Babson Entrepreneur Experience Lab

Elements of the Entrepreneur Experience

Team

The "We" of Entrepreneurship

In the pursuit of a great idea or funding for a venture, many entrepreneurs overlook the value of their teams and the impact that teams have on the viability and success of their venture. Similarly when we talk about entrepreneurship we often focus on the individual when in fact most new venture creation is highly collaborative. Even a sole proprietor depends on a host of other people. There is more than just an ‘I’ in entrepreneurship.

The importance and challenge of teams take many entrepreneurs by surprise; many are under prepared and surprised when people-related issues take center stage. Finding co-founders, maintaining relationships, building teams, and firing people are among the most challenging (and potentially rewarding) experiences facing entrepreneurs. A good team can pivot past a mediocre idea, re-adjust in the face of setbacks, and support one another through a bumpy ride. But problems within teams can hold a venture back as easily as lack of capital or other resources.

Relationships among team members in startups are so important and challenging in large part because startups are intense and emotional experiences. This intensity ups the stakes for team members. And it’s important to note that entrepreneurial teams extend beyond co-founders and early hires. Rather they include all the mentors, customers, family members, and others who help co-create with the entrepreneur. Recognizing the role of other people and empowering entrepreneurs to better deal with teams is critical for understanding and improving the entrepreneur experience.

Opportunities

  1. How can we help entrepreneurs understand and take advantage of an extended notion of teams?

  2. How can we teach entrepreneurs about both building and maintaining quality teams, especially as their ventures grow?

  3. How do we teach entrepreneurs to better accommodate and resolve conflicts among team members?

Extended notion of team

Extended notion of team

Meg

Meg talks about bootstrapping early on, and hugging the virtual network of people working with her.

http://blip.tv/play/h7YEgsuPFgA.html

Matt

Matt made a strategic choice to partner with many different companies.

http://blip.tv/play/h7YEgsyNHgA.html

Chris

Chris talks about the incubation model his business is part of.

http://blip.tv/play/h7YEgsziQAA.html

Lara

Lara says that she could not have gotten where she is without the help of her network.

http://blip.tv/play/h7YEgsz8KwA.html

Startup Chicks

Extending the notion of teams beyond immediate co-founders and employees.

http://blip.tv/play/h7YEgs3LSwA.html

Sabrina

Sabrina has a husband that is a major support.

http://blip.tv/play/h7YEgs3LZQA.html

Brian

Brian talks about different types of investors.

http://blip.tv/play/h7YEgs6vAAA.html

Kevin

It took Kevin a while to learn that he didn't have to be an expert in everything.

http://blip.tv/play/h7YEgs6JKwA.html

Some participants were asked to draw a simple map of the key relationships sustaining their ventures. Instead of just depicting employees and co-founders, the maps all feature the individual entrepreneur as a central character in a much larger collection of people and institutions. That is, the people and relationships integral to the venture extends beyond a formal core team to include friends, family, mentors, investors, teachers, customers, and even religious communities. These maps make clear the extent to which entrepreneurship is a collaborative endeavor.

Some entrepreneurs, particularly college students, have a more developed and more diverse set of relationships. For the students, being associated with a school gives them access to an “instant network” of peer entrepreneurs, student talent, mentors/advisors, and faculty. For entrepreneurs not affiliated with a university or similar institution, these relationship maps place more emphasis on social relationships like spouses, family, friends,  and churches.

In addition to showing who is important, many of the relationship maps provide insight into how entrepreneurs understand these relationships. In the relationship map featured above, Jim, an architectural software entrepreneur in Boston, sees all relationships as different types of feedback loops.

“[There are]feedback loops to create a feature set in the product that is warranted in the market. Feedback loops for pricing [that’s] acceptable to our VARS and end users. Feedback loops from [the] social media/marketing perspective so we are not releasing into a vacuum. Many, many loops...” With a business focused on developing a particular technology and software platform, all relationships contribute something towards that goal. Whether it’s potential clients, state legislature, or family, each of these interactions is an opportunity for feedback and continual improvement of the venture.

