February 3, 2014
Co-Founders & Building Out Your Core Team... Advice From Rob May & Adam McGowan

When you ask startup founders what one of the most challenging aspects of building a successful company is, team-building is high on the list. Sourcing great team members in the hot hiring climate of Boston is tough, especially when you’re looking for “unicorns” in development, marketing, or creative. More importantly, though, picking the right co-founder can make the difference to a founder’s success, and a strong team is the prerequisite often for funding and for building successful startup. Not to mention building a company’s culture—and spending all day with that team.

IEEE Boston ENET’s Tuesday panel in Waltham addresses all these issues, as well as ones like equity, vesting, and expectations, with four experienced startup founders: Rob May (CEO of Backupify), Adam McGowan (CEO of Firefield), Polina Raygorodskaya (CEO of Wanderu), and Sharon Kan (CMO of Attentiv). The panel, moderated by Robert Adelson, business and tax attorney and partner at the Boston law firm of Engel & Schultz LLP, will share their own stories and answer your questions on how to find the perfect core team and help foster success.

I asked Rob and Adam for some of their suggestions for founders before the panel:

1. What are some of the key things to look for in a co-founder? Is personality more important than skills, or vice-versa... or are they equally important?

Rob: Startup founders should ideally have complimentary skills, but chemistry is more important than skills.  Find someone who thinks the way that you do about the world.

Adam: Depending on the venture, there’s always a set of minimum skills required, but frankly those skills alone shouldn’t be particularly hard to find in today’s market. I view a personality match as much more important. More specifically, a team’s co-founders should all share the same vision about why the venture exists, where it should go, and the path to take to get there.

2. What are some of the common areas of conflict that arise between co-founders that could be avoided if people made wiser choices in picking whom they co-found with?

Rob: Most tension between co-founders is around salary, equity, and role.  Will one founder report to the other?  Will you split equity evenly?  These discussions are difficult, but helpful to have before you start.

Adam: If co-founders’ passions, motivations, and visions for a venture aren’t in sync, there is no way they can build a successful business together. Differences in these areas may take time to surface, but when they do, they can grind a venture’s progress to a halt, plaguing decisions ranging from fundraising and equity sharing to hiring and product development.

3. What about team members? It always changes the dynamic when you bring in your first team. How do you make sure the impact is positive?

Rob: Your first 10 hires should be approved by everyone in the company.  They need to have the same values and buy in to the same vision as the rest of you.  Early stage companies need to be almost cult-like to be successful.

Adam: When the team is small, make sure everyone is involved in the hiring process. Early hires have a huge impact on culture, and everyone needs to feel like they have a say in early team growth. Objections from early team members to a new hire need to be taken very seriously.

4. One thing we'll be talking about is how to keep everyone happy while maintaining your own boundaries. Is that fully possible? If so, how?

Rob:  I don't think it is possible, nor should it be a goal.  You can't keep everyone happy.  It's more important to just do what is best for the company and if some people are unhappy maybe they are no longer a good fit.

Adam: When you lead a team, you can’t be everyone’s friend. When you make decisions that aren’t mutually agreed upon, a desire to keep everyone happy can undermine what’s best for the business. Focus on the fine balance between maintaining an inviting culture and reinforcing the team’s respect for your ability to lead.

5. What are some of the top things to look for in new team members? How do you keep team members happy?

Rob: Look for shared values, and provide them challenging work and the ability to make an impact.

Adam: Interviews seem to be focused solely on what someone knows. I’m much more interested in what a person doesn’t know. Talented and skilled people who are driven by a desire to learn and grow seem more likely to roll with the punches (and be successful while doing so).

6. What are some of the key attributes of a good leader, and how can you develop them when you're also focused on fundraising, building a product, etc?

Rob: I think this varies company to company, but in general, I think good leaders need to be able to resolve conflicts, motivate employees, and absorb a lot of the psychological ups and downs to shield the team from them.

Adam: Great leaders lead by example and demand their team members to do the same. This can range from a strong work ethic to an appreciation of another’s job well done. Team members follow those who produce at a high level while respecting and appreciating the contributions of the broader team.

Co-Founders and Core Team: Finding Them, Protecting Yourself, Managing Expectations: Tuesday, Feb 4, 7:00 - 10:00PM, Constant Contact, 3rd Floor, The Great Room, 1601 Trapelo Rd., Waltham, MA

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Christina Inge is VP of Marketing (and employee #3) at EdTrips, the online platform for planning and managing educational travel. She also serves as Vice-Chair, Marketing and Alliances, of IEEE Boston ENET.