How to Build a Great Startup Team

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Read more by Max Shapiro

Max Shapiro founded PeopleConnect in 2000 to help early-stage high-tech companies find the talent they need to succeed. Their clients are in technology, biotech, cleantech, apps, services, medical devices, and consumer products.

7 min read

When it comes to building a great startup team, you need access to the right talent. And for that, there’s no one better to guide you than Max Shapiro, the founder of PeopleConnect. Max launched PeopleConnect in 2000 to help early-stage high-tech companies connect with the right talent they needed to take their startup to the next level. Today, PeopleConnect’s clients are in technology, biotech, cleantech, apps, services, medical devices and consumer products.

We recently had the opportunity to interview Max on what he thinks are the key methods to building a great startup team, and here’s what he revealed to us:

Building Your Team

It may sound simplistic from the outset, but great people truly are the lifeblood of a company. They are, without a doubt, the most important and strongest asset. When talking with venture capitalists, the number one risk factor that they mention is the team. You’ve got to have people who are the smartest people in the room; even smarter than you. You want people who are team players, but the most important factor is that they are specialized and smart in areas where you are not.

These are the people who have the drive of a winner. There are going to be people who come to you and they’ve failed. They’ve got a few bumps, bruises and blemishes, but they get back up again. Look at Steve Jobs, who was fired from the company he founded, and see how he was able to rebound and transform Apple into the brand we all know and love. People like him have had their share of upsets, but they still want to give it their best.

So with that being said, what do you look for when screening candidates to join your team?

Screening Candidates

Of course you want people on your team who are incredibly bright and ambitious. But they must also be a great cultural fit. They need to be able to adapt and blend in with your company culture and the way you do things, otherwise you’ll face resistance and friction at every step.

You’ve also got to be able to “read’ people subjectively. Hiring people for your startup team is a lot like dating. If you’re getting along with someone, but there are a couple of things that you really don’t like about them or that get on your nerves, you’re probably either going to have to break it off or get used to it, because people rarely change.

Of course, by that same token, you don’t want an ideal candidate to slog through spreadsheet or go through a bunch of hoops just for policy reasons. If you like them, they’re excited and talented and it’s a good fit — go for it. Don’t let policy hold you back.
The Recruiting Process

The actual recruiting process is a bit more formal. First, you’ll need to have a structured recruitment process in place. This ensures that not only is everyone treated the same way, but it also gives you the opportunity to see everyone on a level playing field. They’re going to be talking amongst each other and judging you as well, in terms of fairness and equality of your hiring practices, so be aware that recruitment is very much a two-way street.

The one thing you want to avoid is skipping the interview process entirely, no matter how much you might like the person and find that they’re a seemingly perfect fit. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up to face some glaring issues down the line.

Remember: hire slow and fire fast!

Take the time to see how this person gets along with other members of the team, other departments, your board, and so on. Let them hang out and get to know each other casually, like over lunch, to see how things are going.

Likewise, if it’s just not working out and you’ve given them ample time to correct their mistakes, let them go. They’re not doing you any favors by staying and you’re not doing them any favors by keeping them when they obviously don’t belong.

It’s also important to balance quality with quantity when it comes to reviewing your potential candidates. Don’t be afraid to set the bar high when it comes to reviewing resumes so you aren’t wasting time with average people. Have different engineers go through a series of engineering questions so you can see that they do indeed know what they’re doing.

The Interview Process: Questions to Ask

You want to ask questions like “are you a team player?” and “why do you feel you’re a fit for this position?” but also throw some out-of-the-box questions their way too, such as “what experience did you have before you were 12 that impacted your life?” or “what have you done to improve your knowledge in the past year?”

These questions are designed to really give the person a chance to be introspective about their life and clarify where they want to go, not just in terms of being with your company, but five or ten or twenty years from now. Other great questions can include “what work are you most passionate about in your current role that you want to continue into the next one?” Find out what drives them and how they hope to continue making an impact. Even more out of the box, “tell me five words that best describe you.” What words would they use to describe themselves? You can learn a great deal about how a person views themselves and how they fit into the overall vision you have for your company, by the way they answer these kinds of questions.

Sell Your Company!

Not literally, of course, but it’s important to remember that the candidate is evaluating you as much as you are them. That’s why you have to show your passion and the challenges you’re facing. If you tell a candidate that everything’s fine and rosy, first of all, they won’t believe you and second of all, they won’t feel challenged and therefore, there’s no reason for them to put in a 60 to 70 hour week helping you to grow your dream. You’ve got to pitch your company to them just as you would pitch it to an angel investor!

What Happens After You Make an Offer?

Even once you’ve made the job offer, your job still isn’t done. You have to continue to convince this incredibly bright, talented, motivated person that your company is the one they deserve to be at. Don’t hesitate to back this up with all of the tools you have at your disposal. That means asking your investors to take calls with the candidates, asking mutual connections to “backchannel” them and hype up your company, and otherwise make it clear that this is the place they should be.

If you have any doubts, you can always start that person out in a contract position until you are ready to make a decision.

Build Your Dream Team

The bottom line when it comes to building a great startup team is that it’s not done overnight. It’s done carefully and methodically, but also done in such a way that everyone can be involved. The people who are right for the job and for whom the job is a great fit will naturally float to the top and be easy to spot.

It’s then up to you and other leaders in your company to further shape and refine them into a better version of themselves that continues to nurture the startup’s vision until it grows roots and can continue to sustain itself, as well as grow and thrive.

Max Shapiro is a longtime friend of the network that operates within our larger ecosystem of partners. As a benefit of membership, Founders Network founders receive 10% off PeopleConnects services. This 2 minute video will give you a good idea about PeopleConnect’s services. 

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Read more by Max Shapiro

Max Shapiro founded PeopleConnect in 2000 to help early-stage high-tech companies find the talent they need to succeed. Their clients are in technology, biotech, cleantech, apps, services, medical devices, and consumer products.