Tag Archives: Team

Titles in Start-ups

I had a few days ago a conversation about why I thought titles such as CEO or CTO were not such a good idea in start-ups. I thought this was a close debate and apparently not. So let me try to elaborate.

A good quote – I just found trying to structure my thinking – is “CEO means in a startup Chief Everything Officer”! CTO means someone who does not want to interact with customers while Business Development means the opposite. But you would not use VP of Sales in a small team…

In the book Startup Nation, there is something similar: “The multitasking mentality produces an environment in which job titles — and the compartmentalization that goes along with them — don’t mean much.”

There are two articles worth reading: first, my favorite start-up guru, Steve Blank, Job Titles That Can Sink Your Startup. Second, Start-ups should eliminate job titles by Jeff Bussgang.

Steve Blank explains titles are for established companies with knwon business models and known processes: Companies Have Titles to Execute a Known Business Model. […] Therefore the job title “Sales” in an existing company is all about execution around a series of “knowns.” [For example] Did he have a repeatable and scalable business model? Did he have a well understood group of customers? […] Startups Need Different Titles to Search For an Unknown Business Model. You didn’t need a VP of Sales, you needed something very different. Searching around a series of unknowns. You needed a VP of Customer Development

I am not sure I am allowed to do the following but here is a long extract from Bussgang: “Job titles make sense for mature companies, not for start-ups. […] At business school, I learned all about titles and hierarchies and the importance of organizational structure. When I joined my first start-up after graduation, e-commerce leader Open Market, I found the operating philosophy of the founder jarring: He declared no one would have titles in the first few years. If you needed a title for external reasons, our founder told us, we should feel free to make one up. But we would avoid using labels internally. In other words, there would be no “vice-president” or “director” or other such hierarchical denominations.

Why? Because a start-up is so fluid, roles changes, responsibilities evolve and reporting structures move around fluidly. Titles represent friction, pure and simple, and the one thing you want to reduce in a start-up is friction. By avoiding titles, you avoid early employees getting fixated on their role, who they report to, and what their scope of responsibility is – all things that rapidly change in a company’s first year or two.

So when I co-founded Upromise, I instituted a similar policy. We had an open office structure and functional teams, but a fluid organizational environment and rapid growth. One of our young team members changed jobs four times in her first year. Only after the first year, as we settled into a more stable organizational structure and I recruited senior executives who were more obviously going to serve as my direct reports on the executive team did I begin to give out titles (CTO, CMO, CFO, etc.). But you can establish role and process clarity without having to depend on titles.

Here is Steve Blank visual summary of all this:

In his four steps to the epiphany, he adds a quick check list about this:
Goal of phase O-b: Set up the Customer Development Team. Agree on Customer Development team methodology and goals.
Author: Whoever is acting as CEO
Approval: Entire Founding Team/Board
Presenter: CEO
Time/Effort: 1/2-l day meeting of entire founding team
A- Review the organizational differences between Product and Customer Development – Traditional titles versus functional ones.
1. No VP of Sales
2. No VP of Marketing
3. No VP of Business Development
B-Identify the four key functional roles for the first four phases of a startup
1. Who is the Business Visionary
2. Who is the Business Execution
3. Who is the Technical Visionary
4. Who is the Technical Execution
C-Review the goals of each of the roles for each of the four Customer Development phases
D-Enumerate 3 to 5 Core Values of the Founding Team
1. Not a mission statement
2. Not about profit or products
3. Core ideology is about what the company believes in
Phase O-b Exit Criteria: Buy-in of the team and board for functional job descriptions, right people in those jobs, core values

PS: you may find more interesting advice from Steve Blank in
How To Find the Right Co-Founders? – https://steveblank.com/2014/09/16/who-do-you-need-on-your-startup-team/
Why Founders Should Know How to Code – https://steveblank.com/2014/09/03/should-founders-know-how-to-code/
Building Great Founding Teams – https://steveblank.com/2013/07/29/building-great-founding-teams/

and you may want to listen to Randy Komisar about entrepreneurship skills

PS2: I revisited my blog and saw the tag “team” was also relevant, direct link is here www.startup-book.com/tag/team/

Bill Campbell, the Trillion Dollar Coach (Part II)

A short second post following my recent one, here. Short notes.