People are more important than ideas

People are more important than ideas

Rich

Rich admits that he used to focus too much on ideas, whereas now he focuses on the team and execution; go out there and do it.

http://blip.tv/play/h7YEgsrsYwA.html

Mark

In his role as an investor, Mark places his bets on people, more than an idea.

http://blip.tv/play/h7YEgszHAwA.html

Brian

Brian and his business partner make a good team because they always communicate and always have a similar thought process.

http://blip.tv/play/h7YEgs6uegA.html

It’s well known that investors are attracted to a team over an idea, but entrepreneurs don’t always recognize this. With an intense focus on the business model, the product, marketing, customer acquisition, and launch, team building can become secondary and this can come back to harm a venture. Many entrepreneurs admitted that they were too focused on the idea when, in fact, their team ended up being the most important aspect of their venture. As its been said, “ideas are a dime a dozen;” it’s execution that truly separates successful entrepreneurs. And the key element for execution is the combination of core and extended teams.

At the most basic level, core teams are critical because starting a business is a serious undertaking and having others to share the work and emotional burden is incredibly valuable. If the team has the  right experience, is well-functioning, and able to adapt to change, it means they can shape ideas that much faster and cover more ground. If the team is lacking these attributes, a venture can find itself bogged down in managing team dynamics at the expense of forward progress.

Rich, a first time entrepreneur developing an service to connect food lovers and local, emerging chef talent, thinks in terms of ‘we,’ but admits he’s been so focused on the idea, that he feels they’ve lost time getting an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) out into the market. Rich and his college roomate have always talked about “getting together to do something,” but it took several years for the conditions to be right for both of them. After a positive experience at a startup weekend event which included meeting new team members, they’ve set up shop in Seattle where they’re working through different business model ideas and adapting a preliminary idea for launch.

Mike, a serial entrepreneur In Atlanta developing electric cars, knew he’d need both technology and automotive expertise and sought out “the best and the brightest.” “I have a tendency to try and find those folks because I don’t have any ego ownership and having to be the guy that has the idea.... if they’re the best and the brightest, I’ll figure out a way to make them part of the team and make it work.”

Building a quality team is just plain hard

Building a quality team is just plain hard

Rajiv

Rajiv discusses how difficult it is to hire and how you can become jaded after a few bad hires.

http://blip.tv/play/h7YEgsryWgA.html

Jacob and Susan

Jacob and Susan loaned each other money as a way to fund the venture and build trust.

http://blip.tv/play/h7YEgsr0FAA.html

Mike and Seth

Mike and Seth began by just hiring their friends but then faced the painful realization that they weren't the right fit and then had to subsequently fire them.

http://blip.tv/play/h7YEgsrsRQA.html

Matt

Matt talks about the time when his business partner left to focus on another venture.

http://blip.tv/play/h7YEgsyNQgA.html

Kamal

Building and retaining a solid team is one of the toughest parts of running a small business.

http://blip.tv/play/h7YEgs2pTgA.html

Pete

Pete had a working style that clashed with the culture of his family business.

http://blip.tv/play/h7YEgs6JIgA.html

Building a quality team is one of the most challenging aspects of the entrepreneur experience and there are two places where this challenge is most acute. The first is finding and selecting core team members in the early stages of a venture. Finding people with similar character, commitment, and work styles is more important than expertise or abilities. Finding people with the requisite technical skills is unquestionably important, but people’s ability to commit to the vision and work as part of unified team far outweighs the question of ability. Many entrepreneurs recognized in hindsight that they did not fully appreciate the importance of this insight and admitted that this it was the source of many subsequent conflicts. And of course, these are among the hardest qualities to judge before actually working with someone. It’s relatively easy to ascertain whether someone can code. It’s quite difficult to know what people will be like to work with after the 40th unsuccessful investor meeting when everyone is effectively working for free and one of the co-founders is advocating a significant change of course for the venture.

Even having built a strong team, there is still a lot of hard work required to maintain those relationships. Ongoing team synergy takes concerted effort on the part of the founder, co-founders, and early members of the team. Again, this was an aspect of the experience that many felt surprised by and largely unprepared for.

For example, Mike and Seth, CEO and CFO of an online marketplace that connects people looking for custom home furnishings with craftspeople who make them, bought their business in Cambridge, MA, they had an immediate need for a full team of developers and sales staff. Like many entrepreneurs, they started by hiring their friends thinking it would great to work with people they already knew. However, they quickly realized that some of these people were not the right fit or the best people to be working on the venture. “Which means you have to fire people. You have to fire people that you love, that have contributed a ton to the company because they no longer fit with where the company is going.”