Building Teams · Sales

MVC - Minimum Viable Company: what does a minimum viable team look like for a tech startup?

Rob G

March 13th, 2015

What does a startup team look like that maximizes the odds of getting a viable product to market at minimal cost (risk)?  Every startup must have 2 things: product and customers.  One you build the other you acquire.  My hypothesis is every startup must have a minimum of 2 skill sets: development (product) and sales (customer acquisition).  So why do we see so many tech startups with only dev skills and no selling experience?  Does a MVC also require a designer? 

Anecdotally, I spend what time i can spare at a local incubator / co-working space.  There are about 30 tech startup teams (mostly 1 or 2 people) working hard to get a product out and get traction. Only a small fraction of these teams have any co-founders with skills (experience) other than development. 


March 13th, 2015

"So why do we see so many tech startups with only dev skills and no selling experience?"

My own anecdatum is that I see a lot of startups with selling experience but no dev skills. They put up a landing page that spams you into signing up for their MailChimp newsletter, then if they ever get around to actually releasing a product, it's a piece of garbage.

I think, if you're sitting in incubators or coworking spaces, you've specifically selected yourself into an environment that appeals to developers, and your observation will naturally follow. Coworking spaces are places of doing. In my case, my selection bias is because I read Hacker News and Reddit. Link aggregator sites are places of telling. Of course that is what we see.

So why are so many teams inadequate in some area, whether it is sales or development or design or legal or marketing or operations? Because everyone only knows what they know how to do, and we've all been told, "if you build it, they will come." What is "it"? We're never told. No, scratch that, we're told it's whatever your "passions" are that you're supposed to "follow". Our popular media reinforces the idea that all that is necessary is perseverance inside ones own sphere of influence. 

Most people, regardless of background, aren't very aware of the role the advertising plays in their decision-making. We all like to think that we make our decisions based on merit. A lot of people have business ideas that don't go anywhere. They might even write massive business plans and talk to their friends about it, because they heard somewhere that that is how you start a business. For a developer, however, we can actually *do* something about our ideas. So take the normal naivete towards success of the masses and add the ability to actually build and you end up with a lot of 1-star projects on Github.

There is a joke in Computer Science that somewhere in Russia there is a kid who wrote a program that proved the P=NP conjecture on his Cold-War era PC clone, and just never knew what he did to tell anyone about it.

So few people know what it takes outside of their own skill set to be successful in business. It's a whole Venn diagram of skills that have to intersect to find that way. If you're in one bubble, you might only see a few of the other bubbles and not the whole set.

That said, what is that set? I think there are certain *jobs* that need to be done, no matter what, but who will do that job is really going to be up to the specific people you have. I know developers who are excellent salesmen, have a good eye for design, and have the hustle to spam the tech press enough to get on top of the ever growing startup pile. In the early stages, they aren't going to need *anyone*. There are three major tasks of sales: 

1) get new people in the door. This is obviously marketing.
2) get them to buy. This is obviously sales.
3) and get them to come back for more. I think this is doing a good job of whatever you're selling. In tech startups, that's development. It'd be different if you were in a service industry. Regardless, you get people to come back for more by giving them more than what they expected.

If you're doing a startup, I think you have to do all the jobs yourself at some point, or else you won't know how to hire for it. You won't know what all the jobs are, even. Or else you end up in the situation you've described, either without anyone running sales, or nobody doing good job of it. It's when the whole thing grows bigger than you, that's when you need to find people. And you'll know who you need to find. You'll know, "I suck at making things people understand, maybe I should hire a copy-writer." Or you'll see, "I'm exposing myself to a lot of risk with all this user data, maybe I should have a lawyer review my TOS". 

The only time I would consider partnering with someone is if we both know each other well and we both are confident that the other is particularly skilled within their wheelhouse, and that our skills complement each other. But Paul Graham told everyone you *have* to have a cofounder. He meant that you need to build to the point where you have that person you can trust. But a lot of people are putting the cart before the horse on this issue. They have no clue what the work takes, so they just stick a name in the slot. Of course they fail.

