Original study favoring solo founders over teams


One of my MIT mentees pointed to me that The MIT Sloan Review ran a much more in depth article on the study by MIT professors Jason Greenberg and Ethan Molnick that showed that solo founders are 2.6 times as likely “to own an ongoing, for-profit venture” than teams of three or more co-founders.

So for those of you interested in more about this subject than I had posted previously based on a Wall Street Journal article, you can read their entire recent working paper.

But founding teams please don’t split up over this research! It’s only one study and your team could well be very successful. But for those of you thinking about doing a startup you might want to reconsider the received wisdom that you need a partner or partners to be successful.

Tips on recruiting

I was recently asked by one of my VMS mentees for advice on recruiting. Before we could even have a meeting I ran across this Quora post published on Inc. as Most Startups Fail. Here’s What the Successful Ones Do Differently, sub-titled you need to start at the intersection of the where you believe the world is going and your innate unfair advantages. The reply to the question, What do successful startups do differently than ones that fail?  is by Tim Chae, General Partner at 500 Startups.
What was most germane to recruiting came in the last paragraph:
I look at Founders as the greatest telltale sign of the startups ability to add talent (recruiting) and resources (fundraising, sales, etc.) down the road. Every successful startup requires both. While there are exceptions to the rule in everything, successful startups require addition of top tier talent and that oftentimes falls directly on the founders’ ability to recruit. I don’t care about the size of the founders’ direct network per se, but the bet I’d be making on these early stage companies when I’m looking to invest is in their ability to close “deals” when qualified prospects are introduced.
So how do you go about recruiting when there’s a war on engineering talent in every startup hub? Before we dive into that there’s one major question you need to answer: are you willing to have a distributed company, where talent may be operating remotely? Here and here are a couple of posts about distributed teams. The obvious benefit is it greatly expands your reach from local to national and secondarily may reduce your real estate costs.
Here’s a some tips from my extensive experience in recruiting for several startups:
  • Study the entrepreneurial scene for companies that have just gone public or have been acquired. Engineers may be fully vested and looking for the next opportunity or not interested in working at the acquiring company. Local online business sites like Xconomy are a good source of local tech news.
  • Post your positions at the careers offices at local universities
  • Believe it or not, many millennials rely on Craigslist in their job searches, give it a try
  • Create a hiring bonus plan for your venture so you expand from your network to the networks of all your staff
  • Get your investors, board members, and advisors involved in your search
  • Finally the best way to recruit is to be a highly visible company that’s in the news for its accomplishments. Thus I’d advise a traditional media relations and social media campaign to promote not your products so much as the company..
Depending on the level of skill and experience you need you might find what you are looking for at one of the many coding camps.
If all else fails there are hiring marketplaces like TripleByte as well as contingency and executive recruiters. The former take about 20% of the first year’s salary the latter more like 33%, so it’s expensive. But the bigger difference is you only pay the contingency fee if they succeed in filling your position. Executive search, also called retained search, typically requires a fee upfront, whether or not the search is successful.
Don’t ignore your web site, it’s likely going to be the first impression many candidates will get of your company after they learn of the opening. Out of date posts, poor design, and skimping on information about the founders and investors are all going to turn off candidates.
Finally, keep in mind that recruiting is a sales process: the most talented engineers, marketers, and sales people will have multiple opportunities. Communicate clearly why they should join your company. How will it change their lives for the better?

How do you manage a remote team?


The first question to ask is why would you want a remote team? Isn’t face to face the highest bandwidth communication channel? Don’t successful companies like Apple, Google, Facebook et al spend billions of dollars building campuses to house thousands of their employees together? How do you know what the heck your remote teams are doing if you rarely, if ever, see them?

There is one overriding reason and one only as far as I’m concerned: using remote teams means you have an edge in the global war for tech talent. Competition in tech hubs like Silicon Valley, New York, Seattle, and Boston is brutal, driving up salaries, benefits and perqs to a level that startups have to struggle to match.

But if the world is your recruiting platform and you are willing to add talent from anywhere, you can keep costs down while greatly expanding your recruiting reach. And there is a secondary benefit to a remote team – it adds diversity. A mono-culture is always at risk of some disruptive force. In addition, the ability to manage talent remotely is a valuable skill in this day of outsourcing development to India and elsewhere.

