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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 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. 


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 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. 


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


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.

Mooney: Team building in early stage startups | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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