Build a Winning Team in Startup Land
This article was published in the Spring 2022
By Dustin Watkins, DataBased, Co-founder & CTO
Building a winning team will give any business the best chance at success. With each round of funding being achieved by fewer and fewer companies, I have focused on building the right team around me so that we defy the odds. When you have the right team around you, a business will thrive.
Here are a few key milestones for DataBased from my brother's basement to the present.
- April 2018 - I hired our first part-time engineer, and we began coding in my brother's basement. We were both studying Computer Science at BYU and were entirely self-funded.
- March 2020 - we had a working product, signed our first paying customer, and had grown from one part-time employee to four full-time employees. We also continued to operate lean and were entirely self-funded.
- November 2021 - we had grown to six employees, broke the ten enterprise customer mark, and closed our seed round for $3M at a $40M pre-money valuation.
- April 2022 - we now have 14 employees, are very close to being profitable, and growing really well.
Now for a bit more detail as to how we got here. One night, Justin (software engineer #2 at the company) and I were getting ready to leave the basement office and go home. We got a call from Dan Watkins, my brother and co-founder, that a client had decided to move forward with us if we could meet one critical deadline (2 days away).
There was one big problem, we had only built a full integration with Salesforce, but the client used HubSpot as their CRM. Justin put his backpack down and eagerly began looking into the HubSpot API documentation. We, as a team, finished the integration on time and got our first client. Justin and I were not willing to lose. Without that determination, we could not have met the client's needs, and our first customer would have been delayed.
Of the many things that stood out to me about this experience, one was that Justin was a true champion of DataBased. I often ponder on how we got here. How do we have such a strong employee density of fantastic people, just like Justin? These individuals truly exemplify so many characteristics (hard work, commitment, inability to lose) of what I would hope for in our team. Was it luck, skill, or something else entirely that got us here? While there is no formula to know perfectly how someone will work out for a role or how to retain every high-performing individual, I believe specific leadership skills will mitigate the risk. Over the past four years at DataBased, I have learned that it’s a founder's ability to recruit and retain non-optional skills that drive a startup's success.
I don't claim to have it all figured out, but here are some guidelines I have learned about recruiting and retaining for early-stage startups.
- Data-driven approach- Establish a quantifiable way to measure candidates relative to other candidates and benchmark against current employees to help distinguish top candidates.
- Transparency- Be transparent in the outreach and recruiting process, and it will save you time and earn the respect of your potential employees.
- Share the vision- Sell your candidates on the vision/company and their role in realizing that vision before deep-diving into the interviews. It is an initial investment but will save time in the later stages. If the vision is not for them, then cut bait early.
- Prioritize recruiting- Prioritizing recruiting over other responsibilities became apparent once I realized that for every good hire, the company would get an additional 40 hours of work done per week that was not happening before. Every week delayed costs 40 hours of work not being done. Miss a hiring target by five candidates that needed to be hired in the quarter, and that is 200+ hours a week that no one is doing.
- Company Culture- Be extremely mindful of what you celebrate and tolerate as a leader. Both categories will naturally become part of your culture.
- Share the way- Regularly reinforce the why and the company vision to maintain consistent alignment throughout the organization.
- Loyalty- Loyalty goes both ways. To build a loyal employee base, the company must be loyal to its employees.
- Invest in your team- Establish a regular cadence for career development. Each employee should know or have an idea of the expectations and timelines for promotions.
- Employees are humans- When tough things happen in life, do all you can to support them and their families. When someone sees that you are there for them during their hard times, it is easy to return that to the company. The inverse is also true.
- Listen and act- Establish baseline Employee Engagement and Sentiment, and have an operational cadence to improve it. Call out what you are doing to address the feedback.
Company culture is quickly established by whom you hire and what you do/don't do to retain your employees. I was at a Utah Founders convention, and Scott O'Neil, the former CEO of the NBA team the Philadelphia 76ers, posed an interesting scenario. He asked if you had a top-performing sales rep, who smashes their quota every quarter, but treats the rest of the employees like garbage, what do you do? What you decide to do or not do is your company culture.
Culture is more than the company values listed on the website, the snacks, the ping pong table, and unlimited PTO. Culture can be simplified down to what leaders celebrate and tolerate. What does leadership incentivize? How does someone distinguish themself as a top performer, and how are they recognized? What happens when objectives are missed? These are just some questions you can ask yourself that help identify your culture. When a company culture you can be proud of has been established, recruiting and retaining become easier. Once you can recruit and retain top talent, your business will have the best chance to win. So what are you celebrating and tolerating that could be subliminally setting your company culture?
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*Read the latest issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine, Spring 2022