On Nov. 12, I spoke on a panel titled “People, Partners and Culture” at the Startup Summit at the Raleigh Convention Center.
For an hour, my fellow panelists – Leela Srinivasan from LinkedIn, Delisa Alexander from Red Hat and Amit Jain, founder of Prysm – and I talked about hiring and creating company culture at a startup.
Automated Insights is the 10th startup I have either worked for or founded. In the beginning, there were just two of us – the founder and me – building our automated content engine and producing thousands of articles for millions of readers.
We spent about two months of long, consecutive days working closely together.
Had we not fit perfectly together, not only in terms of our individual skills but also our personalities and motivations, we would have failed. There was simply no one else to pick up the ball if we dropped it.
I’ve found this to be true at every startup I’ve been associated with. The core team – those first few hires – is more critical to the success of the company than any other component. They’re more important than the idea, the business model, even investment.
And it’s not simply about hiring the smartest or most talented people you can find.
If a brilliant person may not be the best cultural fit, the internal strife that kind of situation can cause at a young company may be more trouble than the talent is worth.
Early hires must also be passionate about what you’re trying to accomplish. At a startup, life can be a grind, with long hours, less-than-market pay and constantly changing duties. If your people haven’t bought into the mission, and if they don’t absolutely love what they’re doing, they will quit. Or worse, they will stagnate, and you’ll have to let them go.
Large companies might be able to survive with B-level talent giving B-level effort, but a startup can not. The early days of a company are loaded with risk, rejection and potential failure, and it’s going to take the best effort from everyone involved to make it through the tough times.
To attract and retain the best people and keep them at peak production, the founding team must set the cultural tone early and constantly revisit and adjust as the company grows and pivots.
This means defining and communicating the business’s mission, establishing policies, and rewarding accomplishment. Most importantly, however, is creating an environment where employees feel valued, empowered to make decisions, in control of their futures and invested in the the future of the startup.
How do you do this?
Talk to your employees often. And it might help to have those conversations away from the office so the distraction of work doesn’t get in the way.
I’m thankful that I’ve rarely had to let go of an employee I’ve hired. In hindsight, however, I realize that those I’ve let go didn’t fit in with the company culture from the start.
Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer and speaker. Follow him on Twitter at @jproco or joeprocopio.com