How to Build a Startup Team

No matter what type of business you are starting, what matters most are the people you bring on board to execute your vision. When we see entrepreneurs come up with great ideas (and we see many), we hope that they also remember that while an idea is key, it won’t go anywhere without the right team in place. So, today we’d like to highlight a few main points to consider when building your startup team.

As Malcolm Gladwell says, “nobody accomplishes success by themselves.” As entrepreneurs we need to recognize the importance of having a solid support system. Large corporations have advisory teams to ensure that they stay on track; until you grow your empire, you need to create your own “advisory” team in-house. Here we list three aspects of building a startup team that are essential to the success of your organization: Team Characteristics, Team Roles, and Finding Your Team.

Team Characteristics:

There are three essential attributes that members of your team must have: talent, passion and dedication.


    Each team member needs to have talent – they all need to own their abilities and focus on their assets. Your team does not need to be comprised of jacks-of-all-trades. What you need are individual team members who are masters of their own craft. But while you are small and lean, take advantage of everyone skills; if someone on your team is a great writer, have them take charge of your press releases and marketing content. Just like in basketball, there are the various positions because each team member has their own set of skills. Find your forward and your point guard.
  • Passion: Each team member needs to be passionate about what he or she is doing and the goal of the project. If your developer knows ruby-on-rails but doesn’t care about the application you are creating, then there is no guarantee that their work will be as precise or consistent as you need – or that they will go the extra mile. People do their best work when they care about what they are doing. The passion must be there to excel. Startup’s can be stressful and there may be many times when people want to quit. If your team members are not passionate about the goal of the organization, what’s going to keep them from leaving?
  • Dedication: At a typical organization, dedication of its employees is important. But at a startup, it’s critical. Members of the team must be dedicated to the mission and be willing to give what it takes in order to succeed – and feel that each member is just as dedicated as they are. A new business hasn’t proven itself to anyone yet – so things like passion and dedication must shine through to make up for lack of history. And just like passion, dedication ensures that your deliverables will be met and your startup has a better chance of being funded. No investor will support an entrepreneur who is not full-heartedly dedicated to his or her project.

Team Roles:

There are six main roles that most new organizations need to consider in some capacity. In a new venture, it’s typical that each team member will likely wear multiple hats (i.e. be the manager and product developer). Just make sure that at any given time, each person knows what they are responsible for. As you grow, think about the right timing for bringing on more people with specific roles, but remember – hire slow, fire fast. As Tony Hsieh of Zappos pointed out during his DCWEEK visit, bad hires have accounted for millions of lost dollars through the years. And for a startup, that lost time, money and energy can be fatal.


  1. Leader/Project Manager – Someone in the organization must drive the plan and keep people focused on a daily basis. This person should be able to lead the group and ensure that all aspects of the project are covered.
  2. Developer – Most likely your product requires some engineering. Make sure you have the right developer(s) on board in whatever capacity you need them, whether it’s a part time HTML or WordPress developer or a full time PHP wiz.
  3. Designer – Good design can make or break a product so make sure you have someone who can think about and drive all design aspects of your business – from brand/logos, the appearance of the product and marketing materials.
  4. Legal Advisor – There are lots of things that come up on a regular basis that you’ll want to run by someone with real legal knowledge. While you don’t want to overspend on legal, it’s important to protect your business and understand your risks.
  5. Business/Marketer – Your business won’t go very far if no one on the team is good at talking about it. Make sure someone is thinking about overarching plans around PR, marketing and sales and spends time crafting the right messages, understanding audiences and figuring out distribution channels.
  6. Accountant – Someone needs to pay attention to the money. This may sound funny as many startups don’t make much money at first, but you should have someone managing the books, paying attention to important tax dates and more. This solid foundation will make things much easier down the road.

In some cases, if you are looking to grow and be able to spread some of the responsibilities, finding a duplicate of yourself might make the most sense. So if you do find your duplicate, hire them as soon as possible.

Finding Your Team:

This can be the most frustrating part of building a team – finding the right people. Unless you’re already funded, you probably aren’t going to hire a recruiter. We’ve seen teams come together in many unexpected ways, but here are a couple you should always consider.

  1. Personal Network: Ask your friends and colleagues for suggestions. Send them a note about what you are looking for and ask them to pass it around to their network. This extends to your online social networks too – don’t be afraid to Tweet out what you are looking for.
  2. Job Boards: Post a job on various boards describing what you are looking for. Look at the job boards for people who are looking for work and hold interviews. Craigslist is a great place to start.
  3. Networking: Get out there and meet people. Go to lots of events where the type of people you are looking for hang out. If you need a great Drupal developer, find a local Drupal meetup group. There are meetup groups for everything so look around and be creative. We’ve seen lots of people find their cohorts at our TECH cocktail startup mixer events, so we know this works.

A few other things to note while we’re on the topic…

Friends: If you hang with a tech crowd, you may be tempted to just hire your friends. If you consider this, just go into it with caution, understanding that a friend is not necessarily the best co-worker and they still need to fit all the criteria above. You don’t want to lose a friendship over an opportunity gone bad.

Past teams: If you’ve worked within a successful team before, try to keep the magic alive. One of the best teams we’ve seen is a small group of guys who have built 4 startups together. They have amazing chemistry and already have deep trust in one another.

Paper isn’t proof: The right team is worth more than just the sum of all its parts and how everyone works together, communicates, grows and supports each other is crucial.

“Teams that can learn, adapt and grow together will have much higher likelihood of success than those who just seem like perfect matches on paper.” – Matt Jacobson, LaunchBox Digital

We hope some of these tips are helpful -and if you have other words of advice from your own experience, please leave them in the comments below.

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Written by:
Samantha has been a long time contributor to Tech Cocktail, and runs SLS Consulting, a marketing and partnerships practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow Samantha at @sfsam22.
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