Team First or Idea First? (aka “Dude, we’re getting the band back together”)

As I’ve begun to think about my next venture, I’ve certainly spent a fair amount of time thinking about ideas that get me excited, sizing market opportunities and deciding whether to start something from scratch or join an existing venture.  I’m constantly thinking about how best to stack the deck and minimize risk.

However, another cut at the “order of operations” is to begin by team building before settling on a business direction. Each new venture is a chance to start fresh by building the culture you want, learning from what you’ve seen and done right and wrong, and identifying the people with whom you want to work. For the repeat entrepreneur, re-building the team of trusted comrades is ideal. By no means should this be limited to repeat entrepreneurs however; entrepreneurship is a team support whether it’s your first or fifth venture. My experience suggests that vetting concepts with a trusted team is more effective (and more fun) than by oneself.

There are practical challenges, of course, to this strategy. First, if you don’t know what technology or market direction you’re likely to take, you may not have the right skill sets around the table. That said, the best founding teams are generally “athletes” capable of learning different businesses and technologies in a relatively short period of time.  My co-founders and I entered the dental industry knowing nothing about the industry, and one investor even joked that I should enter Dental School at night! Nonetheless, you need to bring outsiders with domain expertise once you identify your market focus – early on at Brontes we brought on one of the best-known dental marketers. Of course, one needs to make sure they’re not hiring too close to home. I made that mistake at my first venture, Handshake.com. As a 23-year-old founder my first hires were mainly the people I knew, other 20-something Cornell alum like me.

The other practical issue is that rarely is the trusted team in a professional or personal place to dive wholeheartedly into a new start-up. I often say that putting a venture together requires the “stars to align.” One can build the team with the explicit understanding that not everyone will be available when the start-up light turns green. I have a number of trusted future collaborators who have since scattered around the country, engaged in various ventures. By using these past colleagues as sounding boards and keeping them in the loop on my progress, I’m optimistic that I’ll work with many of them sometime in the future.

So many times start-ups struggle because of the team dynamics. Let’s face it, there will be rocky times, it’s the nature of the start-up. The first and best thing to do is start with a founding team you trust and enjoy working with.

On this topic, I’ve had the fortune to speak at a number of events over the past month or so.  These include the ICE Cleantech Open and MIT Professor Fiona Murray’s MIT/Russian School of Management MBA class.  At these events, I gave a brief presentation on my philosophy on early stage team building. Here are a select few of the slides I presented.

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