Startup Lessons: Team Diversity

There are very few startups that can be run by a single person. While a company may have one founder, it normally takes a team of people for the company to succeed. People need to develop the product or service, someone needs to do the sales and business development, and someone needs to handle all the minutia required to keep a company operational.

Since many different skills and disciplines are required to run a business, team diversity is very important in a startup. By diversity, I’m referring to different types of knowledge and skillsets. People talk about diversity all of the time, but here are some of the more important aspects of diversity that I’ve found in my ten years running a startup software company.

Ideally, I would recommend that everyone on the founding team of a technology startup have a technical background and be able to contribute to the product development. It is especially true of a software startup. It is more important to create a¬†working product, even if it is a crude prototype, so you can get in front of customers as quickly as possible and start collecting feedback on the product (or service). Having a working product or prototype is also very helpful for talking with prospective employees and investors. It’s much easier to show them your idea than explain it to them.

At least one of the people on the team needs to be capable of interacting with customers, although I would suggest having two (or more) so one person can act as a backup. It also helps if one person has some basic business skills such as being able to handle finances, perform basic HR tasks, and stay organized enough to make sure small details like licensing and taxes are taken care of properly. Administrative tasks need to be handled to keep the business from getting penalized or shutdown by the authorities.

So how did I learn this lesson?

The team we had to start our company was not technical enough. The initial founding had one part-time technical person, a full-time finance and administrative person, and two market and business development types. We were clearly overweight on the marketing and administrative aspects of the business, which isn’t good for starting a technical company.

Unfortunately, it took us a long time to figure this out. We spent too much time on other tasks instead of developing our technical skills in order to have more people could contributing to product development.

In fact, it wasn’t until I learned how to code, did more technical work, and started contributing to product development about four years ago that the business finally started to turn a corner. At that time, the team had changed quite a bit. It consisted of two full-time technical resources, one resource (me) that was split between technical development, business development and administration. I found that this was a much better balance for the company when it’s at a small, early stage.

Bottom line, if you’re starting a technical company, particularly a software startup, functional team diversity can be a key to success. Make sure everyone on the initial founding team can contribute technically to the product or service. Then you can select one (or more) people to handle the business development, marketing and administrative tasks until you have a working product and market traction. Once you have established market momentum, it’s much easier to build out your team with administrative, sales, marketing, and/or business development types.

 

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