For a software startup, having a good idea is important, but a good team is essential.
Good ideas are easy to find; I keep a list of interesting business and tech ideas that I constantly update and probably have a couple hundred at the ready.
What’s hard to find, and is much more important for success, is a good team. What are the ingredients of a good team?
Go All In: Look for “Crazy Eyes”
It’s tough to go it alone. While you might succeed nurturing an idea as a side project, your chances of success go up dramatically when you band together with people who complement your skills and are willing to do what it takes to get something to market as quickly as possible.
I call it “crazy eyes.” You need to be able to look somebody else in the eyes and catch that wild-eyed glint of insane dedication – and truly commit to each other as collaborators. If you can’t find people to take risks with, you probably won’t be able to bring your idea to fruition.
Putting together a good team is all about having the right people in the right roles. First, that means choosing the right people to collaborate with. Second, it means knowing and being honest about the strengths and weaknesses of each individual on your team.
All too often, I have seen people call themselves CEO that really ought to be “Chief Software Architect.” Or people in operational roles who clearly can’t stand being around other people. While it’s tempting to label yourself and your cofounder as COO and CEO, you need to be honest (and educated) about whether you are really right for these positions.
When you go to talk to potential investors, they will sniff out this kind of bad casting right away, and they will just assume you have bad judgment. If they think you have bad judgment about a simple thing like properly casting yourself, then they think you will have bad judgment about everything else; they certainly won’t trust you with investment funds.
Proper casting is a sign of honesty, clarity, and good judgment. It’s key to connecting with investors. Even if you don’t think you need investors, prospective partners and employees pick up on your casting judgment also. Do it right.
A Good Team Always Survives
What may seem like a great idea may turn out to be a bad one, or one that needs to be changed to be successful. Maybe it turns out that kids don’t want to play with horses in your 3D virtual world. Maybe instead, 50 year old men want to play war there. A good team figures that out and capitalizes on it. A bad team spends ever greater sums of money trying to embellish the pretty horses and advertise in kids magazines.
Even in the worst case, a good team that knows its strengths and weaknesses will know how to salvage assets and return value to investors (license the tech to others, etc). A bad team gets mired up in personality conflicts, personal crises, falls apart and becomes toxic to everyone.
This is why investors will almost always bet on a good team with an unproven idea over a sure-fire idea and a so-so team. Good teams deliver returns no matter what.
Good Teams Make Markets
I’ve seen lots of ideas that sound impossible on the surface turned into great businesses through the skills, connections, and experience of their teams. Want to sell WiFi in airports? Sounds impossible, but not if your COO spent 10 years as the director of purchasing for HMS Host. Want to sell an avionics upgrade to the Air Force? Sounds tough, but not if your CEO spent 10 years on contracts at Lockheed.
What a team brings to an idea is more important than the idea. Good ideas are a dime-a-dozen. Finding the people to make a good idea work is incredibly difficult.
Stay Calm and Open to Change
It’s easy for partner relationships to become emotional and strained. Often, partnerships form as a handshake and a promise of 50-50 equity. Operating agreements and buy-sell arrangements often come later, breed resentment, and then become set in stone as people invest increasing amounts of sweat equity.
Don’t let relationships get in the way of execution. While you may be passionate and emotional about your idea, you should be calm and cool about your relationship with your team members. Remember, it’s all about proper casting. Do whatever it takes to put people into the right roles and immediately address any questions regarding equity, hurt feelings, and the like.
There’s no better way to turn a good team bad than to let equity and casting issues fester.
Know a Lot of People
The best way to insure proper casting is to choose the right teammates to begin with. The best way to do that is to know lots of people with diverse skills. This will keep you from going into business with your college roommate and instead partner with people who have the skills that round out your team.
Just Say No
“No” is the most powerful word in business. The pressure to be “moving forward” in our society is intense. But if team is so important and you also believe in your idea, it doesn’t make sense to move forward with the wrong team or the wrong idea. Just say “no.” Instead, wait it out and find the right team, or at least part of the right team before moving forward. Or change your idea.
Every day I see smart entrepreneurs, under pressure to “move forward,” squandering their time by pursuing an idea with a “halfway there” team. I don’t mean to belittle any entrepreneur’s efforts, and I certainly wouldn’t bet against them. But there’s a difference between doing something just to be doing it (and not really believing in it) and going all-in with people who have what it takes to succeed.
And yes, many entrepreneurs don’t really believe in what they are doing: if they did, they’d quit their day jobs. Building up and then tearing down a half-baked startup takes time as well as real and emotional capital. Why waste all that? Life is short. Find the right teammates (if you need anyone beyond yourself to begin) and then go all in. Your support network will rally around you.
What Investors Look For
You may think investors read your idea first. They don’t. They look at where you live. They look at who your attorney is. They look at your background. They look at your team. Smart investors know that your network says more about you than anything else.
Once they’ve figured out “who you are,” then they consider your idea and determine if you have any hope in hell of delivering what you’re promising. Investors know ideas are cheap; they see them all the time, and usually have many ideas of their own. What they are looking for is why they should bet on you to deliver on your particular idea. And frankly, they are looking to see if you are delusional!
If you are realistic about your chances, have spent time building a good team, and have cast your team members in appropriate roles, most investors will look at any plausible idea favorably. It doesn’t hurt if you share some common acquaintances, either; shared social networks and shared values help ensure long term commitment to the investor and the community. This is why angels almost always invest close to home.
Local Is Best
It’s both tempting and possible to put together a “virtual” company with folks spread around the world. However, investors see this as a sign of team weakness. It means video conferencing instead of face-to-face meetings. It means slower response times. It means travel costs and weaker relationships. In the end, it lowers your chances of success and is just a pain in the ass.
In the context of larger established companies, having some remote workers can make lots of sense. But if you’re trying to launch a startup, do it with the people in your own backyard. Can’t find the right people? Keep digging; see below.
Build Your Network
The single best thing you can do to as an early stage startup is to build up your network of potential team members. And don’t just collect business cards at networking events. Build real relationships. Figure out what makes people tick. Spend time in environments where you take risks with people and try out new things. They will become your casting pool, now and in the future.
One of the best ways to do that is to get involved in your local tech community. Here in Baltimore, we have Beehive Baltimore, which lets freelancers and entrepreneurs spend time working together. From Beehive, TEDxMidAtlantic was born. That event brought over 100 amazing entrepreneurial thinkers together in organizing a 500 person, very complex event. Go to events like Ignite Baltimore; listen to the people around you and think about how you can collaborate with them. Grab lunch and beer with people!
These are just a few observations I have gleaned from my work with Baltimore Angels and with starting and observing many companies over the last 23 years. I welcome your comments!