When starting your business, you undoubtedly will look for help. Even when you have experience and knowledge of your industry, there will be areas in which you’re lacking the insight and skill you need — not to mention, pulling together a team helps keep your workload manageable and improves your overall product and operational capacity.
But who should be on your team? Obviously, hiring people who have skills you lack is important, but what is the ideal mix of talents that will ensure your business gets off the ground, and will help you get the attention of investors? As it turns out, many investors are looking for a specific mix when they evaluate startups for a potential investment, and take the team you assembled into account when making your decisions. This means that you can’t simply bring in your friends and family just because they want to “help,” but that you need to identify the individuals who will bring the most to the table in the long term.
So who are those people? They usually fall into several categories, and depending on your focus, you may need one or more individuals in each category.
Your chief technologist should be smart and hungry. Early-stage companies are always, always at the “make it or break it” stage. There is simply no rest for the weary and your technologist will have to shoulder a huge portion of that burden. Without this person, there is no product. You need someone whose intelligence exceeds your own and whose hunger to be the driving force behind bringing a product from concept to creation is overwhelming.
Pick a product perfectionist. You might have a vision. Your technologist can build it. But you need a product person who understands the topography of the market — precisely how your product is going to fit, what will drive demand, how you can iterate to generate and harness excitement. You need that person to be a forecaster, both a realist and a dreamer, who can give you reasonable assurances about the right direction to take the product and company at different points in time. Alternatively, just like finding the right cofounder, pursue a complementary hire (e.g. if you’re the dreamer, find a pragmatist).
Don’t hire people you don’t need. From the very outset and for some considerable time afterward, early startups are quivering on the brink. That’s perfectly appropriate. While certain hires are buoyancy later in a company’s development, there’s no doubt that in the beginning phases, they’re ballast you don’t need. That’s why you usually do not need to hire a general counsel, finance lead or PR person until you hit a more stable patch.
You need a builder.
The process-oriented person would, in turn, loop in a fourth team member with the technical skills to actually build the product. Especially in the technology world, this builder would be a developer or engineer. After acquiring this employee with technical expertise, you now have an idea, research and information backing up that idea, the shell of a product, a system in place to get the product built and the technical skills to do so.
The Sales Animal
Startups with brilliant ideas often forget that someone needs to sell them. Having a strong salesperson on the founding team helps minimize the risk.
In case you are not a technical co-founder, don’t get discouraged, there are plenty of ways you may contribute! Overall, in a start-up, there is a lot to do other than just code. Developing code creates a product, but developing a product and business often times does not center around the code. Therefore, focus on what you can do to strengthen the work of your counter-part by making every other aspect of the business stronger. There are so many things you can do; don’t think of it as “adding value” — you can be, in fact, pure, distilled value.
– User experience & product design: Use the product, play with the product, figure out what works and what doesn’t. Talk to users, get their feedback. Really think about who your users are and make sure that you and your partner are addressing them and their needs (accessibility? mobility? security? other stuff?) in the development of your technology.
– Roadmap/release planning: With your partner(s), sit down and hash out your general road map, release schedules, targeted features per release. As a startup, this is likely to be loose and you may find that you revisit it every few days – but generating and keeping a general schedule gives you all something to work from.
– User interaction: Man the tech support email account, accept and validate bug reports, prioritize feature requests, keep up with the Twitter feed, the Facebook fan page, banter a little–answer questions, be nice, make users feel good/smart, manage their expectations. It really only takes an hour a day to keep up with, but it’s a garden that needs tending and can really pay off in a very loyal user base. If your tech is good, but your users think your startup’s a jerk, they’ll bounce to the next sexy thing as soon as it arrives (many do that anyway, but if they remember how awesome you are, they’ll be back!).
– Test! Test everything you can. Use the heck out of your product. You can do a lot of useful manual testing, you also probably have the ability to learn a little bit of scripting to automate and/or bang on the product even harder. If you don’t already know how, ask your technical cofounder to give you a tutorial on your source control system and show you how to build the software and/or how to deploy a test environment. Report bugs, prioritize them together, track them, and verify that they’re fixed. Test on multiple environments that may consume too much Dev time. I.e., every platform possible.
– Beta programs: If you have these, run them. Solicit testers, write instructions and release notes, pull together mailing lists. Be sure to solicit feedback. Abuse Google forms.
– Localization: Localizing your product? Handle getting things translated. If you’ve got a good technical founder, they give you the string files for translation & can get you up & running with a test environment where you can run and test the your product with translated files when your translators return them.
– Stay abreast of the competition and news in your space. Know who’s doing what and when. Know which competitor’s slagging you when and where, even if you choose to ignore & high road. Don’t obsess over it, but be aware enough not to be taken unawares. Filter chaff & noise and share with your co-founder(s) as needed (this applies to all bullet-points here, actually).
– Track and manage financials: Handle accounting matters or deal with the person who does. Pay taxes, payroll, HR (if applicable), etc.
– Track and manage legal issues: Try to stay abreast of laws and regulation that effect your company. Handle meetings with lawyers, keeping the business in good standing, etc.
– Manage Biz Dev: Handle all incoming queries and meeting scheduling, from bigger fish companies sniffing you out to VC to sales calls to etc. Allow and encourage your partner to hand these off to you to manage/schedule if they get contacted directly and they believe the query’s worth pursuing. It’s likely that people will often attempt to go around you to your partner, but allow your partner to shunt initial queries to you if at all possible–be his/her umbrella all you can. If you’re in a place where you need to make rain, go make some rain.
– Manage Press Contacts: Arrange contacts with the media, help with initial drafts of messages that come from your tech team. Set up alerts and review news, gossip, and mentions related to your company on Twitter, Facebook, Google News alerts, and so on. If your product’s ready for it, keep aware of the contests related to your industry and enter your product whenever and wherever possible.
– Manage Vendors: Pay them, negotiate fees down if you’re bringing in a lot of business, evaluate new ones for new services and redundant backups for existing services.
– Write Stuff: Technical documentation, blog posts, test plans, web site updates, internal how-tos & policy docs (for sharing, potential new partners, compliance, just so’s you don’t forget, etc.), press releases, customer support FAQs, drafts of any legal docs that you may need to work with lawyers for: patents, privacy policies, terms of service, etc., PowerPoint presentations (if you absolutely, positively cannot avoid them), pretty metrics graphs to show investors, etc.
– Strategy: Managing all of the above gives you a pretty good instinct for how/where your startup should move and how quickly. You’re dealing with a lot of external and internal inputs that really help your gut guide you – you know where the market’s going, you know what your customers (say they) want, you know how your partner(s) are feeling and what he/she is capable of accomplishing in X amount of time.