone, a camera, software and time integrating it all was wasted time and effort – now. They did not need to test any of that yet. (There’s plenty of existence proofs that low cost drones can be equipped to carry cameras.) They had defined the wrong MVP to test first. What they needed to spend their time is first testing is whether farmers cared about the data.

So I asked, “Would it be cheaper to rent a camera and plane or helicopter, and fly over the farmers field, hand process the data and see if that’s the information farmers would pay for?  Couldn’t you do that in a day or two, for a tenth of the money you’re looking for?”  Oh…

ShortcutThey thought about it for a while and laughed and said, “We’re engineers and we wanted to test all the cool technology, but you want us to test whether we first have a product that customers care about and whether it’s a business.   We can do that.”

Smart team.  They left thinking about how to redefine their MVP.

Lessons Learned

  • A minimum viable product is not always a smaller/cheaper version of your final product
  • Think about cheap hacks to test the goal
  • Great founders keep their eye on the prize

Listen to the post here

Or download the podcast here

Your Computer May Already be Hacked – NSA Inside?

In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
George Orwell

In Russia, President Putin’s office just stopped using PC’s and switched to typewriters.  What do they know that we don’t?

Perhaps it’s Intel NSA inside.


For those of you who haven’t kept up, the National Security Agency (NSA’s) Prism program has been in the news. Prism provides the NSA with access to data on the servers of Microsoft, Google, Facebook, etc, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, etc.

Prism is just a part of the NSA’s larger mass electronic surveillance program that covers every possible path someone might use to communicate; tapping raw data as it flows through fiber optic cables and Internet peering points, copying the addressees on all letters you physically mail, all credit card purchases, your phone calls and your location (courtesy your smart phone.)Slide03

All hell broke loose when Edward Snowden leaked all this to press.

Given my talks on the Secret History of Silicon Valley I was interviewed on NPR about the disclosure that the NSA said they had a new capability that tripled the amount of Skype video calls being collected through Prism. Like most Americans I said, “I didn’t remember getting the memo that the 4th amendment to our constitution had been cancelled.”

But while the interviewer focused on the Skype revelation, I thought the most interesting part was the other claim, “that the National Security Agency already had pre-encryption stage access to email on Outlook.”  Say what??  They can see the plaintext on my computer before I encrypt it? That defeats any/all encryption methods. How could they do that?

Bypass Encryption
While most outside observers think the NSA’s job is cracking encrypted messages, as the Prism disclosures have shown, the actual mission is simply to read all communications. Cracking codes is a last resort.


The NSA has a history of figuring out how to get to messages before or after they are encrypted. Whether it was by putting keyloggers on keyboards and recording the keystrokes or detecting the images of the characters as they were being drawn on a CRT.

Today every desktop and laptop computer has another way for the NSA to get inside.

Intel Inside
It’s inevitable that complex microprocessors have bugs in them when they ship. When the first microprocessors shipped the only thing you could hope is that the bug didn’t crash your computer. The only way the chip vendor could fix the problem was to physically revise the chip and put out a new version. But computer manufacturers and users were stuck if you had an old chip. After a particularly embarrassing math bug in 1994 that cost Intel $475 million, the company decided to fix the problem by allowing it’s microprocessors to load fixes automatically when your computer starts.


Starting in 1996 with the Intel P6 (Pentium Pro) to today’s P7 chips (Core i7) these processors contain instructions that are reprogrammable in what is called microcode. Intel can fix bugs on the chips by reprogramming a microprocessors microcode with a patch. This patch, called a microcode update, can be loaded into a processor by using special CPU instructions reserved for this purpose. These updates are not permanent, which means each time you turn the computer on, its microprocessor is reset to its built-in microcode, and the update needs to be applied again (through a computer’s BIOS.).

Since 2000, Intel has put out 29 microcode updates to their processors. The microcode is distributed by 1) Intel or by 2) Microsoft integrated into a BIOS or 3) as part of a Windows update. Unfortunately, the microcode update format is undocumented and the code is encrypted. This allows Intel to make sure that 3rd parties can’t make unauthorized add-ons to their chips. But it also means that no one can look inside to understand the microcode, which makes it is impossible to know whether anyone is loading a backdoor into your computer.

The Dog That Never Barked
The NSA has been incredibly thorough in nailing down every possible way to tap into communications. Yet the one company’s name that hasn’t come up as part of the surveillance network is Intel. Perhaps they are the only good guys in the entire Orwellian mess.Slide07

Or perhaps the NSA, working with Intel and/or Microsoft, have wittingly have put backdoors in the microcode updates. A backdoor is is a way of gaining illegal remote access to a computer by getting around the normal security built-in to the computer. Typically someone trying to sneak malicious software on to a computer would try to install a rootkit (software that tries to conceal the malicious code.) A rootkit tries to hide itself and its code, but security conscious sites can discover rootkits by tools that check kernel code and data for changes.

But what if you could use the configuration and state of microprocessor hardware in order to hide? You’d be invisible to all rootkit detection techniques that checks the operating system. Or what if you can make the microprocessor random number generator (the basis of encryption) not so random for a particular machine? (The NSA’s biggest coup was inserting backdoors in crypto equipment the Swiss sold to other countries.)

Rather than risk getting caught messing with everyone’s updates, my bet is that the NSA has compromised the microcode update signing keys  giving the NSA the ability to selectively target specific computers. (Your operating system ensures security of updates by checking downloaded update packages against the signing key.) The NSA then can send out backdoors disguised as a Windows update for “security.” (Ironic but possible.)

That means you don’t need backdoors baked in the hardware, don’t need Intel’s buy-in, don’t have discoverable rootkits, and you can target specific systems without impacting the public at large.

