Building Your Team: Focus on People, Not Jobs

When building a startup, we put strategic forethought toward product development, marketing, sales and other core functions. But all too often when building a team, we wait to dedicate focused attention until we feel pain.

That pain leads to a public cry for help…a job description posted on our careers site and out in the world via job boards, social media and our networks. The description is packed with a wish list of skills we wanted on the team months ago and a list of objectives that we think we wanted done yesterday.

After posting, we spend hours (weeks, months…) in a mind-numbing cycle of looking for the rare needle in the haystack among an inconsistent flow of mediocre inbound applications. Maybe we get lucky and find someone great.

More often, we squint hard to convince ourselves that the best of the bunch is a good enough fit – that we are better off having someone working on the problem today rather than waiting for the perfect candidate – or we begrudgingly spend a staggering amount of money on an outside recruiter.

In order to break this cycle, we need to focus team building activities around people not jobs.

Jobs are ephemeral, particularly in a dynamic, high-growth startup environment. If the person you hire stays at your company through the vesting period associated with their initial option grant, they will likely have at least a few different formal job titles in addition to the near-constant iterations associated with evolving goals, responsibilities and company needs.

In contrast, people have relatively immutable intrinsic characteristics and accumulated experiences that they bring to your company. It is these characteristics and experiences that make your best hires truly game changing for the trajectory of your business.

You don’t have to wait for acute pain to strategically build your team with the right people.

To shift your approach to team building from a focus on jobs to a focus on people, take the following steps:

Determine Key Intrinsic Characteristics

What inherent qualities are most important for people to possess so that they can make an exceptionally positive impact for your customers and your culture?

Define Profiles

Rather than specific job descriptions, create broad profiles that describe distinct groups of people you need to scale your business. For example, you might define a single profile which encompases early-career marketing, product and operations roles which draw on a similar toolkit.

Prioritize Networking

Create and schedule space to consistently invest in meeting new people who fit the criteria you defined in the steps above. Aim high – strive to meet the people you would love to work with regardless of the context. Networking is like healthy eating, the long-term benefit is real but it doesn’t feel as alluring in the moment as ice cream.

Nurture New Relationships

An intentional investment in networking will yield new relationships. Keep conversations warm with periodic check-ins, ask for referrals and offer your own. Aligning on timing requires some serendipity, but luck smiles on the prepared.

Set Goals, Measure Results and Iterate

Like any other strategic focus area in your startup, you should set specific goals, gather feedback, measure results and use the insights you collect to iterate on your approach.

Upcoming posts will provide more detail on how to implement each of these steps in your organization.  We’d love to hear about the challenges you face in building your teams and the ways you’ve overcome those challenges – please share via comments.

Thanks to my co-author for this post, Kendra Haberkorn. Kendra has spent her career focused on the different elements of the employee experience at companies including Craftsy, where she led the People function, McKinsey & Company, Sports Authority, Accenture and now Guild Education. Please feel free to contact Kendra via LinkedIn.

When Your Processes Fail: The Hard Truth Behind the Fluff

A few weeks ago, I did a quick demo for a product designer in a large tech company in L.A. After we finished chatting about the product, we spent some time talking about his company and a couple of things he had observed in product teams with which he had worked with in the past.

The whole conversation started when he said something like this, “I am not sure how product managers become product managers.” With a cheeky smile, he continued, “More often than not they lack training in psychology and research and yet they are making all these decisions based on human behavior.” He said it with a bit of bitterness in his voice. Since he had been formally trained as a researcher and designer, he probably felt that he was more qualified to be a product manager than his peers, he just didn’t like that job.

The conversation left me thinking about the actual skills and type of thinking we need in order to understand customers. Skills and experience that go beyond learning how to write customer development questions or build empathy maps.