I’ve only spent a few months on a “distributed team” – we were hardly remote as we were all in the Boston area, but the founder/CEO didn’t have an office or the funds to pay for WeWork or other collaborative work space. So we relied on email and infrequent face to face meetings.

While I like working remotely at times – free from disruptions I can concentrate much better than in the office – I much prefer going in to an office and being physically close to those I work with.  But if you are a bootstrapping startup I would advise you consider at the least a distributed team and at the most a truly remote team. One operational issue with remote teams is the difference in time zones. This can be a problem when working on tight deadlines. Otherwise it’s pretty easy to compensate for.

The Inc. article Remote Teams Can Have Great Culture. These 6 Strategies Will Make It Happen by  Jonathan Steiman Founder and CEO, Peak Support  should be required reading for any founder contemplating building a remote team. I’ll just make a few comments on each point – I strongly recommend you read the full article if you have a remote team or plan on building one.

  1. Communication – I have found that a very high percentage of problems in any company stem from poor communications. Email strips communication of nuance and attempts at humor can actually be interpreted as offensive. It’s too easy to put thing in email you would never say to someone face to face. I strongly recommend that you meet in person with anyone joining your remote team when they are hired. It is well worth the cost of travel
  2. Community – community and corporate culture are the glue that holds any team – remote or otherwise – together. All hands meetings are one good way to build your community. It’s a staple of Silicon Valley companies. Meeting once or twice a year either centrally or regionally can help build bonds through non-business activities as simple as going out to eat together, taking a hike, going to a movie, etc.
  3. Narrative – the most important narrative is the origin story of the company. Other stories like how you landed your first company, your first investor, your first hire help build the company culture. Don’t underestimate the power of stories, no matter how seemingly small, so long as they are memorable.
  4. Vision – vision is the lodestar of the company, setting its direction for everyone in the company. As the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there.” Communicating the vision is one of the top priorities of the CEO and the founders. I would add mission to this. Vision is about the future, mission is about what you do in the present to help you move towards that future you envision.
  5. Values – I’ve written several posts about values, including Values: the bedrock of startups. Communicating values early and often is critical for any company and more-so for a company with a remote team. Company leaders need to live and exhibit the company’s core values. Without values you can’t build a company culture, let alone manage a remote team.

I consider corporate culture so important that I devote an entire blog category to it: https://mentorphile.com/category/corporate-culture/. Building a culture with a remote team is undeniably harder and requires more work. But it not only can be done, if must be done if your company is to succeed.


It’s the follow up question that’s revealing!

julie zhuo

I’ve done a lot of interviewing over the years and tend to read a lot about interviewing techniques to improve my mentoring. One of the most common questions of corporate interviewers is “Tell me about a tough situation you’ve encountered in your career.”

But Facebook executive Julie Zhuo has a great followup question that is far more revealing. She’s profiled in the Inc. article by Betsy Mikel Facebook Exec: 1 Interview Question That Instantly Reveals Someone’s True Colors. As usual, the sub-title summarizes the article: How the candidate answers can either seal the deal or be a red flag. Zho looks for a “learning mindset” in job candidates. She’s made hundreds of hires over her years at Facebook, where she started as an intern 10 years ago. 

Here’s her followup question:  If you could revisit that experience, what would you do differently?

While there is no obviously right answer, there is one obviously wrong answer: that you would’t do anything differently because everything that went wrong was outside of their control.

There’s a right answer, of course. It’s to present lots of ideas of how you might tackle things differently the second time around. “I get really excited about that candidate because they’re showing a lot of productivity, and they’re showing that they can learn really quickly,” Zhuo explains.

I’d add that presenting lots of ideas also shows good problem solving skills and creativity, something I looked for in the candidates I interviewed.

There are a couple of other pieces of worthwhile advice in the article, including encouraging hiring managers to hire strategically, not opportunistically. And to hire holistically, looking at the future of your team, not just at how the individual might be a fit for the company.

The bottom line of the article is also the bottom line when it comes to hiring:

“Hiring well is the single most important thing you can do,” she says.

What’s the key factor in your startup’s success?


Previously I’ve posted about the top reasons startups fail, according to Bill Gross of Idealab. According to his research the most important reason is timing. But today’s post is the mirror image, what is the key factor in making your startup a success?