Eric Schmidt and its coauthors emphasize the importance of teams, of people and of products. For example:

“In our previous book, How Google Works, we argue that there is a new breed of employee, the smart creative, who is critical to achieving this speed and innovation. The smart creative is someone who combines technical depth with business savvy and creative flair. […] As we were researching this book and talking to the dozens of people Bill had coached in his career, we realized that this thesis misses an important piece of the business success puzzle. There is another , equally critical, factor for success in companies: teams that act as communities. integrating interests and putting aside differences to be individually and collectively obsessed with what’s good for the company. […] But adhering to these principles is hard, and it gets even harder when you add factors such as fast-moving industries, complex business models, technology-driven shifts, smart competitors, sky-high customer expectations, global expansion, demanding teammates… […] To balance the tension and mold a team into a community, you need a coach, someone who works not only with individuals but also with the team.” [Pages 22-4]

“Bill started his business career as an advertising and marketing guy, then added sales to his portfolio after joining Apple. But through his experiences in the tech world, in his stints at Apple, Intuit, Google, and others, Bill came to appreciate the preeminence of technology and product in the business pecking order. “The purpose of a company is to take the vision you have of the product and bring it to life,” he said once at a conference. “Then you put all the other components around it – finance, sales, marketing – to get the product out the door and make sure it’s successful.” This was not the way things were done in Silicon Valley, or most other places, when Bill came to town in the 1980s. The model then was that while a company might be started by a technologist, pretty soon the powers that be would bring in a business guy with experience in sales, marketing, finance, or operations, to run the place. These executives wouldn’t be thinking about the needs of the engineer and weren’t focused on product first. Bill was a business guy, but he believed that nothing was more important than an empowered engineer. His constant point: product teams are the heart of the company. They are the ones who create new features and new products.” [Pages 67-8]

About teams again, and trust : “Not surprisingly when Google conducted a study to determine the factors behind high-performing teams, psychological safety came out at the top of the list [1]. The common notions that the best teams are made up of people with complementary skill sets or similar personalities were disproven; the best teams are the ones with the most psychological safety, And that starts with trust.” [Page 84]

About talent: Bill looked for four characteristics in people. The person has to be smart, not necessarily academically but more from the standpoint of being able to get up to speed quickly in different areas and then make connections. Bill called this the ability to make “far analogies”. The person has to work hard, and has to have high integrity. Finally, the person should have the hard-to-define characteristic: grit. The ability to get knocked down and have the passion and perseverance to get up and go at it again.” [Page 116]

And finally, may be most importantly, about founders: “He held a very special place in his heart for the people who have the guts and skills to start companies. They are sane enough to know that every day is a fight for survival against daunting odds and crazy enough to think they can succeed anyway. And retaining them in a meaningful way is essential to success in any company. Too often we think about running a company as an operating job, and as we have already examined, Bill considered operational excellence to be very important. But when we reduce company leadership to its operational essence, we negate another very important component: vision. Many times operating people come in, and though they may run the company better, they lose the heart and soul of the company.” [Page 178]

In conclusion, People, People, People.

[1] More details about the study can be found in James Graham, “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” New York Times, February 25, 2016.

European Founders at Work

European Founders at Work is a very interesting book. It is the perfect complement to Founders at Work, particularly for the European dimension.

One comment though, I noticed 8 UK projects out of a little more than 20 and these 20 are mostly Software or Internet. More diversity may have been great. This being said, the lessons are great! Here are some… (and you will learn much more by reading the book entirely!)

