Startup founders (like me) get too much credit.
Sure, by definition founders are critical for getting companies going. But once the Big Idea is funded, the most vital task for any founder is to find the people who will actually build the technology and the company around it.
Early stage tech companies succeed by hiring the right people, and creating a place where their talent can thrive. I suspect there are very few exceptions to that rule.
If founders get good people aboard early, the companys product will soon be created by better coders and designers than the founders, operations run by better administrators than the founders, and product sold by better salespeople than the founders.
So who should make up this critical early team of the first five to twenty staff? Of course, it depends hugely. But I think theres at least one simple rule, a characteristic shared by all great early team members, which helps sharpen all hiring decisions.
People dont need to be geniuses. Or rock stars. Or ninjas. Those can help. But ultimately, they just need to be problem solvers.
You see, when founders raise some cash for their new technology and birth it into the world, it instantly has a million problems. Unpolished UI. No customers. Limited cash runway. No marketing materials. No market awareness.
The mortality rate for early tech companies is high. Even if a technology is useful, it must fight for attention from the humans who might buy it. It must evolve toward strong product market fit. Getting product and marketing right takes constant, speedy problem solving, often from first principles.
Established companies dont have these existential questions about every aspect of their business. Staff can say Im not paid to do that or look the other way when problems appear. They can sit back and wait for training on new technology instead of aggressively figuring it out. The BigCo they work at is established, has momentum, and can survive internal rigidity. It might even encourage it. But if the team at a new technology startup takes that approach, it will crash right into a wall.
Additionally, startups have a more organic internal structure in their early years – sometimes even a bit chaotic. The lack of guidelines, protocols and procedures is made up for by trust and information sharing – and in this environment, once again, people who can communicate and solve problems as they arise will fare best personally and do the best by the company.
Of course, the idea of ‘problem solving’ doesnt quite capture whats really happening. Solving problems sounds like dealing with aberrations that are caused by deviations from a standard.
Startup problems might be better understood as challenges. Options. Possibilities. But however you phrase it, solving these challenges requires a problem-solving attitude. Picture a child given a pile of Lego, and being told to build a moon base. Theres no instruction manual. And there might be a few pieces missing from the set. But theyll get to work anyway.
Solving startup problems is like building Lego moon bases with incomplete lego sets. On the roof of a speeding train. In a storm. In the dark.
Thankfully, startup people like solving problems. It takes knowledge, judgment, and imagination, which are fun muscles to exercise. Forget about the end goal for tech companies of an IPO or world domination. The process of getting there a team fitting together the pieces that will become something great is actually something much more exciting to behold.