When jobs have a significant amount of human interaction, we tend to heavily rely on methodologies to help us cope with the uncertainty attached to dealing with these tasks. Humans are messy, complex and unpredictable, and the business world often clashes with that reality, especially when we are pursuing scalability, repeatability, and predictability.

I’ve always found it fascinating that businesses of all sizes tend to invest enormous efforts in building processes but often overlook the fact that processes and methodologies are only as effective as the people who execute them. It is what people know, their experience, and how they feel what makes a difference.

Businesses prefer to send people to agile courses or growth hacking conferences, rather than sending them to creativity workshops or soft-skills training. The latter feels like fluff — but is it? We want people to be creative and empathic, to come up with amazing growth strategies and visionary product roadmaps, but instead we build incentives around structure, processes, and tactics.

Processes and methodologies are fundamental parts of scaling any business, but the experience, skills, and commitment of those who make them happen are equally important.

When Good Processes Fail

Good process + bad people = crappy outcome.

You can go to any Chipotle in town and enjoy the exact same beef burrito you would expect in any other Chipotle location. However, your overall experience can be completely different in each place based on who takes your order. Maybe the person taking your order woke up that morning feeling rested and optimistic, or she woke up realizing the rent was due and she didn’t have the money, she is stressed, but she needs to take orders all day from people who can eat baby-sized beef burritos. She may not be happy about it. Either way, you will get a slightly different experience.

Chipotle wants to offer a great burritos with a “personal touch.” But perhaps that “personal touch” had a long night or is having a bad day. You can’t always control the “personal touch.”

While the product designer in L.A felt that product managers needed to be knowledgeable about research techniques and deeply understand human behaviour, some people believe product managers need to be more technical. Regardless of what you think the requirements are, if your job is understanding humans, you need to invest in those skills. You can’t rely on processes and methodologies to guarantee a great outcome. That reminds me of this old school quote from Richard Buetow, an executive with Motorola, about ISO 9000:

“With ISO 9000 you can still have terrible processes and products. You can certify a manufacturer that makes life jackets from concrete, as long as those jackets are made according to the documented procedures and the company provides the next of kin with instructions on how to complain about defects.”

When Bad Processes Win

Bad process + good people = better outcome.

A great example of this principle is a LinkedIn update I found floating on my feed a few months ago. It was from Thomas Case, an HR manager proudly sharing his way of welcoming new employees to the organization.

The post had 10,322 comments and 55,686 likes. I was definitely late to the party. I personally don’t know Thomas Case but the numbers made me curious so I started reading the comments. Suddenly I realized that most of the comments were either praising him for his dedication or criticizing him for not making sure that the office had a window, the carpets were nicer or that he forgot a detail here or there.

It didn’t matter. Maybe his process and check lists were not perfect. Maybe he didn’t account for all the potential needs a new employee could have, but the outcome of his on-boarding process is most likely to be great, a new team member feeling welcomed, a more productive first week, all thanks to the ‘personal touch’ of a good person running a slightly crappy process.

When Good Processes Win

Good process + good people = great outcome.

When a great process is run by great people, it sometimes feels as if there is no process. People have the freedom to change the rules because they feel empowered and accepted. They know their team trusts them, they believe in the business, and they are happy. Creativity flows naturally. Although there is a tacit understanding that some level of structure is necessary to ensure the growth of the business, the structure is never allowed to stop the growth itself.

There are many companies running great processes with great people. I personally admire those that can keep doing this consistently.

An example that comes to mind is MailChimp. Over the years I’ve seen multiple teams at MailChimp ship a number of initiatives that show the power of customer centric processes run by great people.

For example, What’s in Store initiative, is about Meg, a team member in their marketing department, launching an e-commerce store from scratch and documenting every step behind starting a business so they can understand what is like to be one of its own users.

Another great example is UX connected, an initiative led by Aarron Walter, Director of User Experience, in which he coordinated efforts across the entire organisation to make data, especially qualitative data, available to everybody, accelerating their understanding of customers and enabling better collaboration across departments.

