What Founders Obsess Over (Part 1)

February 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

As a founder, I spend my time obsessing about three things: building a great team, a great product and managing our cash flow.  I am going to write a series of posts about what I have learned about these items.  The first post is going to be about building a great team….because that is where it has to start.

It is well understood that you must have a great team to build a great product/company.  But I don’t believe it is unanimously understood what “having a great team” really means.

My definition of a great team:

I believe that great teams have 4 key elements:

1.  Talented individual contributors top to bottom

2.  Talented management that listens, prioritizes and motivates

3.  An open, candid, collaborative culture that is accepted by everyone…and I mean EVERYONE

4.  No bad apples

The Four Key Elements in Detail

1.  Talent top to bottom.  It might seem obvious, but I think that it is often over looked…a team is only as strong as its weakest link.  Talented people know who is great and who is average.  And it can be really hard to fire average talents, especially if they are well liked.  You and the team can grow comfortable with them.  But you have to force yourself to do that.  You have to force yourself to constantly be upgrading.  Constantly try to build a team of A players.  Don’t settle for some A players and some B players.  And to re-enforce that, you need to reward your A players.  You need to constantly remind them how valuable they are to the company.

2.  Management that listens, prioritizes and motivates.  A few weeks ago we had a team call where the developers ripped into me.  They felt that we didn’t have a focused enough vision.  That certain features weren’t prioritized properly.  It was a tough call that I took very personally.  I am the CEO and thus responsible for setting the product vision.  But what I couldn’t understand was how something so clear in my mind was so unclear in theirs.  I knew exactly what we should build.  But alas, the team didn’t.  Regardless of what I thought, it had to be fixed.  So we started a 2-week exercise on focusing our vision.  We brought in a great UX person to lead us.  This was really important because we needed an outsiders view.  We engaged in a collaborative process that build a common, clear, more focused product vision.  The product vision’s precision helped prioritize features and motivated the team.

3.  An open, candid, collaborative culture that is accepted by everyone…and I mean EVERYONE. Culture is probably the most important thing an entrepreneur will build.  Most of the time it is created by default rather than premeditated actions.  But make no mistake, as the founder, whatever you do, however you act, is creating a culture.  If you want a collaborative culture, you have to listen and be open to change (see #2 above).  And you have to enforce that behavior on everyone and in every encounter.  If you are inconsistent, it will break the culture and break the company.  This is hard to do.  Especially if you have key team members that don’t follow it.  But you have to fix or purge those team members who don’t follow your culture.

4.  No Bad Apples. Again, this is easier said than done.  Countless examples have been documented of dealing with talented employees who don’t fit.  But you have to force yourself to rip off the band-aid.  They have to go.  No matter how talented they are or how much they produce.

The hard part

Defining a great team is easy.  Countless articles and books have been written on this.  What’s hard is actually building a great team.  I have heard the simile that changing key parts of a team is like changing drivers on a moving bus.  I like that analogy because that is exactly how it can feel at the time.  It can feel like you are taking a huge risk of driving the bus into the ditch.  However, that type of thinking will always leave you in a state of never having the right team and always afraid to make a change.  There will be a lot of sleepless nights along the way.  Worrying about transitions and team reaction.  But I believe ultimately, if you are clear and consistent, it becomes obvious why moves are made.  Your team respects the consistency and discipline.  And only with a strong and consistent culture can your team build a great product and a great company.

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