Two Can Play the Game
A few months ago these kind of discussions would have been theory at best, if not paranoia. Slide09The Prism disclosures prove otherwise – the National Security Agency has decided it needs the ability to capture all communications in all forms. Getting inside of a target computer and weakening its encryption or having access to the plaintext of encrypted communication seems likely. Given the technical sophistication of the other parts of their surveillance net, the surprise would be if they haven’t implemented a microcode backdoor.

The downside is that 1) backdoors can be hijacked by others with even worse intent. So if NSA has a microcode backdoor – who else is using it? and 2) What other pieces of our infrastructure, (routers, smartphones, military computers, satellites, etc) use processors with uploadable microcode?


And that may be why the Russian president is now using a typewriter rather than a personal computer.

Putin's TypewriterUpdate: I asked Intel:

  • Has Intel received any National Security Letters?
  • If you had received a National Security Letter would you be able to tell us that you did?
  • has Intel ever been contacted by anyone in the U.S. government about Microcode Updates or the signing keys?
  • Does anyone outside of Intel have knowledge of the Microcode Updates format or the signing keys?
  • Does anyone outside of Intel have access to the Microcode Updates or the signing key

Intel’s response from their Director of Corporate and Legal Affairs (italics mine):

“First, I have no idea whether we’ve ever received a National Security Letter and don’t intend on spending any time trying to find out.  It’s not something we would talk about in any case, regardless of the subject of your blog.

Second, the questions related microcode and the speculative portion of your blog related to our encryption of microcode and the key all seem to focus around one question:  Do we have backdoors available as a result of our microcode download encryption scheme?
The answer is NO.  Only Intel has that knowledge.”

Update 2:  A much better description of the problem was actually presented a year ago at Defcon

if you can’t see the presentation above click here

Listen to the post here:

Or download the podcast here

Don’t Give Away Your Board Seats

I had a group of ex-students out to the ranch who were puzzling over a dilemma – they’ve been working hard on their startup, were close at finding product/market fit and had been approached by Oren, a potential angel investor. Oren had been investing since he left Google four years ago and was insisting on not only a board seat, but he wanted to be chairman of the board. The team wasn’t sure what to do.

I listened for a while as they went back and forth about whether he should be chairman. Then I asked, “Why should he even be on your board at all?”  I got looks of confusion and then they said, “We thought all investors get a board seat. At least that’s what Oren told us.”

Uh oh.  Red flags just appeared in front of my eyes. I realized it was time for the board of directors versus advisors talk.

Roles for Financial Investors
I pointed out that there are four roles a financial investor can take in your company: a board member, a board observer (a non-voting attendee of board meetings,) an advisory board member, or no active role. I explained that as a non-public company there was no legal requirement for any investor to have a board seat. Period. That said, professional venture capital firms that lead a Series investment round usually make their investment contingent on a board seat. And it sounded like if successful, their startup was going to need additional funding past an angel round to scale.

In the last few years, it’s become more common for angel investors to ask for a board seat, but I suggested they really want to think hard about whether that’s something they need to do now.

“But how do we get the advice we need? We’re getting to the point that we have lots of questions about strategic choices and relationships. Isn’t that what a board is for?  That’s what we learned in business school.”

What’s a board for?
I realized that while my students had been through the theory it was time for some practice. So I told them, “At the end of the day your board is not your friend. You may like them and they might like you, but they have a fiduciary duty to the shareholders, not the founders. (And they have a fiduciary responsibility to their own limited partners.) That means the board is your boss, and they have an obligation to optimize results for the company. You may be the ex-employees one day if they think you’re holding the company back.”Board Fight

I let that sink it for a bit and then asked, “How long have you worked with Oren?”

I kind of expected the answer, but still was a bit disappointed. “Well we met him twice, once over coffee and then over lunch.”

“You want to think hard about appointing someone to be your boss just because they’re going to write you what in the scheme of things will be a small check.”

Now they looked really confused. “But we need people with great advice who we can help us with our next moves.”

Advisory Board
“Do you know what an advisory board is?” I asked.  From the look on their faces, I realized they didn’t so I continued, “Advisors are just like they sound. They provide advice, introductions, investment, and visual theater – (proof that you can attract A+ talent.) An advisor that provides a combination of at least two of these is useful.”

A “board” of advisors is not a formal legal entity like a board of directors. That means that they can’t fire you or have any control of your company. While some founders like to meet their advisors in quarterly advisory board meetings, most companies don’t really have their advisory board meet as group. You can connect with them with them on an “as needed” basis. While you traditionally compensate advisors by giving them stock, I suggest you ask them to match any grant with an equal investment in the company – so they have “skin in the game.”

shutterstock_70458487Equally important is that an advisory board is a great farm team for potential outside board members. It allows you to work with them over an extended period of time and see the quality of their advice and how it’s delivered. If they are world-class contributors, when you raise a Series A round and you need to bring in an outside board member, picking someone you’ve worked with on your advisory board is ideal.”

Finally I suggested that Oren’s request to be chairman of a five-person startup seemed to be coming from someone looking to upgrade their resume, not to optimize their startup.

No Outsiders Until a Series A
As we wrapped up, I offered that there was no “right answer” (see Brad Feld’s post) but they should think about their board strategy as a balance between the amount of control given to outsiders versus the great advice outsiders can bring. I suggested that if they could pull it off they might want to consider keeping the board to the two founders for now, surrounded by great advisors which may include their seed investors. Then when they got a Series A, they’ll probably add one or two professional VC’s on the board with one great advisor as an outside board member.

As they left they were going through the experienced execs they knew who they were going to take out for coffee.

Lessons Learned

  • Your board of directors is your boss
  • Your advisory board is your friend
  • Not all investors get board seats, it’s your choice
  • Date advisors, marry board members

Listen to the post here

or download the podcast here


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 136,428 other followers