Mooney: Team building in early stage startups

Early stage. Maybe you know the problem you are solving. Maybe you have figured out who your customer is. Maybe you have developed a prototype. Maybe you have recently entered an elevator pitch competition, or you are just starting to share your business idea in a networking setting. Now you need that technical engineering co-founder, or maybe you are the engineer, and you need help searching for the right business model. Either way, you need to build a team. Here are a few of my experiences and lessons learned, while team building in early stage startups.

Kinosol

History:

KinoSol began with 5 co-founders day 1, in September 2014. Because of that uncommon, larger founding team, we experienced moments of growth much earlier than most startups do (both good and bad moments).

By April 2015, we had to let one co-founder go, as the vision and drive did not match that of the other four. That was a tough conversation, with a flurry of emotions swirling around my striving-for-stoicism mind. 

The core team has since been as large as seven, and as small as three. 

Mistakes:

I assumed everyone needed to be a salesperson. Months of time and money were spent on team challenges of “who could make the most cold calls,” and “who could receive the most nos.” 

I was excited to have additional team members, but we didn’t have our own roles and responsibilities clearly defined.

Lessons learned:

We came to the realization we needed everyone playing to their strengths. This helped us to clearly define our roles and responsibilities. 

If a task can be outsourced for the time being, we outsource it.

We’re currently at 3 core team members, and outsourcing work to two teams of five people each — one team for market research and the other for engineering our second product. 

Nebullam

History:

Nebullam began with a more classical startup founding story. Danen had an Aha moment with technology and a problem he wanted to solve, and he went in search of someone who could help build a business model for the technology in 2015 (CTO finds the CEO).

We threw ourselves into the startup circles and went in search of candid feedback from investors (it’s never too early to talk with investors) and community members. 

After 12 months of progress and a plethora of feedback, we realized the future of vertical farming was in automation, which meant software and robotics were needed. At that moment, Mahmoud Parto appeared as our Chief Software Architect and our 3rd co-founder. 

Mistakes:

We are aware that our technologies (High Pressure Aeroponic growing and Artificial Intelligence) are capital intensive, but I was afraid to recruit outside of internships, for the fear that we couldn’t recruit candidates without large sums of money to offer.

I thought this meant we couldn’t recruit until after we had closed our seed round.

Lessons Learned:

A trip to San Francisco earlier this year was eye-opening. Through very candid feedback, I realized you should not have the excuse of needing the money before you have early core team members in place. Use deferred payments, milestone payments, or probationary periods. Sell the vision on your platforms, and you never know who will reach out and want to help or join the team. 

The CEO needs to also be the Chief Recruiting Officer. Right behind speaking with investors for our seed round, the majority of my current time is spent in recruiting.

Since December 31 of 2017, the team has grown from four team members to ten. Everyone’s roles and responsibilities (which play to their strengths) are clearly defined on our Trello board.

Final Thoughts:

If you’re reading this and thinking about your core team and who you need, introduce yourself, your company and end the sentence with, “and I’m looking for a bad ass ___________ to join me,” at your next networking event.

If you’re a one-person team and know exactly who you’re looking for in a co-founder, apply and present at a 1 Million Cups. On the team slide, have a silhouette and question mark beside your photo. Point to the audience and say, “this could be you!”

Lastly, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” – Steve Martin

Cheers.


Clayton Mooney is the co-founder of the Ames-based companies Kinosol and Nebullam and is a familiar face in the Iowa startup ecosystem. Learn more about him here.