Lesson Learned #1 From My First Startup

Lesson 1: Get the right people on the bus and in the right seats. Get the wrong people off the bus.


This post is part of a series about the 7 Lessons Learned From My First Startup.

This is the first lesson learned for a reason. People talk about the skills needed and they talk about surrounding yourself with the right people. People interpret these things in lots of different ways. How ever your think about this, you need to take it very seriously. You are going to find yourself in lots of different situations as you go through a startup. You will not know how to solve them all. You will undoubtedly face issues that you have never faced before and you need to have people on your team that know how to solve problems they have never seen before.

My experience was one where we started a new business within our existing business. When this opportunity came about and I was asked to lead it, I jumped at the chance. I was given a team with some input. Our team was made up of A players across the organization. The business team reported directly to me and there was a dotted line from the R&D org. The people were great, and I very much enjoyed working with all of them but there were ups and downs. There were people that wanted on the bus and some that got off the bus.

In looking back we lacked a few things. To start with myself, I really did not know what I was getting into and really had no experience in many of the areas that I was managing. I was learning on the fly. The one thing I did have was the aptitude for a fast pace and change. I really refer to this as my entrepreneurial spirit and this is what got me through. Through that experience I have grown a ton and feel much more confident about my future startups. We would have started from a better place if I would have had that experience going into it but that was not the case.

As for the rest of the team, I realized that while these people were good at their jobs in the larger business, they were not suited for a startup. The team was really good at working on a mature product in a more mature organization. A startup has much different demands and requires someone to be able to adjust to that pace and change. It is not just about the skills needed but the skills needed under a certain set of circumstances. Some of our team to not respond well to the changing environment and it caused other players that were ready to respond to be frustrated with parts of the team.

My lesson that is more widely applied is to really sit down and think about what are the skills you need. Don't write job descriptions. Write skills needed. Start with that and find great people to fill as much of those skill sets as possible. You need to be honest about the gaps and determine if they are something you can live without. This also lets you get the right people in the right seats because the seats are based on skills not job descriptions. You will be much more successful in tackling the issues you will encounter if you have the right people. People can quickly be the constraint or enabler.

The other thing to point out is that as soon as you know that you have the wrong person on the bus - GET THEM OFF. I tend to really have faith in people and work with them. That tends to blind me to their true potential and something I need to become more aggressive about.

This concept stuck with me after reading the book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't but it did not really hit me of the importance until this experience. If you are interested in this subject there is a chapter in this book that is a great resource.