Building Your Team
Aileen Gemma Smith, WE NYC Mentor
Aileen Gemma Smith - Vizalytics Technology

Startups are hard work. For all the romance and idealism involved in a startup, folks often forget about the other side of the equation: Hard work that does not end.

Hard work. Lather, rinse, repeat. More hard work. Lather, rinse, repeat. Elevate the standard. Lather, rinse, repeat. Win another client. Now scale and elevate your standard again. That’s why we talk about a startup being a marathon and why discipline is an essential ingredient.

Members of successful startup teams embody both fierce commitment and relentless drive. They see the opportunities and responsibilities of their roles and are energized by the level of effort needed to move things forward. They want to raise the bar and to innovate. They are creative, driven and determined. They have something to prove. They want to help you win.

With limited time and limited resources, you have to hire very carefully. The candidate whose main focus is compensation or title is probably not the lasting candidate. Your first hires are the people who believe in the “why” of what you are doing and want to execute on the “how.” Having a small team means dealing with many unknowns. The need for adaptability is a given. Not everyone works well in an unpredictable, fluid environment. Look for execution-driven folks who want to dig in and do.

For all the romance and idealism involved in a startup, folks often forget about the other side of the equation: Hard work that does not end.

Aileen Smith

I am often asked “But how do I find people to help? How do I find people who will work with me if I am just starting out – and who will do it at below market rates?”

In reply, I challenge you to ask yourself: why do you believe in what you do? If you, as a founder, can’t explain how much your work matters, if you can’t create an aura around the opportunity and potential of your startup, then why would someone commit to joining you? Then you need to ask the people you ask to join you what excites them about your company and the difference your work makes.

These hard questions and challenging realities are part and parcel of being a startup. Never be afraid of asking them. The transparency and intensity will be offputting to some, but your goal is to get the right people around you. Never apologize for your vision. Some of our most committed team members worked pro bono initially because the “why” of our work matters deeply to them and they want to be here for the long haul.

By definition, startup culture requires a fierceness of character and a willingness to engage in hard work. And not busy-work but rather critical-thinking work: taking the task and deliverable beyond the context of the assignment, making it the best it can possibly be and then pushing that line again.

This is not for everyone, and this is why your team matters. In your journey toward building a company, you have to think carefully about who you surround yourself with. Do they want to be part of the team because they believe and they want to work hard or because it sounds like fun? Don’t hire for the latter and be wary of candidates who are starry-eyed about startups.

Look for humility, a strong work ethic and a sense of commitment.

Those qualities will last for the long term. Look for doers, not talkers. And absolutely assess for folks who want to do more with less. The candidate who tells you they need a team of five before they can meaningfully execute is a manager, not a doer. The candidate who says a task is below them will not be a fit. Above all, look for candidates who are hungry to learn and who won’t settle for the easy path in getting things done. Avoid ping-pong players, by which I mean employees who punt tasks to someone else because “‘it’s not my role.”

Don’t be afraid of being blunt. Remember as you build a company, five years out the person who will care about the outcome and the growth is you – and you alone. Work with people who share that commitment and who demonstrate respect for the work of the founding team has put in place. A team is a group who rows together. Where everyone owns the outcome and each person is driven to make a difference.

Yes, the work is hard and the hours long. But dedicated startup team members are working together because we see a greater good and share a long-term goal. When you find those amazing people who are committed and relentless, who believe and who execute, you’ll be amazed at the energy and the spirit in the room.

Tough times will come and go, but teammates with toughness of character and grit will stay for the long term and grow with you.