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Minimum Viable Team

You have a million things to get done at your startup, yet you only have a handful of people to do them. How are you ever going to get it done? Who should you hire? What should be the makeup of a founding team? What is the Minimum Viable Team, if you will, for a startup?

To make life simpler, I'll take a page from George Carlin, who masterfully widdled down the Ten Commandments down to two simple rules. I can break down all the things a startup needs to do into three ideal people.

Let’s start out with the basic functions of a tech company:

1) Engineering
2) Marketing
3) Sales
4) Business development
5) PR
6) Design
7) Product Management
8) HR
9) Operations
10) Finance

Ok, that's just overwhelming.

Ready to start simplifying?

The last two are pretty basic. On a 2-3 person team, there really are no “operations”, save for some light calendaring, and “finance” is pretty simplistic. To the extent that you need bills paid and some simple bookkeeping, you should 100% outsource this, because it’s not a good use of anyone on the team’s time. Let’s call these tasks “Some outsourced crap the team shouldn’t be thinking about.”

Now we’re down to nine core business functions on a small startup team.

Let’s take sales and business development. When the product is early and still pivoting, these are kind of the same thing. In a way, you can think of BD as “sales when you don’t know what the product is yet.” It’s basically working with potential outside partners to reach your business goals--which could be revenue, distribution, financing, product development, awareness, etc. If you think about it, these things are all of the goals of another function on the list--PR. Interesting that biz dev and PR would have the same exact goals--but not surprising, since they deal with the same group: outsiders. PR is just a way to get outsiders to come to you, so communicating to them should be part of the same role as negotiating business deals with them.

So, we could generalize this function and call it “Attracting and benefiting from outside interest."

That leaves seven core business functions. Just to recap, we have:

1) Attracting and benefiting from outside interest.
2) Some outsourced crap the team shouldn’t be thinking about.
3) Engineering
4) Marketing
5) Design
6) HR
7) Product Management

But wait, isn’t the recruiting part of HR also about outside interest? Sure is! Getting people to join your company is a key goal of early PR. The part that isn’t about recruiting, like healthcare benefits if there are any, shouldn’t that be part of the crap the team shouldn’t spend time thinking about? Yup! So, poof! Break that baby up, divide it, and now we’re down to six.

Wikipedia defines Marketing as “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers”. So, when you read into it, marketing isn't really selling, it's more of finding and packaging the right thing to sell to the right customers. Hmm.. what other functions in our organization have to do with our customers? Well, a good product certainly requires a good customer or user experience. And what is a good user experience? It involves a deep understanding of the target audience and figuring out what kinds of interactions they’re going to find valuable.

Understanding the audience and designing products that suit their needs requires close cross-functional collaboration to get it right. Therefore, it makes sense that all of these functions in the process--marketing, design, and product management--fit under one roof:
“Customer experience.”

The role of a customer experience person is simple: understand my customer and satisfy them by creating easy to use products that enable them to accomplish their goals. How you do this tactically is a combo of intense user research, narrowing product requirements, getting feedback, user experience testing, etc.

That leaves us with four functions of a startup:

1) Attracting and benefiting from outside interest
2) Customer experience
3) Engineering
4) Some outsourced crap the team shouldn’t be thinking about

Tada!

And given that the outsourced crap isn’t a person at the company, there’s your three person startup team:

“Outside person”
“Customer experience”
“Builder”

Many startups start with two people. When you’ve got two people on the team and you’re going super lean in the early stages, usually your best bet is to have a customer experience person and a builder. Outside tasks, like getting PR for the company, can often be done with the help of advisors and investors who are good at showing the company around. Plus, in such a connected world, at the seed stage, the "outside" bar is low--a good article, review, demo can be a difference maker and get you on the right radars.

More often than not, however, you wind up with an outside person and a builder--because outside people are usually the business people who knew the industry well enough to have the idea in the first place. If you have the magical unicorn that is both a builder and someone who has a process for thinking about customer experience, you’re gold--but not many of these exist. So its left up to you, but you may have another resource you're not thinking about. Many startups outsource visual design work, and instead of hiring that designer, hire a second developer.

I think that designer could be more helpful than you think, and maybe will do more for you than a second developer. The designer should be your third leg of the stool.

That makes the decision of the founding outside person:

1) Learn product management, like, yesterday.
2) Deputize the designer and bring them on full-time to run the product management process.

In regards to the latter, let’s be clear about what we mean by a designer. Design encompases a number of different areas:

1) Interaction design: These people are tasked with learning about your users, coming up with the flows to help them get done what they need to get done, and who maps product requirements to a set of wireframes. In other words, if you build a photosharing app, they’re the ones that realize that an app needs two buttons, taking a picture, and pulling from your phone, to get photos into the system, and put together what clicking each one means.

2) Visual design: These folks put flesh on the wireframe, giving your app a look and feel that will appeal to your

3) Usability: These people not only smooth out the rough edges so that your users can *easily* accomplish their objectives. This is a continual process--one that many people unfortunately outsource as a one time “fix”. If anything, if you had to outsource something, visual design is something you can have someone else do for you to give you a base set of colors, styles, etc that will serve you well in the near term. Usability needs to be a weekly, in-house process. Your whole team should be forced to watch users use the product with their eyes glued open each week.

Point being that your designer, if they're doing their job and you've got them in a process that immerses them in customers, are the closest people in your company to the mindset of your users. While you're out pitching to investors and press in the outside role, they're testing to see whether or not people understand the word "invite" versus "request" in the context of your app. That's the person who needs to own feature requirements, best practices on implantation, etc. When you've got a feature idea, you should be submitting it to them to see whether it jives with their model of a user.

What's even better about this model is that more and more designers are learning how to code and getting a deeper understanding of how the technology works that they're designing for--because those are the constraints they need to keep in mind when figuring out solutions to user problems.

It's also important that this person is full-time--always thinking about the users for this product and not just one of many contract customers. Many startups will tell you that it's nearly impossible to hire a designer full-time and I agree--but that's to hire them as a designer. I know a bunch of designers who have jumped at the chance to own product as an opportunity to gain responsibility, and broaden their skillset while still keeping creative juices flowing and getting high levels of customer interaction. It's a win-win for btw sides and it is the kind of offer startups should consider making. Product management processes can be learned, but curiosity, creative problem solving and continual desire for improving the product are drives found in most designers that are tough to take a class on.

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