Top 10 things to consider if you want to build an effective team in an early-stage startup
We’re coming up on the 4-year mark from the founding of Avertro. We’ve made good team decisions. But we’ve also made a number of mistakes.
What follows is honest and blunt.
Reflecting back, here are the top 10 things to consider if you want to build an effective team in an early-stage startup:
- Find people who say what they are going to do, and actually do it. Sounds simple. Obvious, even. But across my 20+ years of professional experience, 90% of the working population is incapable of doing this. The most effective people consistently and relentlessly do what they say they’re going to do without needing anyone to remind them.
- The best team members don’t sit around waiting to be told what to do. They proactively do what they believe needs doing. This is not to say everyone should be a cowboy that does what they feel like. It’s mostly about seeing what’s needed, getting alignment and agreement with others that need to be involved with the decision, and then getting on with it.
- Culture isn’t just about being a “great place to work”. Many hear the large corporates virtue signalling how “cool” they are, and mistakenly think they just need to make their place of work fun. And all about diversity. And respect. Yes, these are important. But also, you actually have to get things done. Companies that forget about being able to do and produce valuable things, end up being ineffective.
- Promote from within first. I’ve always believed in giving people the opportunity to step up, and out from their existing roles. It’s how we deal with gaps if people leave the team. Other team members are given opportunities to step up, and are rewarded for it when they meet the mark.
- Reward people who are proactive about getting better. The buzzword you have probably heard used to reference this is “growth mindset”. Startups rarely have the ability to hire an army of very expensive people who have 20+ years of industry experience. We have to figure lots of things out ourselves, including things our team doesn’t necessarily have experience doing. The ones who have a growth mindset and are proactive about getting better, are usually the ones who can figure things out and will grow with the company. Those that can’t, get left behind or will find others promoted or hired in over them.
- Honest direct feedback is important. Don’t “shit sandwich” it. Most importantly, tell people what exactly isn’t working, and try to find ways to address those things directly. Together as a team.
- Don’t over-optimise for external optics. A wise mentor told me this when I started Avertro. I didn’t fully understand what they meant until recently. Optimising for how the world views the team and its people from outside-in means that unless you’ve 100% got the best people, there will be members who underperform because you may have overlooked shortcomings by focusing on other things that may not be as important to a high-performance culture.
- If someone thinks of themselves primarily as a “strategist”, they don’t belong in an early-stage startup. Because all they’re capable of producing are presentations. They’ll subsequently inform you that they need a budget to go hire someone else to actually do the work. Tell them to go work for a consulting firm. It’s where they belong.
- People who prioritise their job title above what they achieve don’t belong in a startup. A few of our ex-team members spent a lot of time advocating for a change in job title, even when they didn’t deserve it. Managing that kind of person is exhausting.
- People who don’t care about equity and ownership will leave within a year or two. Which is ok. Some don’t value ownership and are in it for the pay check. Meaning they’re always looking for whoever can pay them the highest salary. You can hire these people. But they’re the last ones you should think about promoting or giving more responsibility to. Just let them do the job they signed up for.
Ian Yip is the founder and CEO of Avertro, a venture-backed cybersecurity software company. Avertro CyberHQ® is leadership’s command centre for cybersecurity.