Building Your Startup Team: Complementarity and Chemistry

Most professional venture investors believe the best predictor of startup success is the quality of the team. Good teams can and do fail, but as team quality drops below “awesome,” the chances for success drop very fast. Thus the cliché that most investors will gravitate to an “A” team with a “B” opportunity over a “B” team with an “A” opportunity.

There are a lot of reasons team quality is so critical to startup success. The incredibly stressful startup environment is the biggest. Startup teams need to accomplish difficult goals with minimal resources in terms of time, capital, and people. Additional stress accrues as outside forces – competitors, markets, technologies, etc. – evolve and force teams to make significant adjustments, often including basic “pivots” (business model, for example) on the fly.

If the extraordinary stresses of the startup environment explain the importance of getting the team right, they also offer a clue to what makes a superior startup team. At the foundational level, what separates the superior startup team from the merely good startup team is complementarity and chemistry.

Complementarity is pretty straightforward in concept, if not always in execution. Within the confines of available resources (financial) and the constraints of team chemistry (more later), you need to make sure the team includes top-tier players at the mission critical startup tasks (i.e. the tasks that need accomplishing in the current round of funding), as well as the flexibility to successfully “wing it” with respect to important ancillary functions.

The trick to building a complimentary team lies in recognition of, and dealing with, the well-established HR principle that when people get to choose who they work with – or who works for them – they tend to choose people like themselves. Now, if you are a founder, and thus most likely very confident of your own near-perfection, that might not seem like a problem. If you’ve got perfection, why not clone it if you can?

Consider if Apple had been founded not by Jobs and Woz, but by Jobs and … Jobs. If you know the Apple story, you know what a catastrophe a Jobs/Jobs founding Apple team would likely have been.

The bottom line is that however perfectly suited you may be for leading your startup to fame and fortune, building a team of clones is seldom the best way to go about it. Instead, look for people with different skill sets. And as much or even more so, different personalities and perspectives on business, technology, and life. The most successful startups – even those like Apple in the years after Jobs returned from exile that were dominated by a leading personality – build leadership teams with diverse skills, experiences, perspectives, and personalities. Just ask Tim Cook.

And that leads to the second, and harder to execute, aspect of assembling a superior startup team: chemistry.

It’s not enough to assemble a team that “covers the waterfront” in terms of skills, experience and personality. You need to make sure those folks can also form very strong bonds with each other (thus the “chemistry” analogy). Because in the constantly changing world of the startup, relationships between key players on the team are going to be under almost constant stress as company circumstances evolve and people have to adjust to changing opportunities and challenges. As anyone who studies morale in the military will tell you, folks in foxholes are motivated more by their loyalty to the folks around them than to “the cause” as such.

On that last point, one of my favorite quotes from an entrepreneur came when he was asked what he would tell his team at the beginning of his next startup journey. He replied: “Folks, we are going on a very long and difficult journey. On this journey, we will carry our wounded – and shoot the deserters.”

The quality of the team has long been the most important factor for most venture capital investors, for good reasons. As you think about assembling your team, particularly in the early days, don’t make the mistake of hiring folks because they look like you, or because they are a perfect skills fit. Look more for folks who compliment your skills and personality – and that look like the kind of people you want on your side when the going gets very tough. Because it almost certainly will, likely many times.


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