These are just a few examples, but it all comes back to the investment they make in people. Check out their about page.

The processes behind these initiatives are likely to be great, but even if they weren’t, the people running them are able to destroy them and rebuild them in order to fulfill their mission in the organization.

Even great processes run by great people fail. They do because they try new stuff, they dare to be creative, they know the goal is not to create a better processes but get a better outcome. Living in a space of constant experimentation requires a lot of soft skills. It requires all the fluff you can get.

Don’t Wait for the Next Round of Funding

You can start very small. If you can’t design your own employee university, you surely can spend $20 a month gifting great books to your team members, or paying for the random meet-up, or creating a channel in your internal chat tool that is dedicated to sharing learning resources or articles.

For these things to work, people need to feel comfortable with the idea of continuous learning, and this means, leaving their egos outside the room.

You need to be able to have conversations that include words like I’m scared, stressed, insecure, unsure, uncomfortable, nervous. Your team many not mention those words in the middle of the sprint planning but they still feel them and when they can’t express them, they focus on the process, regardless if it is a good one or not.

If you have to start with something, don’t start with the process, start with the people.

This was originally published on Medium

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Gymy, 11th Hour, Edutrade and other ideas at #SWDub

It’s lift off at the April edition of Startup Weekend Dublin and the ideas to go through the weekend are finally decided on.

Day 1 saw participants get into the #SWDub spirit with Half Baked. The winner Prison Post, a paper based social network to help inmates get ready for the world outside won.

The game is however over and it’s time to get down to business. 32 ideas were pitched and after voting these 11 have emerged as those to be worked on during the weekend:


1. Gymy – Airbnb for Gyms



2. Health Assist – Health professional directory with online booking



3. Car Safari – Keeping kids engaged while on a long journey



4. Sober Sean – Uber-type service to get you and your car home after a night out



5. Be My Hermes – Last mile postal service via commuters



6. 11th Hour –  Connecting local businesses with last minute temporary/shift workers



7. Skills Bank – Peer to peer skills swap



8. Startup Compost – Liquidation platform and knowledge repository for failed startups



9. Twirle – Social network connecting shoppers from the fitting room to fashion enthusiast



10. Xiron – Virtual coaching platform for gaming



11. Local Mi – Connecting customers to local businesses


The teams have been formed and it’s time to get into the trenches to validate ideas, build products, get customers, and priceless feedback from our on-the-ground and virtual mentors.

Many thanks to our sponsor Domino Pizza, Google for Entrepreneurs, DCU Ryan Academy, Bank of Ireland, and The T-Shirt Company for the support so far.

Keep up with the action on twitter via hashtag – #SWDub.

#SWDub Mentor Series: We need more cyber security startups

Paul Watson is a full-stack web developer and current Chief Technology Officer at Storyful with 12 years of experience in the industry. His primary technical skills are in Ruby on Rails, SQL, JavaScript, HTML and CSS. 

On this second edition of the #SWDub Mentor Series, sponsored by Bank of Ireland, we reached out to him to tell us about his role at Startup Weekend as well as his expectations for the upcoming event.

Storyful’s Web Front-end Developer, Serena Fritsch and CTO, Paul Watson


Q. What are your thoughts on Startup Weekend and how have you participated?

I think this will be my fourth Startup Weekend, all in the mentor role, and each time I’m blown away not only by the ideas but by the people there. The organizers and other mentors are the best Ireland has and the teams are so diverse.

I have also come to see that the Startup Weekend is one of the few hackathon-type events that results in long term change, real businesses and ideas come out of the weekend, go on to secure funding, growth, and becoming success stories.


Q. What is one sector or space you’d like to see more ideas from during the Startup Weekend?

That will definitely be Security. This is because even since the last Startup Weekend in November there have been further breaches (Sony) and the industry is getting even more investment from all sizes of business.

