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4 Secrets To Building (Or Rebuilding) A Great Team

Startup Weekend Phoenix 2010 - Day 1

By Julia Hu (Founder & CEO, LARK)

You are always building, and rebuilding a great team. It is never in stasis – even when you are not hiring you are tweaking roles to better fit people within your company, or partnering with strategic partners, or letting people go.

At the end of the day, your team is first (or a close second) in what makes your business successful. But, it’s definitely first in line for how happy you are everyday when you are slaving away on building something new.

Here are four lessons that I have discovered building my own team at LARK, and hope I am living by:

Lesson #1: Build a team based on values

It wasn’t until our team was around 7 and we were interviewing for our 8th teammate that I suddenly realized there was an unspoken common set of values that our team all seemed to share.

We were still small enough that the whole team interviewed every single candidate independently. I then independently asked everyone for their yay or nay – and to my surprise, each candidate, even though some were incredible people, was unanimously voted in or out by the team. We all seemed to know who fit and didn’t fit in our company.

It’s not that our team is similar – we’re all pretty quirky and consider ourselves independent thinkers, but it was the first time that I realized we had made our own set of values. For example, we valued people who listened and then were confrontational, we didn’t value someone being an independent rockstar, that we valued a bit of mischief over poise.

Be extremely methodological about articulating your core values so you can have a framework to prioritize equally “good values” and make hard decisions. What’s hard about this is that values are assumptions and norms that are unspoken, and everyone just takes it for granted. However, the larger your team becomes, the more conscious you need to be in institutionalizing these values.

Lesson #2: Build a core team based on defensible strengths.

Understand what you need to defend and develop to build a successful business, and think of everything else as a support system.

In other words, hiring a team is risky – focus on hiring those that will lower your risk and outsource everything else.

Only when you and your team are ready to be married to a motivated startup-type person and their skills are core to your business should you hire them as an employee.

At LARK, our key defensible strengths are user experience, sleep, and mobile tech. To mirror that, our biggest employee teams are behavior change product people and mobile engineers. However, because sleep expertise is truly a complex academic subject, our amazing sleep experts that help us build out the product are also focused on leading cutting edge research for the top universities, so they are contracted advisors.

Everything else we partner or outsource creatively. Partners have proven models of success, the know-how, and the relationships to de-risk your company. Find the right ones. Manufacturing is really hard for us – so we partnered with the top manufacturing supply chain company, PCH International, and created a new business unit (they never used to work with startups) to scale quickly.

Lesson #3: Reward risk well but don’t forget the 1 year cliff!

On the risk reward curve, there is the most risk at the beginning of the journey, and the least cash, social proof, and other great people to work with.

The real toughness of a startup is at the moment that you need the best people, they are the hardest to hire. But this is exactly the time you can’t settle. You have to be the pickiest you will ever be in hiring to find the most risk-taking and nimble and sharp people to turn an idea into a business.

And once you find those people that add some magic, then hire them as an employee, reward them with a rich stock package, and ask them to take a risk with you.

However, while almost everything else has to be based on faith, I am a firm believer that everyone, including the CEO and founders, should take 1 year cliff on 4 year vesting. After being pretty naive, I realized that not all co-founders and teammates are equally vested in the success of a company. Not everyone will be willing to mortgage a home or work 16 hour days. And for those who don’t fit the bill, splitting up without splitting the baby is important.

And that leads me to the last lesson that I learned the hard way, the one that stresses leaders out the most.

Lesson #4: Firing is part of the job. Fire quickly, experiment often.

In fact, it’s proven through lab research that leaders loathe nothing more than firing their team. I sure don’t – that’s why we don’t hire casually. Most people think about the sunk costs – how much training they’ve received, how much they know about
the product, how they’re cool people and not that bad at their job – and hope the problem will solve itself.

I’ve found that usually there’s two issues:

  • They’re doing the wrong job. If you think they can be happier doing another job – help them experiment and move around.
  • You’re just not happy with them. And the best advice I got about firing was – “Remember, they are not happy either. They deserve better: they deserve to be somewhere where they are happy.“

Take risks, find amazing people who are unproven, but remember to fire when appropriate.

There you have it – my four secrets to one of the hardest and most rewarding parts of building a company.

Editor’s note: Guest blogger and LARK CEO Julia Hu is a speaker at theWomen 2.0 PITCH Conference on February 14, 2012. Get your ticket now to join the biggest Women 2.0 event of the year!

This post was originally posted at Huffington Post.

About the guest blogger: Julia Hu is the Founder & CEO of LARK, a consumer electronics startup that helps couples sleep better together. Prior to LARK, she was National Sustainability Chair for global startup incubator Clean Tech Open, and ran international marketing in China for D.light Design. She received her Masters and Bachelors at Stanford and has half of a MBA from MIT Sloan (a dropout, but they’re nice enough to include her as a case study and speaker). Follow her on Twitter at @ourlark.