The secret to creating a successful startup is your contacts book, A big data analysis of 42,000 startups has found there’s one key thing that encourages growth according to the article on Wired by Chris Stokel-Walker.

Moreno Bonaventura and his colleagues at Queen Mary University of London analyzed 41,830 companies across 117 different countries over the course of 25 years, from 1990 to 2015. They defined success as achieving an exit either going public (IPO) or being acquired by another company.  The key success factor was the network of the founders and they staff they hired. This isn’t surprising as the vast majority of VCs I’ve met with rank the team as the most important factor in their decision on whether or not to invest in a startup. They would prefer an “A” team with a “B” idea to a “B” team with an “A” idea. The “A” players will either make a success of the “B” idea or pivot to a better idea; the “B” team will more than likely fail to execute on the “A” idea.

But simply amassing a bunch of Facebook friends or connections on LinkedIn is not sufficient.  People at the very top of the rankings may not have the time to help you. And the first rule of business development is nurture valuable contacts by helping them whenever possible. Bonaventura concluded that the more connections a person has means there’s a greater “opportunity and knowledge” that can be gained. I would go beyond that to the quality of those connections. Simply having a lot of connections isn’t  enough, they need to be in the market you are targeting.  A great resource for the founders I mentor at MIT is the MIT alumni directory, which enables searching by type of business. I assume most universities have alumni directories of their own.

“A person that ranks higher is a person that doesn’t just know many contacts, but has connections that allows them in a few hops to reach something that’s needed in a work environment,” says Bonaventura.

Valeries Ciotti, who works with Bonaventura adds that “it’s best  to hire people who have quite a wide variety of knowledge, with connections from different companies.” Beware of monocultures. While it can be tempting to hire solely from your alma mater or your last employer, you risk running into a kind of groupthink that can be eliminated by hiring from diverse companies and even markets. Studies have shown that diverse groups – those having men and women, majorities and minorities – make better decisions than all male, all white groups.

And I have to add a maxim of I borrowed some time ago: It’s not who you know, but who knows you. As an individual you may know hundreds of people, but through media relations or social media marketing you can become known by thousands or even hundreds of thousands, thus opening up your venture to opportunities that come in “over the transom.” Or as a former partner of mine once said, back in the age of business phone systems and landlines, “We’ll know we are successful when the number of
in-bound calls starts exceeding the number of our outbound calls.”

Building your startup team

Solving jigsaw puzzle

I gave a presentation on how to build your startup team to the MIT Post-Doctoral Association last night and realized it would make a useful post.

When you build anything, say a house, for an example, you need a list of requirements from which you develop a plan.

The first item to think of in terms of your requirements for a startup team is what type of business entity are you building?

  • Lifestyle or social impact firm – the goal of both is sustainability, not growth per se. As such, they might be a partnership or even a sole proprietorship. But in most cases the team will be small and self-sufficient.
  • Linear growth or revenue fueled – this type of entity may have growth, but it is slow and steady, not the geometric growth of a venture-funded company. Often no outside capital is required – the firm runs on customer revenue.
  • High growth, scalable venture –  these ventures have hockey stick growth fueled by venture capitalists seeking 10X return on their investment.

While there are only two jobs in a zero stage startup: building the product and selling it, in the high growth company many other functional areas are needed:

  • Engineering
  • Product management
  • Marketing and sales
  • Finance and administration
  • Operations

Before you start building your team you need to define the roles and responsibilities of each functional area. The rule of thumb for high growth companies is that the first dozen or so hires should come from the founders’ networks. That saves time and money and also reduces risk by hiring known quantities.

Once you have your hiring plan in place you need to focus on hiring for culture fit. The company’s culture is defined by its vision, mission, and values. These need to be in place before you start hiring. Founders must be aligned on the company’s culture and goals before any other staff are brought on. Alignment of founders is critical. If one wants to build a company quickly and then flip it so they can take their millions and go to the beach, while the other wants to build an enduring company with real impact on the world, the company is bound to fail.

What should you look for in your hires beyond intelligence, expertise, and experience? Here’s my list:

  • Curiosity
  • Desire and ability for continuous learning
  • Creativity
  • Willing and able to collaborate
  • Good communicator
  • High level of initiative

Technology changes rapidly, rendering obsolete much of what is learned in school. Thus you need to hire autodidacts who have the curiosity and desire to learn on their own. Because products are built and sold by teams, you need good communicators who can collaborate well across functional areas.

