People are a key element of the success or failure of a software startup. Great people can build great things while ordinary people couldn’t differentiate a great thing from an average one. This is why aspects such as the hiring practices, culture, values and, ultimately, the employer-employee relationship should be the most precious relics of any startup.
Despite many challenges, I believe that we have done a great job at Tellago Studios and Tellago when comes to hiring and attracting talent. Up to this point, we can’t say we have had any hard time finding great engineers and we’ve managed to organically grow a very unique culture that contributes to the general happiness of our team. However, we also have learned a lot of lessons in terms of employer-employee dynamics that I think are worth writing about.
In 1885, Louis Pasteur used his knowledge of inoculation to save the life of a nine-year-old boy named Joseph Meister, who had been bitten by a rabid dog. When the Nazis captured Paris fifty-five years later (in 1940), Meister, working as the gatekeeper of the Pasteur Institute, was ordered by a Nazi officer to open Pasteur’s crypt. Rather than do so, he killed himself.
Startups present a unique opportunity to build a loyal relationship with the founders and with the company in general. Being loyal is not only important because it helps you navigate through the tough times together but because it builds up dreams, relationships and principles that last an entire lifetime. If you feel that you are working on a startup that is not worth your loyalty then you should probably look for a different job. At the same time, you should expect loyalty from the founders as well.
Like any other great gift in life, loyalty needs to be earned. As a founder, you should be extremely loyal to your employees. You should care about their career paths and work intensely to provide an environment on which they can put their talents to work for the best of the company. Without that level of loyalty, it is almost impossible to build any type of culture or environment that will inspire people to work for your company.
Make Everybody Better
Los Angeles Lakers guard Rod Hundley once roomed with Elgin Baylor, one of the greatest scorers in the history of the NBA. One night in New York, Baylor set a team record, scoring seventy-one points in a single game.
As they got into a cab to ride back to their hotel, Hundley put an arm around his teammate: “What a night we had, buddy!” he trumpeted. “Seventy-three points between us!”
Software startup environments provide a unique opportunity to work with people that share your same vision, passions and, if the founders of the company are doing a decent job, even talent around certain technologies. Given the craziness of software startups, you are very likely to spend more time with your colleagues than with your friends and family. Every day, put forth your best effort to contribute to making your colleagues better and, in the same manner, take the time to learn from them.
Building an environment that stimulates constant learning and improving is something that should be part of the core DNA of a startup. Most of the time, it comes easier if the founders share a passion and practice for learning and exploring new things.
At Tellago and Tellago Studios, Elizabeth and I, working together with the team, have managed to build a culture in which it is almost impossible to not learn new technologies on a weekly basis. Even if you try to not learn on purpose you will get bombarded with so many discussions, debates, and challenges that you will find it very hard to accomplish your mission. We complement that by hiring people that share our passion for learning and mastering new things.
Avoid Job Hopers
If you are the type of person always looking for a bigger payday and incapable of committing to a company, then you shouldn’t work for a startup regardless of how much you like the company. You, most likely, belong in bigger and more structured corporations that can offer clear financial benefits without dealing with the challenges of a startup environment.
If you are decently talented, you can always find another company that pays more for your services. What you are going to have a hard time finding, are companies that offer you the pride and thrill that you experience when you are building something bigger than yourself.
As a general practice, I tend to not read too much into a resume. In my experience, most resumes, and even your profile in a professional network like LinkedIn, is not an accurate representation of your skillsets. When I scan through a resume I look for aspects that help me understand the talent and character of the candidate. One of the aspects I pay attention to is the number of jobs a candidate has had in recent years. Generally (there are exceptions) I could be a little predisposed to not hire “job hopers”.
As a founder, I would recommend avoiding hiring “job hopers” unless you have a good reason to do so. Definitely avoid building an entire team of “job hopers” just because they bring some talent to the team.
Work With People You Admire
Christian Bale was delighted to play the villain opposite Samuel L. Jackson in Shaft. “It was a real honor,” he later remarked, “to be called ‘motherf—er’ by Sam Jackson!”
