Before I started my company, I used to search for teammates at networking events. This is where I met Ahmed. He was well known in tech circles. He taught at a local university. His reputation preceded him, and I wanted him on my side.
It took almost a dozen phone calls and messages before he decided he was in and became my business partner. I was (and still am) someone with big dreams — and Ahmed’s technical expertise and grounded attitude provided the perfect balance.
Without Ahmed, and the rest of the team we built, the company wouldn’t have survived. And that’s not just a nice sentiment. Only a quarter of businesses make it past 15 years, and two out of 10 fail in their first two years of operations. These are familiar numbers to most of us; what’s less familiar, is why.
There’s No ‘I’ In Team, But There Is A Chance At Survival
Steve Jobs has been credited with stating, “When you’re in a startup, the first 10 people will determine whether the company succeeds or not.”
Employees, strategic partners and even investors can contribute to the downfall of your startup (subscription required). This is why spending the time to find the right people can save you.
When Ahmed and I started building the team, we took the same strategy that we take now: passion over skills. We met dozens of people, and while we were focused on finding people with the skill sets we needed, our main focus was finding people who could drive the growth and innovation of the company. Were they willing to learn? Take risks? Take an active role in bigger decisions?
Research shows (subscription required) that “60% of new ventures fail due to problems with the team.” So take time to get it right.
Listen to how someone talks. Are you getting a sense of passion for the company? Ask them where they think the future of the company lies. If they’re really passionate, they’ll have spent at least 20 seconds thinking about it.
Even if an individual is referred to you, do your own checks. We once hired someone who came highly recommended — smart, capable, experienced. But he wasn’t a team player or committed to the company’s vision. When you’re interviewing, notice if they mention “me” or “we” in their examples. One indicates a team player; the other doesn’t.
The Right Team Vs. The Wrong Team
You’ve found the best of the best. The most-wanted talent around. But instead of working together, they’re squabbling. Ideas are brought up and shot down. No one’s on the same page.
Where startups often go wrong is prioritizing hard skills over soft. In a study (subscription required) of 95 startups in the Netherlands, it was found that “experience alone was not enough to make a team thrive.” Of the 95 startups studied, groups that had high levels of passion and collective vision but average levels of experience were more innovative, had more satisfied customers and foresaw the growth in sales. The groups with more experience but lower levels of passion and aligned vision were less successful.
At school, we’re told to follow our passion. It turns out, it’s not such bad advice (take this with a grain of salt).
As we started mapping out Libya’s addresses, we hired data entry teams across the country. One particular team we found, which came highly recommended (read the previous section on why that’s not always great), had a lot of experience with international organizations. So we took a chance.
We found that they were resistant to our way of doing things. The more we asked of them, the more empty excuses we came up with. While the other data entry teams we hired prospered, this team slowed the process down. Why? They weren’t aligned with our vision. They didn’t care.
You can always train someone to get better, but you can’t force a vision on someone. In the hiring process, go beyond the skill set and explore their own values and mission. Do they understand why your company does what it does?
The more your team believes in your vision, the more enthusiastic they may be in sharing knowledge, taking initiative and collaborating toward that shared goal.
Ask prospective hires what they know about the company. Listen to their language. Is it positive and future-focused or clinical and lacking? If you’re looking to check the chemistry, try setting up group interviews or bringing a team member into an interview to meet them.
There’s been a shift in focus from hard skills to soft. If you want your startup to survive, don’t underestimate the emotions and passions that drive your potential team members.