Blu Mint Digital recently attended a Startup Incubator event with Oliver Ahlberg, the Co-Founder & COO of the successful tech startup Skeleton Technologies. He gave a presentation on the 8 lessons he learnt building a startup team.
1# Know Your Company Culture
Wikipedia defines organisational culture as the “behaviour of humans within an organisation and the meaning that people attach to those behaviours.” Yeah, great but what does mean when building a startup team?
As Oliver explains, it’s not only about hiring the right skill set. Will the employee fit into your company culture? Will they understand and exemplify company values serving to reinforce the company’s mission and vision and create a tighter team? And because many of today’s younger workers are specifically seeking positions at firms that are in sync with their values, finding hires that are cultural fits is a win-win for both the company and the employee.
2# Hire To Elevate and Not to Delegate
Great employees have countless options for employment so your company’s growth is heavily predicated on your ability to attract top talent. Employees today can take or leave beer, video games and other novelty benefits, but ultimately they want to work alongside people they are proud to call teammates.
Employees aren’t immune to game rooms, catered lunch, and happy hours (who isn’t?). But at the end of the day, people beat perks every time. What is really effective in building a startup team is letting your new hires off the leash and help build the company themselves.
Finding people to delegate to is easy, but you end up with a team of people who are “good enough” for delegation but don’t bring anything extra to the team. You’re trying to find 1+1=3 types of situations by hiring people that bring something new to the team. Hire people to excel.
3# A and B Players Only
Startups are on limited time with limited financial resources, so when building a startup team you need the best category teammates – those who ‘score’ an ‘A’ or ‘B’, and not those with ‘C’ or ‘D’. As Oliver explains the latter types of employees either completely lack the skills or only get tasks done, but sometimes with delays or need to be pushed. Sadly in the startup world there is not the time nor resources to constantly provide hands-on management.
The top types of employees are task and goal orientated, good at what they do or well-rounded in most topics. They constantly exceed expectations and show initiative and most importantly, are fast learners if they do not know or have the desired skills to complete work. These are the ‘A’ and ‘B’ players you need to build your team.
4# Look for Attitude with Aptitude
As Oliver points out, having the right skills are not enough – your hires also need enthusiasm and drive. The main idea behind recruiting for attitude first is that skills can be taught, whilst attitude is a reflection of personality, which is much harder to change. Selecting personality traits like flexibility, passion and accountability makes sense for fast-changing workplaces.
“I will only hire someone to work directly for me if I would work for that person” –
Hiring for attitude helps avoid the main reason new hires fail by getting negative appraisals, disciplinary action, being forced to leave, or getting fired. The reasons include a poor ability to receive and act upon feedback, lack of motivation and unsuitable temperaments.
5# Don’t Hire Assholes
OK so this sounds obvious, and yeah, you’re thinking you would never hire an asshole when building a startup team! Yet sometimes it is not easy to notice an asshole in the workplace. As the author Robert Sutton states in his book: The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. To him an asshole is “addicted to rude interruptions and subtle put downs, enjoys using ‘sarcastic jokes’ and ‘teasing’ as ‘insult delivery systems.’”
As Oliver explains these people, while they may mean to joke, actually end up causing resentment within your teammates – leading to possible resignations and increased staff turnover. Do you really want your ‘A’ category staff leaving because of someone else?
As long as the people you are surrounded by are encouraging, thoughtful and respectful then the work will be fine.
6# Look For Doers, Not Experts
When you begin building a startup team you need solid employees around you who just get sh*t done. There will come a time when you need more skilled expertise within your team but when building a team to scale, first you need doers.
Doers are those teammates who spend less time discussing what to do and instead take the initiative and get it done – completing tasks, reaching goals, not requiring personal management and – as mentioned before – a willingness to learn fast. The doers are great in getting the company set up, obtaining brand awareness and providing a platform for growth – then you hire the experts.
Many startups will be courted by grey-haired experts, especially if you’re hiring for senior management positions. But these people are usually with backgrounds from cushy corporate jobs and expect a whole bunch of supporting functions that a startup simply doesn’t have. Startups need people who come to an idea and instead of looking for who they could offload the idea to, go and do it themselves.
7# Careful with the Peter Principle
The Peter Principle is an observation that the tendency in most organisational hierarchies, like those of a company, is for every employee to rise in the hierarchy through promotion until they reach levels of respective incompetence. Simply put, as your competent employees – the ‘doers’, continue to be promoted, at some point they will be promoted into positions for which they are incompetent.
Oliver notes as a point of caution, that although you need doers to begin with as explained in point 6 there will come a time when you need experts and top talent to push the company forward to the next level. This may be giving up some authority in your own startup but eventually, you will need to recognise that when building a startup team, there will be others with more skills and experience to move it forward.
8# Fire Faster
This may sound counter-productive when building a startup team but as Oliver states, you do not have time to spend devoting resources to employees who simply do not fit in. Within larger enterprise organisations should an existing employee not match the role they were hired for, then there is a plethora of resources to help them. From training courses, management consultants, shadowing other employees and so on.
For many startups, these alternatives simply are not available. Therefore when it becomes obvious that an employee is not going to work, best to get them out before you spend further time on a failing role. However harsh that may sound!
So whether you are building a startup team or already have one but are looking to scale, ensure you learn the lessons from others!
As COO, he plays a critical role in the development of internal procedures that
have kept the company on the forefront of energy storage development. He has had an integral role in securing VC funding and setting up the company’s R&D Centre and pilot production in Estonia. He plays a central role in the company’s IT capabilities and is responsible for leading the marketing team at Skeleton Technologies.
Skeleton Technologies started to grow in 2009, when, after years of
development work, the young entrepreneurs, Taavi Madiberk and Oliver Ahlberg, decided to take the technology created by Tartu scientists into production. By 2016, the company had become one of Europe’s leading ultracapacitor manufacturers – extremely powerful energy storage devices. Recently they announced a new investment of €13 million led by FirstFloor Capital, a Malaysian venture capital investment firm specialising in funding high-growth technology companies.