Elevator: To get a startup going, you need three major competencies: the capability to build your product (whether it’s coding, designing shirts, etc.), the ability to sell your product, and an understanding of how to run a company. That allows you take your product to market in a relatively efficient way. Think of having those three as your Minimum Viable Team, and the farther away your founding team is from that the more you’re at risk of having the wheels fall off. The MVT is also a solid foundation to build your team on.
After spending some serious time evaluating Rocket Listings (using the ZBM) and realizing it had promise, the next step was building the foundation to make it happen. The first thing entrepreneurs need is a Minimum Viable Team (MVT) to then build the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). The key operator in the term is “Viable.” The three major competencies needed to be viable are the capability to build your product (whether it’s coding, designing shirts, etc.), the ability to sell your product, and an understanding of how to run a company. It’s rare to find a single founder with all three of these competencies, so there is often some headhunting to do.
The first addition to my MVT was my boss/mentor/friend Steve Blood. Having an experienced entrepreneur to mentor me through the process has been the single most important factor to getting Rocket going. He not only helped cover some of the early development expenses as an equal partner in the startup but also used his 20+ years as an entrepreneur to advise me. Steve is a sounding board for ideas, provides advice and direction, and generally filters any major decisions I make for some quality control.
There’s not always an obvious partner or mentor, but every entrepreneur should spend as long as it takes to find a willing advisor who understands the entrepreneurial process. When Brighter Planet was getting started by Andy Rossmeissl and Jake Whitcomb in Middlebury, it wasn’t until Pieter Schiller, a Midd grad with tons of expertise in the startup world, came on as an advisor and demanded weekly updates that Andy and Jake really made progress. If you’re not sure where to find a mentor, check out this great post from Dave Lerner. A great mentor and advisor will provide more value than I can list here, but at the very least they’re another, more experienced opinion on any key decisions you need to make.
I was lucky enough that Steve not only provided the steps for me to get going, but he also came in as a partner and provided some founder’s capital to pay for development of the site. He is the CTO for an awesome tech company, Kohort, so he provided a ton of technical expertise and helped me manage the developer he set me up with. Essentially, since I wasn’t able to build the product myself, he filled that gap in skills, finding a developer, and covering the costs. We were (and still are) the two halves of the MVT.
Everyone’s experience will be very different, but the best advice I can give is to be very honest with yourself about your strengths and shortcomings. Often, non-technical founders spend a ton of time searching for a technical co-founder, which also puts the power structure out of balance early on because it is clear that the non-technical founder can’t get anywhere without a technical founder’s help. This is especially true at Middlebury, where there is a glut of technical talent. Another situation I’ve seen is technical founders underestimating their need for a co-founder who has experience and skills in the sales side. They seem to assume that since they’ve learned how to code, they can easily learn how to sell and raise money. In my experience, it’s better to separate the roles but still have crossover. More on that later, but a company should be structured so that everyone, including you, can spend the majority of their time on their core competencies.
With a vetted idea and a balanced team, the next move is to start building the product.