Steve Case was the founder of AOL and is now a partner in Revolution LLC, an investment firm. I cam across two quotes from Case in an interview with him which I think best express the value of the team in a startup venture:

It ultimately comes down to people and teams, that entrepreneurship is a team sport, it’s not about any one person.

If you get the people right, almost anything is possible. If you don’t get the people right, I’d argue nothing is possible.

Here are the basic steps in building your team once your plan is in place:

  • Get the word out – first hires should come from the founders’ networks
  • Screen and select – don’t be opportunistic! Don’t settle for “B” players. “A” players hire “A” players; “B” players hire “C” players, as they fear anyone smarter or more talented than they are.
  • Test drive – give your final candidates a small project to complete before you decide to hire them.
  • Interviewing – it’s a team process. In a startup everyone should interview all candidates. Founders should stay in the interview loop indefinitely.
  • The Offer – keep in mind recruiting is a sales process. You have to sell the candidate on why they should join the company. Talented people will have multiple opportunities.

Hire slowly, fire quickly. It can be too easy to hire, especially if you have substantial capital from VC funding. Your team needs to be adaptable. Some people can not adapt well to change. You need to either find a better position for them in the company – as someone might be “playing out of position” or let them go. If you have a critical, immediate need, bring on a contractor until you can hire someone who meets your company’s standards.

Keep in mind when building your team, no one bats 1.000. You will make mistakes. The key thing is recognizing mistakes and acting quickly to correct them. That goes for the venture as a whole, not just in team building.

How do you manage a distributed team?

Screen Shot 2019-04-08 at 4.12.46 PMThis is a question I got in a 30-minute virtual mentoring session I had recently with an MIT project team. While I had  briefly participated on a distributed team – we all worked remotely – I had never managed one; I hadn’t even read up on the subject. I wish I had read the Inc. article by Justin Bariso, Google Spent 2 Years Researching What Makes a Great Remote Team. It Came Up With These 3 Things, subtitled In a quest to create the perfect remote team, Google researchers spent two years studying more than 5,000 employees. Here’s what they learned.

If you are at all familiar with Google you know it is an engineering-driven team that is managed based on data. So I’m not surprised that when Verionica Gilrane, the manager of Google’s People Innovation Lab, wanted to learn more about the productivity of and effectiveness of Google’s distributed team model she spent two years surveying 5,600 Google employees and held focus groups with about 100. You can read her findings on Google’ blog.

She came up with three top tips for making distributed work feel more connected and enjoyable:

  1. Get to know each other as people. When I first started working as a manager it used to really bug me when meetings started with smalltalk. As an introvert who suffers from SAD (Social Anxiety Disorder), the last thing I wanted to do was make smalltalk. I’m also biased towards action – I wanted to get to work, immediately. But eventually I learned that smalltalk was a lubricant, it got people comfortable talking together before settling down to work. And Google found with remote teams it’s necessary to establish a rapport amongst those located at different places. Managers need to lead by example and make an extra effort to get to know everyone on the team by spending a bit of time at meeting before diving into the agenda.
  2.  Set boundaries: Rather than managers setting rigid meeting times the manager or leader of the distributed team should ask the co-workers when they like to take meetings. I know from experience that programmers tend to start work later than typical office workers – 8:00 am meeting times aren’t going to work well for them.
  3. Forge in-person and virtual connections: Sometimes face to face meetings are needed. Team leaders should provide clear guidelines and opportunities for team members to travel for in person meetings. When the team meets face to face everyone should take advantage of the opportunity to reinforce connections forged virtually. This spring I was offered the opportunity to mentor teams virtually rather than coming in to MIT, which would have meant spending two hours commuting for a 30 minute mentoring session. While I accepted the offer I had one condition: I wanted the first meeting to be face to face. I had found from experience that if I could get to know a team in person and see how they interacted it make virtual meetings work better for me. And I recommend this tip to you if you can arrange it. While Zoom, Skype and other videoconference tools work well, they still can’t compare with face to face when it comes to observing a group’s behavior.

Google has put together a distributed playbook which I highly recommend to anyone working on or managing a remote team.