When founding or joining a startup you have to make an assessment of what are the skills required for the job and does this team have what it takes? Even if you're joining as an employee it is going to be a much better bet for you if you manage to pick a winning team.
On top of having the skills, the perfect team is a good fit regarding personalities, culture and communication. In a good team:
- The communication is really efficient and the team can make decisions efficiently.
- The feeling and atmosphere while working together is really positive, synergetic and empowering. Work is really, really fun.
- Everybody understands, respects and shares a set of values.
- The team's traits and skills are balancing each other as in detail orientation vs. big picture, optimism vs. realism.
In addition the team obviously need to be doing the right things and to get stuff done. A start-up team needs to have a very broad skill-set. In this post I'll present my view on the skills required for the job!
The Startup Skillset
No startup can be an expert on everything and they will strengthen their founding team with the early hires they make. However, I think the founding team needs a very broad skillset. The skills required can be divided to the following, slightly overlapping attributes.
- Startup Core Skills
- Startup Communication
- Market knowledge
- Product Development
- Startup Leadership
- Startup Marketing
- Startup Operations
For a young first time founder this is a lot to grasp. Based on my own perception and experience, I'd say most successful first time founding teams might have the skills to build something (4.) they want themselves (3.) and learn the rest on the way. Luck certainly plays a role here. Definitely most of this stuff is not learned in school. Next I will present my view on what I mean with these skills.
1. Startup Core Skills
With the startup core skills I mean skills required to operate in an entrepreneurial environment. These are skills every founder should have. These core skills are related to making the important decisions the company needs to make. It is about how to handle specific situations that only exist in a startup environment (e.g. shareholders agreement, co-founder leaving, having to fire someone, raising funding, communicating the vision, etc.). Even if an experienced manager might have some of the same skills there are certainly a core skill-set specific to being an entrepreneur. For a first time entrepreneur the best way to learn these skills is to get advisors and mentors who've been in the same situations several times.
Core skills are also about being your own boss. You need to have the required skills to learn independently and maintain your productivity and drive. David Jackson has some great posts about this. I also recommend everyone to read the Getting Things Done by David Allen.
2. Startup Communication
With Startup Communication I mean the ability to set the (right) vision and communicate the vision to all of the company's stakeholders. This is usually the job of the company's CEO.
The required skillset contains presentation skills for pitching, fundraising and in general selling the company to investors, partners, customers and potential employees. You should make sure your startup has the required resources to make the vision a reality. You also need to make sure that you have the right focus, that leads to the startup achieving its next milestone towards the vision.
Regarding the presentation skills, I think many people spend too much practicing and too little using them. It is important to get out of the building and forge connections that could lead to meeting suitable investors, customers, partners or hires. You should practice your pitch on the go. Delivering a good pitch is all about practicing it hundreds of times and getting feedback on it. It takes time to develop the thoughts behind it. Pitching really well, might get the attention of your investor and be entertaining to the audience. However it will not help you unless you have a business that is investable.
3. Market Knowledge
Deep understanding of your customers and the market is essential for the success of a startup. Understanding the mechanics of the market is probably the most underestimated skill even if this is improving with methodologies like lean startup & customer development becoming more widely understood. I still agree with Paul Graham about this being the biggest reason why most first time entrepreneurs fail. It is easy to read these books, but really hard to actually act by them. Just make sure that you're building something your users want. Easier said than done.
4. Product Development
This is the one part of the startup skillset, which is quite obvious. You need to be able to specify and build your product. Developing new products and discovering the needs of the users in fast iterations is however quite different from just learning how to code. You need to be able to specify your MVP, test your assumptions and iterate based on feedback. This requires excellent skills to build stuff fast, but also relevant skills in design thinking and product management.
Skills for building products are great and probably the most useful contribution a college degree can make. No wonder that lately engineering degree has been praised as superior for a founder compared to e.g. an MBA degree. Easiest way to learn skills required to build successful products is not only to build them, but also launch them early and iterate based on user feedback.
5. Startup Leadership
You need to be able to inspire and manage your team. This partly overlaps with the skill-set of "Startup communication" as communicating your vision is a powerful tool for inspiring and leading. However there exists a lot more to successful leadership and management, than just communicating the vision. It is difficult to have enough experience of leading a team when you're young. A good place to achieve some experience while at school are the different organizations and student clubs where you can assume responsibility and eventually rise to a position where you are responsible from other peoples work.
6. Startup Marketing
One of your most important goals in the beginning is to get your first users. You don't just want to have the numbers, you also want to understand why they like your product, how to talk to them and how to reach them. There is a lot of skills required for testing different messages with your users and discovering the best ways to reach them.
Testing and experimenting with your marketing channels is fairly technical online marketing. It is called Growth Hacking and there are communities and resources formed around this practice. Growth hacking is about optimizing your inbound sales with things like conversion optimization (CRO), search engine optimization (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM), content marketing and about doing different creative endeavours that allow smart marketers to reach more potential leads.
Practical, technical marketing experience is very important as this is one of your most useful tools to learn about your customers and the market. Luckily this is very well documented in numerous blogs and books, so here you'll have a good library to learn from. I'd say most startups can learn this on the job, but having some experience would of course help you to execute (a lot) faster. In case you're lucky enough to have the skills to build products, then practice launching these products. If you aren't tech savvy, then team up with an engineer to launch his or her products. Combine practicing product management with technical marketing.
7. Startup Operations
I mean with startup operations all the skills and tools required to build and maintain the working environment (operations, development and development operations).
Building an effective working environment is one of the often neglected skills startups need. This is the easiest part to get right, as all you need to do is to observe how other startups are operating. However if you don't have a lot of experience of working in different startups, you might waste time experimenting with different tools and getting your flows right. Getting your processes to work efficiently is important, however you shouldn't be a perfectionist in the start. A startup will probably use different integrated tools for collaboration, product development, product management, sales, support, marketing and social media. Don't worry if you use the sub-optimal (but working) tool in the beginning. Also in case you're not experienced in the startup tools, prepare for this before you go full-time. Most tools have a free tier you can freely experiment with.
Regarding startup operations there are a lot of information out there. Most startups are quite open about what tools they're using, so don't waste precious time when you're in the middle of building your startup in learning about these. Do your research before starting your company. Also I find that recommendations are the king here to separate useful tools from the noise.
Start learning now
It is a big set of highly practical skills to learn. However right now there exists more material than ever to independently learn these skills. I'd argue that there are at least five to ten very relevant, "must-read", books on each of these areas. That sums up to 35 - 70 books each team should know inside out. In case you want to learn the core entrepreneurial skills, it definitely isn't a bad idea to start reading and educating yourself from day 0.
You don't need to be an expert in everything and you can learn on the job. However often founders need to have a rather broad skillset. This is because founders need to agree on the direction of the company, so it doesn't help if one of the founders really "gets" the market in case the other ones don't agree with him.
Also you need to control your 'burn rate', which is how fast you run out of money. The bigger the team, the more money you burn. With five founders, shared office, small marketing budget and low expenses. This would probably still be a burn rate between 20k - 40k €/month. So you'll need 250k - 500k seed investment for being able to concentrate for a full year. As a first time entrepreneur, good luck with raising that. One year isn't such a long time to build the MVP, iterate on it based on feedback and achieve traction backed by solid metrics. So it is great if you can stay flexible by bootstrapping to product market fit and in general having only 2 - 3 founders is recommended.