Startup year one: Building a great team

Note: This is the first post in a series of musings and reflections on my first year in startup-land.

The most important goal for any manager is to ship product, and the highest leverage task toward that end is to build a great team. I’ve had the privilege of working in companies with great engineering cultures, with developers who ranged from highly competent to freakishly awesome. Going back to Angel Studios, and certainly at TripAdvisor, I’ve had a significant involvement in hiring those teams. But when I joined HelloShopper1, I had the responsibility for building an engineering organization almost entirely from the ground up, and I thought a lot about what it would take to build a world-class dev group, and what that would look like.

It isn’t enough just to hire great individual contributors. It’s a necessary precondition, of course, but there’s a particular joy to being part of a highly effective team – a team that just works, made up of people who genuinely enjoy working together, collaborate effortlessly, share knowledge, ask questions, listen. A low-drama team, where people care about quality, don’t get dogmatic about technology choices, and reinforce a positive culture of learning and helping.

A great team would also be diverse. Quite apart from the issue of basic human decency, diversity would be an important factor in driving overall team effectiveness.

The promise of diversity is borne out in study after study that shows increased success and profits when companies and teams are diverse.
– VentureBeat, Is your startup diverse enough? (h/t @thelist)

There’s little correlation between a group’s collective intelligence and the IQs of its individual members. But if a group includes more women, its collective intelligence rises.
– Harvard Business Review, Defend Your Research: What Makes a Team Smarter? More Women

It’s hard to meaningfully change the ratio of an already large organization (good luck with that, Google), but here was an opportunity to build diversity into the team from the beginning – to increase team effectiveness, to better reflect our customer base, and, I hoped, to create a strategic advantage in future hiring, a diverse team being more likely to attract a wide range of candidates.

Even so, an engineering team is a tool to deliver product, not an end in itself – and with a very small team, a robust product pipeline, and a limited runway, the need to hire engineers quickly was real (and exacerbated when two of the early engineers left the company). No engineers  no team  no product delivery ⇒ angry CEO  DanB looking for another job. No matter what my strategic goals, the primary goal had to be to build out a strong team quickly so that we could deliver product, even if it didn’t meet all of my criteria.

In recruiting, sourcing is the area over which you have the most control. I tried networking. I tried cold-emailing. I tried online job boards. Nothing seemed to work. The one weird trick – who knew? – turned out to be to ask recruiters specifically if they had any female candidates. Suddenly, and with no extra effort, an entire pool of otherwise hidden candidates was revealed. It would be easy here to blame the recruiters for being part of the problem – but I think that dodges an uncomfortable fact. There are good recruiters and bad recruiters, but every single one of them will sell you any candidate they think you’ll hire. The most reasonable conclusion I can make is that I, and people like me, have trained them to send the male resumes first. In the end, we ended up hiring several amazing engineers whom we otherwise wouldn’t have known existed. We didn’t stop trying to hire men (and did, in fact, hire several) – however, we were able to expand the pool of available candidates just by asking.

I feel tremendously lucky to have found this team, and working with them is something I look forward to every day. As in most things, in hiring it’s better to be lucky than good. The current team is small – six engineers including myself, two of whom are women – so it’s hard to draw significant conclusions about the team building process from our experience to date. And, as Erica Baker has noted, diversity is about more than just gender – as we grow, building a team that reflects our community and customers will continue to be a challenge and a priority.

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I’d like to thank Beth Andres-Beck for proofreading an early draft of this post. All errors and omissions are mine.

[1] We recently rebranded from Scratch (a name which was impossible to search for in Google or the iTunes App Store) to HelloShopper (which has the advantage of not being mistaken for a DJ site, MIT programming language for kids, or lottery).


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