Startup Foundations, Step 1: Start at the Forest and the Trees Will Follow

The best way to put together your foundational team is to think strategically about which skills you need and why.

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by Cat Hernandez

For most startups, the path from Seed to Series A is rarely characterized as a smooth journey. As early-stage investors, we believe that two distinct challenges come up for every business as they’re getting off the ground, generally centered around establishing traction at some reasonable scale and establishing the right foundational team to help you get there. We created our Talent Program to help with the latter goal in mind because we believe great businesses are built on their ability to attract, retain, and engage the best talent in the marketplace. As we explained in the first installment of this series, the first step of that process includes helping company leadership think strategically about the who, what, why, and when of critical hiring.

Before we get into specifics, however, it’s important to define the term “foundational team”. While the exact size of a foundational team varies greatly depending on your business, the view we take on overall team makeup goes beyond founders and key executives. Regardless of your exact role, the common goal of foundational team members is to build a technically-sound and scalable product, not just a hacked-together side project. So it’s certainly not surprising, then, that engineers often form the backbone of this early team. It’s also why we focus many of our community-building efforts in both the Primary Expert Network and the Primary100 on experienced go-to-market strategists and principal engineering talent.

The emphasis on “critical” hiring challenges you to think about what you need within a more holistic framework. At the seed stage, we often find cobbled-together teams that, for many reasons, evolve a lot over the course of their first year of operation. So before you spend endless hours scouring LinkedIn for candidates who seem like a good fit on paper, take a step back and evaluate your approach to hiring. The best way to put together your foundational team is to think strategically about which skills you need and why.

  • Look closely at your existing team. Take a step back and answer some of these questions. What strengths and weaknesses exist on your team today? How will you complement or adjust around that going forward? Is the team fully optimized? If not, what needs to change in order for that to be the case? At startups, there’s often a pervasive feeling of loyalty that drives people-related decisions differently than at larger, more established companies. Look at your team from a place of honesty, remove emotions from the equation, and approach team-planning from an objective point of view. Only then can you create your first organizational chart.
  • Use business milestones to define hiring needs. As part of looking honestly at the types of people you need, it’s also important to make tough decisions about who you need right now (or in the near term). Focus on the big picture and let your upcoming business milestones dictate hiring priorities. Are you onboarding a large customer that requires custom work? Do you understand your sales funnel enough to get to that next lofty revenue target? Your hiring plan should proactively focus on making sure you have proven leaders in place who can set you up for success in the most pressing areas for your business. Don’t let unwarranted loyalty to specific team members stand in the way of achieving your business goals.
  • Find people with complementary skill sets. Figure out what you’re good at and look not for clones of yourself, but for strong candidates with complementary skill sets who will push you to see new perspectives. Research continues to show that teams made up of different skills and personalities – and even culturally diverse teams – are more creative and productive, so push yourself to hire outside of your comfort zone. In concept, this all makes sense, but it’s easier said than done. Build a diligent practice around it and you won’t regret it.
  • Create contingency plans. There’s one thing you can be certain of in the lifecycle of an early startup: Things are going to change and veer off course. Stay nimble and prepare for the unexpected as much as possible, and you’ll be way ahead of the game. You might face unexpected bumps in your financing plan, you might have to make stretch hires versus “perfect” hires, or you may have to consider new roles based on unexpected product needs. It’s good practice to think openly about your response to the unexpected and often less-than-ideal challenges that may arise.

At its core, accomplishing your critical hiring needs efficiently and effectively boils down to being able to clearly articulate what you have today and what you need tomorrow, all benchmarked against upcoming business milestones and key performance indicators. By taking a structured, thoughtful approach to critical hiring, you’ll be able to set up long-term recruitment strategies that will help you grow every part of your team with top talent.

Now that we’ve covered how to think about critical hiring for your foundational team, the next installment of our “Startup Foundations” series will cover exactly how to establish a more formal – but still simple – hiring process, including building a talent pipeline and how to balance selling versus interviewing. Stay tuned!

Cat Hernandez is a Partner at Primary Venture Partners.

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