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Building Your Business? Build Your Team First

James Clift is the CEO and founder of Durable. James’ mission is to make it easier to run a business than to be an employee.

The hardest thing about growing a startup isn’t nailing your marketing strategy or getting funding—it’s building the right team. Employees play a big role in the success of your business. On the flip side, the success of your employees is dictated by the success of the company. You need great people to run a great business, and you need a great business to retain those hires.

Building your team is what will help you build your company. Every hire, no matter how small the role is, makes an impact. Getting it right is crucial. Here’s what I’ve learned as I grew my business from the early startup days to a more mature company.

Look For Impact, Not A Logo

Making a hire is difficult and time-consuming. The right candidate for a role comes down to a lot of different things: They need to have the right background, but they also need to be a good culture fit.

It’s easy to get swept away by a fancy job title at a major company during the hiring process. Simply because someone had an impressive role at a Big Five tech company doesn’t mean that they’ll be the best fit at yours. I’ve found the opposite to be true.

Stanford professor John Ousterhout famously said: “A little bit of slope makes up for a lot of y-intercept.” In the context of hiring, I interpret this to mean that we should hire someone who hasn’t maxed out their potential and is still growing.

In the early days, we hired someone from a big Silicon Valley tech company thinking that they’d be able to make more of an impact on ours—but that didn’t happen. It’s hard to undo years of working in a culture that moves slowly. Startups need to optimize for speed. Big companies don’t typically move fast. When this employee started, they couldn’t keep up with the pace of shipping and fought to add more bureaucracy and process. Process is important as a company grows, but in the early days, you need to optimize for learning. They didn’t last long and ultimately left for a larger enterprise. I realized that I needed to make hires based on the candidate’s excitement, engagement and growth potential rather than getting sucked in by their resume.

Know That Teamwork Makes The Startup Work

Work should be fun. Or, at least, it should often be fun. Products are generally better and more successful when your team has fun and enjoys talking to one another. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about companies taking themselves too seriously and running a business like a drill sergeant rather than as a group of people developing fun and creative solutions to problems. Business is rarely that serious.

Recently, we hit a major milestone at our company—we hit our revenue target for the quarter in record time. We never would’ve hit our goal if it weren’t for the team’s hustle. To celebrate, we gave every employee $200 to go out for a nice dinner. The catch was that they had to take a picture of what they ate and post it in our “random” Slack channel. The rule about celebrating over dinner made them pause and recognize their success, while posting about it made them connect more with one another.

In the startup world, you’re always looking to meet bigger and better targets—more revenue, more customers and more products. Taking the time to celebrate wins makes them feel sweeter. Many people want to have an emotional connection to their work and their output—they want to feel like they’re part of something bigger than just sitting on a laptop and typing all day. Celebrating helps people meet those needs.

If giving money to your team to have a nice dinner isn’t within your reach, start by spending time on non-work things. We schedule weekly hang times over Zoom to gather, play games and talk about anything. We also try to meet up in person when possible. Even though my company is mostly remote, getting together in person has helped us feel more connected and in sync with each other and our goals.

Find Balance When It Comes To Innovation

When you’re running a business, you have targets and goals that you’re looking to hit. But outside of those goals, there’s still lots of nebulous space. Having a good team makes it tempting to let your employees run wild with their ideas—because they’re great ideas. But that can lead to the overarching vision getting blurry. If you don’t let people try new things, they may get bored, and their work could grow stagnant. The solution: find balance.

As a founder, you set the vision. Within that vision, though, there’s lots of scope to work with. Leaders should allow their teams to find new and innovative ways to solve these problems.

At my company, we have quarterly hack weeks. In these hack weeks, we work on a brand new project outside of our core offerings. The goal is to solve a problem and get that solution live and as big as possible within the set timeframe. For our last hack week, we had a list of problems we wanted to solve. After voting, we agreed to collectively work on an AI assistant. We set a timeline for one week, within which we had to all go hard on this idea and then ship it.

Every day, people were coming in with their components of the product. The energy in the team was off the charts. People were riffing off of each other’s ideas and coming up with new things to add on. The momentum held throughout the week; everyone was excited to see what we could accomplish.

Friday rolled around, and our AI assistant wasn’t perfect. There were bugs. The branding wasn’t quite there yet. But we shipped it anyway, and that product wound up being one of our most successful tools.

It turns out that when you have really great people who care about a problem together in the same room (or virtually), you can naturally build great products.

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