At the MIT Venture Mentoring Service and MIT Sandbox fund, where I do all my mentoring, I see virtually all very early stage ventures. Often it’s only a single entrepreneur, but the mode is probably two founders – almost always both are engineers.
As part of my mentoring I review pitch decks; I’ve seen dozens and dozens of them. And the one thing in common is that virtually all of them lack the team. Obviously I’m not expecting early stage ventures to have a full team of CEO, CTO, CMO, CRO, CFO, but what is surprising is that none of these decks and none of these entrepreneurs have an organizational design or a plan to hire to build a team for the venture.
Richard Feloni‘s article on Business Insider The best advice billionaire AOL cofounder and investor Steve Case gives entrepreneurs is a truth about long-term success is must reading for founders of startups.
For those of you who may not know who Steve Case is, he is the billionaire founding CEO of AOL and the head of the Washington, DC-based venture capital firm Revolution. (And if you happen to be a founder outside the VC heavy places like Silicon Valley, Boston, and New York you need to check out the Revolution fund, as its focus is on funding startups outside the centers of American venture capital.) And if you are not familiar with AOL, it was the first internet company to go public.
This article was generated by an episode of Business Insider‘s podcast “This Is Success.” His advice is totally on point from my experience and jibes with what the many VCs I’ve met have told me
…. the best advice he gives is, “It ultimately comes down to people and teams, that entrepreneurship is a team sport, it’s not about any one person. The founding CEO tends to get most of the attention, but it really is a team effort. If you get the people right, almost anything is possible,” he said. “If you don’t get the people right, I’d argue nothing is possible.
Steve Case is a fan of the proverb “If you want to go quickly, you can go alone. If you want to go far, you must go together,” because it’s a pithy expression he sees as capturing the importance of partnerships.
Founders take heed! You must start building your team while your are building your product, while you are discovering your customers, while you are developing your business model, while you are … Yep, startups are a parallel, time-sharing process, not a linear, serial process.
Unfortunately what I find with founders of early stage companies their focus is on getting funded, not building their teams. But what they don’t seem to understand is that in order to get funded you either need a team or a couple of great co-founders with a solid plan to fill out their team. As I wrote in the post Recruiting talent for your startup, you need to become a talent tracker, always on the alert for talented people, even if and actually especially if, you aren’t ready to hire them. If you are still in school or a recent graduate you have a great advantage as at places like MIT and Stanford you are surrounded by talented people. Get to know them! More importantly get to them to know you! Take a class or two in entrepreneurship, not so much because it will turn you into a successful entrepreneur, but for the opportunity to get to know the professor, who might well become an advisor, and your fellow students, some of whom you might want to hire. And the more people who know about you and your startup the more likely it is that talented people will discover you.
Business cards may be seen as obsolete, but I’ve yet to see a better or cheaper tool to enable people you meet to get your contact information. Way back when there was an app for that and if there is now, find it for your iPhone or Android phone. But I still recommend you buy some business card stock at Staples and use a program like Business Card Composer to design and print your cards. Don’t leave home without them! I also would advise that no matter how early your venture, get up a simple web site you can point interested people to.
But beyond the mechanics. I advise some self analysis. Just because you are the founder that doesn’t mean you need to CEO. Do you like selling? Because as a CEO you will be constantly selling your company and your products. Do you like recruiting? Because as CEO you will always be recruiting, at least until your firm is so large you can delegate hiring even if not giving up final say on candidates. Are you a great communicator, because you will need to communicate your vision of the company internally and externally. Do you have relentless drive and ambition? In other words are you a good fit for the CEO role or a better fit for CTO or CMO? One thing VCs are good at is recruiting CEOs, so if you have a great product and a team of at least two, and a company that can grow to a billion dollar market cap, you may well be able to get funding without a CEO, as your investors will help you find one.
As the athletic saying goes, “There is no “i” in team.” No matter what your role, you need to check you ego at the door. If the venture succeeds you will be amply rewarded regardless of what role you play, and if it doesn’t those CEO business cards will make nice bookmarks.