If you are planning to join for a startup, make sure you believe in the founders as much as you believe in the vision of the company. Startup environments will bring long hours, tight deadlines and other challenges into your life. Make sure that, at least, you take that journey with people you admire and believe in. If you don’t feel admiration or respect for the talent, passion or vision of the founders of your company, then you are better off going somewhere else.
Starting a company goes beyond having a decent idea and the resources to execute on it. Ultimately, companies reflect the talent, passion and character of the founders and the team. Make sure that, at every step of the way, you honor, protect and work very hard to improve that image. Make sure you surround yourself with people you respect and admire and that believe in you but, at the same token, do everything you can to improve every day as a founder and grow those beliefs onto dreams and passions.
Remember that your most talented employees will always care more about passion, talent and vision than about control. Great companies, big or small, get to be bigger than any individual and that applies for the founders as well. If, at any point, you feel you don’t have the talent, strength or passion to take your company to the next level either avoid taking that step or step aside and let other people lead the way.
Be a Fighter
When J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in 1995, it was rejected by twelve different publishers. Even Bloomsbury, the small publishing house that finally purchased Rowling’s manuscript, told the author to “get a day job.”
At the time when Rowling was writing the original Harry Potter book, her life was a self-described mess. She was going through a divorce and living in a tiny flat with her daughter. Rowling was surviving on government subsidies, and her mother had just passed away from multiple sclerosis. J.K. turned these negatives into a positive by devoting most of her free time to the Harry Potter series. She also drew from her bad personal experiences when writing. The result is a brand name currently worth nearly $15 billion.
Being part of a startup entails way more than building new products and working on small teams. Startups also bring with them uncertainty, instability, growing pains and other challenges that will test your beliefs in the company and founders. Particularly if you are going after a big opportunity, most of the time it is not sufficient to execute flawlessly, sometimes you have to fight very hard to accomplish your goals.
As part of your hiring practices, make sure you can clearly identify “the fighters” within your team. When facing difficult times, you need the right combination of talent and fighting passion to pull through them. Additionally, as a founder, you owe it to your employees to fight to accomplish the vision and preserve culture and principles of your company every step of the way.
Wear Multiple Hats
During the initial phases of a company, you will be asked to perform multiple functions some of which won’t be aligned with your expectations. While this should be an exception rather than the rule, be aware than versatility and flexibility are sometimes as important as mastery in the early stages of a company.
Plain and simple, hire technology and business generalists into your team. Let’s be clear, being a generalist doesn’t mean that you are haven’t mastered any particular skill. Instead, it means that you have the skillset of playing different roles effectively in order to make your team better. Additionally, as a founder, be aware that many times you are going to sacrifice working on some of the areas that you truly love in order to perform other necessary functions.
The virtuoso violinist Niccolo Paganini often played using fewer than four strings. “One evening a rich gentleman begged… Paganini and [a guitarist named] Lea, together with a cellist named Zeffrini, to serenade his lady-love… Before beginning to play Paganini quietly tied an open penknife to his right arm. Then they commenced. Soon the E string snapped. ‘That is owing to the damp air,’ said the violinist, and kept on playing on the other three strings.
“A few moments later the ‘A’ broke… but he went on playing. Finally the ‘D’ snapped, and the love-sick swain began to be fearful for the success of his serenade. For what could Paganini do with only one string on his violin. But Paganini simply smiled and went on with the music with the same facility and strength of tone that he had previously used on all four cords.”
As part of your professional career in the software industry, take the time to master a particular skill. Whether it is a programming language, a specific technology or a general technology segment, try to become one of the best in that specific area. Even if you don’t get to utilize that specific skill your entire career, the abilities you acquired when mastering a specific subject will take your learning skills to a completely different level and, most likely, will help you to master many other skills. Contrary to popular belief, becoming one of the best in the world in a particular technology subject is not as hard as it sounds.
During the interview processes at Tellago and Tellago Studios, I always try to find out whether the candidate has either mastered a particular skill or has the ability to do so. Whether big or small, the ability of mastering a specific skillset is a testament of intelligence, will, hard work and having the capacity to improve. As a founder, I am sure you can use all those skills on differ