Zero to IPO

with George Northup

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Building and maintaining your team

George Northup

CEO, Startup Whisperer, Lacrosse Coach

Lessons Learned

Make sure that your team has the right technical skills and the right chemistry.

Just the right amount of conflict generates progress and new ideas with collaborative ease.

The most important base to building a great team is to really know its members.


Lesson: Zero to IPO with George Northup

Step #4 Talent: Building and maintaining your team

I look at the teams when I go into companies and look for really two things. One is, let's call it the technical skill set. And that would be anything from, do we have the right engineering products, marketing, finance talents, so there's kind of a checklist for the parts of the team that you need from a tactical standpoint. The other part is chemistry between the teams. And I think the ultimate test is can this team work together effectively in a productive way with just the right amount of conflict, which generates progress and new ideas and innovation, but also in a constructive way.

When I go into a company typically I look for both the technical checklist and also the cultural checklist, and probably most importantly in most companies I've gone into over the years I've spent probably about three to six months really listening to the people to understand who they are and what they're bringing to the table. Once that happens it's almost like a basketball coach where you start to tune in to move the players around. But for me the most important thing is to understand who they are first before I start changing things.

It seems like a long time to wait three to six months in terms of fomenting change. One has to kind of balance how much time is required to really get to know these people and then how quickly do you have to act. I think some of the impetus for time depends. One factor would be the financial situation in the company. I've been in some companies where literally they had maybe 45 days of cash runway left, and in that case I had to cauterize and act very quickly without the benefit of a three to six month window. And that was driven by financial pressures. In other companies there's a much, much longer runway or they might be profitable and that permits this time frame to get to know the people.

Also I would say that sometimes there might be urgent market forces which compel you to start doing things quicker. With those types of things, though, I think they tolerate the longer time frame to understand things. Probably the biggest impetus for a quick hashing might be the financial deterioration of a company, and you may be forced because of a lack of liquidity or imminent runway collapse to do something right away for the company.

The components of a team are fairly standard no matter where you go, and there is a silo for technology and architecture, for marketing, for sales, for bus. dev., for corp. dev., and finance. I think all those silos exist in one form or another almost everywhere you go, and they're nuanced depending on the sector.

I've had some interesting relationships with founders over the years. I've worked with four founders in my career. With two of the founders we took somebody all the way to either an IPO or a sale. With two other founders it became apparent that it was probably time for them to transition on from the company. The founder relationship is very, very delicate because I think there is a prevailing belief in Silicon Valley that the founder is the fountain of innovation and creativity and karma and the alchemy that's special about the company. And I think that's a prevailing belief today in Silicon Valley, and I think a lot of investors are very nervous about tampering with that special karma as it were. And I think there's a lot of validity to this. If you look at any number of companies, if you look at Jeff Bezos at Amazon or Scott Cook is still very involved with Intuit, Airbnb is another example.

So I think the founder is very, very important. So I think that what's very difficult and very, very elusive is where is it appropriate for the founder to stay on and continue being part of the culture and very involved in the company and when not. And I really don't have a hard answer for this, but I think that the health of the company and progress of the company and innovation of the company will be very telling.

And so in the two situations where the founder left I think the overall view at the board level was just that it was no longer a positive impact on the company for the founder to stay. And there was a lot of respect for the founder but it was viewed that they had taken the company as far as they could and it was time to bring another individual to try to take it to the next level.

And I don't view that as a bad thing. Just as an example I would not be typically a founder of a company. It's not in my DNA. However, I could take a company from an early stage, once founded, all the way through. So I think we all have our different skill sets. But I think this is a very delicate balance and it's a hard call to make about the founder staying or not staying. I think the bias in Silicon Valley today is that the founder is sacred and that they should be there no matter what.

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