Ask any experienced entrepreneur or investor ‘what makes a successful business?’ and they will frequently answer ‘a great team’. The right people – and the relationships between them – will make or break a startup. So if you are starting a new business how do you find and build a great team?

It all starts with you

The first step is to honestly assess your own skill set and how this could contribute to a successful start-up team.

A start-up business needs the right mix of skills to move the business forward. In their excellent book, the Beermat Entrepreneur, Mike Southon and Chris West highlighted five core roles for startups:

  1. Lead entrepreneur – ability to drive the business forward, communicate the vision, motivate the team
  2. Technical innovator – ability to develop the product to respond to market and business needs
  3. Sales and marketing – ability to focus on customers, promote the business and win sales for the business
  4. Finance – manage the budgets and cash flow, help raise investment
  5. Operations – maximising the efficiency of the organisation and its administration and processes

These roles may be played by several individuals but could also be covered by just two or three people with complementary skills and a few well-chosen peers, advisors or mentors. Very few founders or teams will have all the necessary skills at the outset but the best will learn on the job and progressively add key people when needed.

There is no magic number of team members for a startup – though most commentators would suggest two or three people are ideal. Two founders can bring a balance of skills but at times this means there is no clear leader; sometimes a team of three can force one person to take the lead and result in faster decision making.

Starting a business is tough for anyone and solo founders can have an even more difficult time if they have no one to bounce ideas off.

Although there is no dream team number, the consensus is that a team has a greater chance of success.

Core team

“Nobody’s perfect – but a team can be.” Dr Meredith Belbin

Having taken an honest look at yourself and the skills you have and do not have, the next step is to find one or two other people with complementary skills to join you. Some suggestions to help you to find these people include:

  • Start with a clear view of what skills, experience, and networks your business needs and what culture and attitudes you want
  • Spread the word through your network
  • Think about people who you already know: people from university, current and former workmates and associates
  • Build your network through attending relevant startup or tech events, things like Escape the City if you are in their patch, check out co-working spaces, Meetups or online groups
  • Speak with key people at network hubs e.g. Industry Associations, Business Advisors, Incubator and Accelerator Directors etc.

Once you spot potential members of your core team, issues to consider include:

  • The beer test – would you enjoy sitting down for a beer with this person? Would you enjoy working with them?
  • Fit with the skills, experience and networks the business needs
  • Attitude, passion, motivation and fit with business vision and culture
  • Financial position – are they able to invest or at least feed themselves whilst the business gets started?
  • Ability to get things done is a startup environment rather than a big company environment

Think very carefully before going into business with friends or family, it can complicate things and consider what would happen to the relationships if the business goes wrong; think first about what skills are needed for the business.

It pays to conduct some due diligence to check the person out – go through their CV and history and conduct a thorough online search – at the end of the day do you really trust this person?

Also consider timing, you might know some great people but it might be best for them to stay in the day jobs, save some cash and moonlight on the startup and jump ship once a key milestone is achieved or until they just need to be ‘knee deep’ in the startup.

The graphic below from Steve Blank and Tom Kosnik of Stanford University offers an interesting and useful perspective based on two key dimensions: Do I trust them? Do I enjoy them?

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So watch out for bozos, pick great people to work with, keep learning and enjoy the startup business journey.

Colin Graham, Causeway Innovation.

7 August 2014

Acknowledgement: This is an updated version of my article originally published by the Innovation Centre Sunshine Coast.