Overused Startup Term of the Day: Smart Team

A lot of times, people tell me they like a particular founding team because they’re really smart.

I’m not 100% sure what that even means, nor am I ever in a position to counter that.  I fact, I don’t think I’ve ever taken a meeting where I didn’t feel like I was sitting across the table from someone intelligent.  So, if everyone is smart, why even bother mentioning it as a differentiating factor?

At the same time, I certainly don’t feel like startups that go out of business are a function of founder stupidity.  Therefore, is raw intelligence even that important and, if so, how can I measure it?  If we gave IQ tests to the most successful founders, would they be smarter than the ones that failed?  I think something like endurance would be a more deterministic factor. 

Obviously, you need *some* amount of intelligence to start and run a company.  However, what if your key to success isn’t raw intellectual processing power.  What if it’s a world-class ability to sell?  I’d say salespeople probably score very high on empathy, emotional intelligence, etc.  Those, to me, seem like much more important qualities for certain businesses.  If I’m depending on someone to sell to the retail merchant population, a notoriously tough nut to crack, I think I’d rather walk out of a meeting with the sense that “That guy can sell” or “I’d trust her as a partner” than “That person can solve a quantum physics equation.” 

In the same way, you could present a team that is *the* team you’d want building big databases around big data, but that doesn’t mean you’d want them designing a fun dating application focused on teens.  I’m totally generalizing here, and it’s very possible that a bunch of big data quant geeks would be awesome at designing Match for teens—but it wouldn’t be their quant skills that led them there.  It would be their other, more empathetic, creative soft skills that would probably make them a good fit for this design challenge. 

So when I’m looking at teams, I don’t think about whether this team is “smart”.  I think about whether they’re the “right” team for the challenge.  Do they have *any* domain expertise whatsoever?  Can we discern anything about their past experience to indicate that they’re any better than the next person to solve this particular problem?

In other words, if you made it this far—attracting a team, coming up with an idea you felt had enough legs to cause you to quit your job, building a prototype—you’re probably pretty sharp.  That doesn’t, however, mean that your team has any kind of a distinct advantage over the next team, who is also pretty smart.  You graduated Harvard, you’re smart.  Your competitors, also Ivy League, also smart.  Smart only gets you so far.  Being the absolute *right* person for the job, in my opinion, is better than being the *smartest* person.