Kate Hiscox

March 13th, 2015

I don't agree on the 'incubators are a waste of time' comment. We went through 500 startups and if you work the relationship, it opens a lot of doors in terms of recruitment, investors, customers, feedback and promotions from just about any company you could think of. Accelerator money is expensive, no doubt, but you work it back in other ways including tens of thousands of dollars of credits from solutions you'll probably need.

But before any of that... validation, validation, validation.


March 15th, 2015

Richard, I have to take issue with your wording. "brought in a creative person", "Our creative person", "creative people". Creativity is a basic, natural human talent. All jobs outside of assembly line work involve creativity. The only reason some people think they're bad at it is because at some point in their lives, society ground them down, told them conformity was more important.

When you call designers "creatives", you cheapen them as people. Designers aren't designers because they are "creative", they are designers because they have trained in visual communication, just as much as a programmer has trained in mathematics, just as much as a mechanical engineer has trained in physics. Anyone can wield a tool, it takes knowledge and experience to wield it well.

At the same time, you marginalize your other employees. The people who aren't in a design role are now "not-creatives". They become nothing more than automatons.

L. Marshall-Smith

March 13th, 2015

Rob, as a marketing person, I could not agree more. What I see happening with a lot of start up founders, is that they have a great idea, but they've not done any market validation to see if there is a demand for it. One example in particular: a team spent a year developing a product, even hiring a lawyer in steps to get a provisional patent on it, only to find out -- after a year in -- that there was someone else out there marketing a very similar -- almost identical product. They cut losses at that point, but had they done their market due diligence from day one, they would not have wasted time and financial resources on this idea.

That being said, after market validation proves successful, then what's the point of having the best product in the world, if no one knows about it. I believe that a marketing/sales/biz dev person should definitely be involved from the MVP stage to create a MVC.  Bottom line:  Marketing = traction.

Kate Hiscox

March 13th, 2015

These are great points. I see way too many conversations about non-technical co founders and how technical co founders are more valuable etc. This couldn't be more wrong - both are of equal value. The web is littered with well engineered apps and solutions that failed due to lack of validation and traction which generally come by having non-tech co founders. 

Bob Troia Entrepreneur. Builder. Creative Technologist.

March 17th, 2015

Assuming your startup is technology-focused, many VCs (such as Dave McClure of 500 Startups) suggests that every startup should have three roles on their early team to achieve success - "hacker + hustler + designer". This post has a pretty good summary of each of those roles:

In a startup's earliest stages this could be 2 co-founders sharing/splitting those collective responsibilities.

Fred Pierce "Helping to build great hire at a time since 1985."™

March 13th, 2015

For over three decades I've watched/observed all the afore mentioned scenarios/suggestions and have witnessed success and failure grow out of each scenario.  The winning formula, as best I can tell, is for there first to be a real need (in some instances the market does not yet exists). 

After confirming need, explore solutions, paying close attention to the simplest (can't keep papers together...bend a wire a few times, and call it a paper clip).  From this point forward it seems the next step is to confirm yet again market value for such a solution, then build working prototype/model/program while continuing to test potential markets (beta customer, trial runs, etc) while keeping a close eye on what it will cost to deliver. 

It always seems to be at this point the branding and messaging begins.  By this time there is normally a technical person in the loop and someone who understands the nature of marketing and sales...could be a founder or could be anyone else who also agrees to the potential of the solution and sees the potential for a big win. 

It's at this point, if all the above have happened, that I'm interested in drilling down into the details of the deal.  The question I ask myself is "How easy will it be to attract A+ caliber talents to the team?" and depending on the answer I am sometimes willing to consider stock in lieu of fee to help assemble the rest of the critical core team, board, etc.  However, what I've found is the better the likelihood of success the less founders are willing to such a deal...There's nothing like having a little skin in the game to keep your focus.

Carey Ransom Chief Exploration Officer at Payoff

March 13th, 2015

Rob, I totally agree with you that both are needed for a true MVC. And that it is often not the case that both exist in the founding team.

Kate Hiscox

March 13th, 2015

Okay Abel is the smartest guy on FD. I had to get a dictionary!

Rob G

March 14th, 2015

What about design? Why do we not see more designers on the earliest teams?