The industry also needs novel ways of protecting data and systems, the established ways are not working and startups are great at bringing new thinking to an industry. Moreso, social media platforms are lagging when it comes to team based security. The password to your million-follower Twitter account is shared amongst your whole company? That’s crazy!


Q. What tip do you have for participants and area of expertise are you happy to help with?

Everyone in the team has to talk to potential customers, not just the designer and the business person. Everyone hears something different when a customer speaks and that all needs to be collected and discussed.

As to my area of expertise, I can help out on all matters technical including: front-end, back-end, infrastructure, but I always need product-context to give good
technical advice.

Use Ruby! Don’t use Ruby! It depends.

That’s it from Paul. You can catch him on twitter at @PaulMWatson. He’d also be around mentoring and coaching teams at the Startup Weekend Dublin. Do share and stay tuned for the next post in the #SWDub Mentor Series courtesy of our sponsor, Bank of Ireland.

Startup Weekend Day by Day Breakdown: Friday

swpgh-day-3-40So its Friday evening, the ideas have been pitched and voted on. What happens now?

Forming teams

Forming teams is an organic process. You can join any team that you want to join. If you like someone’s idea, talk to them and see how you can help the team.

Some ideas will attract more people to it. So the way you pitch your idea is important ( Some ideas will find it harder to build teams. You may have to go out and talk to people individually to get them to join your team. You have to sell people on your idea and tell them why they should be helping you with your idea. This part of the evening is most chaotic and it is designed to be this way. Its going to be a tough process to recruit people to join your team. So push on through and build your team.

We found a correlation between successful pitches and team building: the better the pitch, the easier to build the team.

All teams must have a minimum of 2 people and at most 8 people.

What if I am unable to build a team or my idea wasn’t picked. 

This is a natural occurrence. Some ideas will not be able to put together a team before the night is over. It happens. The WORST thing to do is to just leave and not return on Saturday. Please dont do that. You came all the way to Startup Weekend to learn about building startups and to challenge yourself. If you leave now, you will miss out on the learning you can do over the weekend. And worst of all, you will miss out on building new friendships with all the people around you.

So if your idea wasn’t wasn’t picked or you are unable to to build a team, find a team/idea that you like and join it. You will learn so much that weekend so you can apply it to your own idea after the weekend is over.

Cool, I got a team! Now what? 

The clock is ticking away! Get to work! Get to know your team. Exchange contact information with each other. Start to discuss your various backgrounds and expertise. Asses what each other can do and get yourself ready to hit the ground running on Saturday morning.

-Andrew Young
Startup Weekend NYC

Networking efectivo: 7 tips para sacar lo mejor de un meetup

8014103405_47689f67b6_bFoto: Santiago Zavala

En la actualidad existen decenas de actividades dirigidas a fomentar el desarrollo e intercambio de redes de contactos donde se reúnen personas a compartir experiencias, charlar, identificar puntos de interés común y encuentro colectivo donde se detonen diferentes interacciones humanas con objetivos específicos. He sido testigo de un sinnúmero de eventos con formatos diferentes que pretenden lograr lo mismo: ser un punto de encuentro donde las personas con intereses comunes puedan conocerse y detonar el fenómeno que tanto auge tiene hoy en día: networking.

En estas sesiones he tenido la oportunidad de conocer a personas muy interesantes, he podido iniciar relaciones de negocio, he conocido buenos amigos, conocí a quien eventualmente me ayudó a estar trabajando donde hoy trabajo e, incluso he conocido chicas con quienes he salido. Sin embargo, no siempre he sido capaz de aprovechar al máximo esta oportunidad de conectar con personas que pueden abrir panoramas nuevos—tanto para fines profesionales como personales—porque, o bien no tengo ánimos, no me siento preparado para interactuar o simplemente mis pensamientos están puestos en otra cosa. Continue reading “Networking efectivo: 7 tips para sacar lo mejor de un meetup”