How to build a winning startup team?

Ott Niggulis

"Team is everything" – you’ll hear that from investors, startup founders, advisors, and everyone else involved with the startup scene. But when you dig deeper and ask what are the criteria they look for in teams, you’ll probably hear something emotional like “Look for the spark in their eyes” or “Look for hustlers” or “Great teams only have A-players”. If team really is everything, then why do we still rely on emotion and guesswork when building teams?

At Teamscope we know from our own experience that intuition alone is not enough. When we first build our team by simply bringing together people with the required skills, we failed miserably, and we learned from it. After analyzing over a hundred startup teams and going through hundreds of academic papers on group dynamics, we composed a list of 10 tips for building winning startup teams.

Hire based on values, not skills

The first fundamental difference between a team and just a group of people is purpose – teams need to have a common goal they all want to achieve. But how can you agree on a common goal if you value different things in life? Take the time to understand what really motivates your team and only hire people whose core values match with your team members. Forcing someone to act against their intrinsic values will result in conflict that you cannot solve, so make sure to get this one right.

Establish a strong core

Studies have found that teams where at least a couple of people have strong connections to each other are much more stable and cohesive. It’s enough if only two people have some history together – that will form the core of your team and help establish trust in the crucial early stages of team development.

Get someone more experienced on board

Optimism and some arrogance are valuable traits for a startup founder, but be honest about your limitations – if you lack management experience it’s crucial that you get someone on board who has managed people and built something before. Technical problems are easy and can be solved by googling, but people problems can’t, so make sure you have someone to talk to.

Diversity in most aspects is great

Startups are about looking at things in new ways, so you want to have as many different perspectives as possible. If you are all the same age, went to the same school and hang out with the same people then your view of things is probably quite limited. Diversity in age, gender, ethnicity, experience, and education is priceless if you can build an open and collaborative culture.

Diversity in some aspects is not so great

If diversity in demographics and experience is great, then diversity in some personality characteristics can be quite harmful. First, watch out for people who are much more conservative and traditional than the rest of the team. Startups are about breaking norms and doing things in a new way, so excessive conformity and obedience will only slow you down and cause unwanted tension. Second, be careful when hiring someone much more individualistic and competitive than others – at best, this may drive your team forward, but most likely will simply ruin collaboration and undermine trust in your team.

One bad apple can ruin the barrel

A large organization can normally handle underperforming and difficult employees, but in startups, the effect of every team member is disproportionately high. Even one unreliable team member will throw your whole project off track and one overly critical and negative person will ruin the mood of everyone else. There is a small chance that your difficult coworker is the next Steve Jobs, but most likely they are just an a-hole, and I believe it’s not worth the effort.

Establish norms early on

It does not matter how good you are at selecting team members, you will inevitably have conflicts. Take time to understand the communication and collaboration preferences of your team and establish rules for avoiding and resolving conflicts early on. For example – if some of your team members tend to be overly challenging, establish a rule that you speak in turns and do not interrupt each other when making important decisions.

Focus on building trust

An important characteristic of a great team is that team members can criticize each other’s work openly. If team members feel they can trust each other and the team leader, they should have no problems with giving or accepting honest feedback. If this does not happen, you are doing it wrong (criticizing the person, not the task) or you have failed to build a secure environment for the team.

Respect the personal preferences of your team

The way we like to work and interact with others is largely determined by our personality, and personality cannot be changed. This, of course, does not mean we should categorize people and set artificial boundaries – for example, introverts can easily be the life of the party and shine on stage, but they normally just don’t want to. Some people need more space and quiet, others need social interaction to be energized. Some are intrinsically driven and organized, others need some external pressure to get things done. Respect that and build an environment where everyone can achieve their best.

Fill in the missing piece

Your role as team leader is to make sure that everyone else can be their best, and that often means you need to get out of your comfort zone. Figure out what are the things that your team is not great at, and become great at it yourself. If the team needs support with planning and organizing, figure out how to do that. If they are not great at networking, helps build the connections they need. Lead by example, even if that makes you uncomfortable.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about teams, but also a lot we do know, and even simple things can have a major impact on your team performance. Take time to learn about team dynamics, because team really is everything.

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