About the US Market (for Europeans)

“I think that Europe has a lot of credibility in certain sectors, particularly media and the creative industry, but I think that in technology, generally, most of the world’s biggest companies were founded in the US and, therefore, the expectation in the US market is that in technology, they are going to be talking and buying from US companies. […] it’s important to become a US team in the US market. […] I think you need to be prepared to make a pretty big investment in the US and you need to be prepared to build up the business for several years,” Jos White – MessageLabs

“I would say that the IT sector, and especially enterprise software, is extremely global but remains dominated by US companies. There are very, very few examples of European IT and software companies that have managed to go global. I believe, the only way to make that happen is to go global very, very quickly, as we did from the outset.” Bernard Liautaud – Business Objects

“In my experience, if you come from a smaller European market, like Hungary or Sweden, you tend to think that it’s a nice next step to go to UK or Germany. The issue is that if you become successful there, it is still only a sixth of that of the US market. So, if you get a US competitor, you immediately become a regional player instead of a global player. So, very early on, I said we shouldn’t even be thinking about opening up offices in Frankfurt or in London because the way to make it globally was to first prove that we can make it on the world’s biggest market, which is the US. That’s going to be the truth at least for the next ten to fifteen years.” Peter Arvai – Prezi

“I think the reality is that it’s not about Europe vs. Silicon Valley. The best entrepreneurs in Europe understand Silicon Valley very well. They have spent time in Silicon Valley and developed relationships in Silicon Valley. Take all of that and all of the value that comes from that because you’re a fool if you think that Silicon Valley isn’t the most sophisticated, vibrant place for technology start-ups on the planet. It probably will continue to be so for the next twenty-five to fifty years because of the network. And the ecosystem is so profound there and keeps on getting stronger with Zynga, with Twitter, with Facebook, etc. I think any European entrepreneur or any entrepreneur in this space that doesn’t want to spend time or learn from Silicon Valley is foolish. But I think there’s a lot of things that you can learn and be aware of as an entrepreneur if you’re not in Silicon Valley, that you can use to your advantage.” Saul Klein – LoveFilm


The interviewed entrepreneurs

About success and failure

“Any successful entrepreneur knows that it was a combination of skill and attitude, with luck, that really leads to success. And there are very fine lines between success and failure” Jos White – MessageLabs

“I learned that the game is never over: you should never give up, stubbornness is somehow a requirement to lead a company to success, and the road to success is inevitably paved with failures. When things start to go wrong, the worst thing to do is panic and change everything.” Olivier Poitrey – DailyMotion

“I think as an entrepreneur you fail all the time. You’ve got failure built into your business. Right? So you don’t really keep track of failure. You never really fail. I think that’s essential when you’re an entrepreneur, that you’re not afraid of failure. You embrace failure. Your whole business is based on trying out stuff, being ready for stuff to fail and just taking the next step as soon as you fail.” Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten – The Next Web

About ambition

“Come up with an idea which is impossible then try to find somebody who can make it un-impossible and then do deals which have never been done before.” from the Shazam founders

“[A new trend is] You definitely see entrepreneurs being extremely ambitious.” Reshma Sohoni – Seedcamp

“I guess one advice is it’s more exciting if you feel like you’re changing the world in a positive and innovative way. So we’d love to see more of those out of Europe.” Brent Hoberman – lastminute.com

“But it is probably harder in Europe in that it innovates less, because you have less-crazy investors financing crazy entrepreneurs. [Advice:] One, international. Two, innovation and no copycat. And then, three, big ambition.” Loic Le Meur – Le Web

About the team

“There are very few founders that stay with their businesses beyond five years and quite often, in my opinion, it’s because they didn’t manage to surround themselves with the right team.” Bernard Liautaud – Business Objects

“But also obviously you hire people that are better than you” Ian Dodsworth – TweetDeck

“I also learned how hiring the right people from the start is key: the very first people to join will shape the company’s personality. And finding talented people you are pleased to work with is very important to generate emulation from new hires. Olivier Poitrey – DailyMotion

“A common mistake is building the team. If they’re quite scared to part with something … Like when they’re quite scared to part with equity or bringing on mentors. “Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a big fish in a big pond?” They’re too closed with their equity and they try to do everything.” Reshma Sohoni – Seedcamp

“Another common mistake is like a cliché now, but it’s just the classic: “I’ll just build another feature and I’ll focus on my product.” Alex Farcet – Startupbootcamp

About entrepreneurship

“The main advice is just start. Many people have hundreds of ideas, but they never really start their own project. And if you fail, start again. Entrepreneurship is, in my point of view, the best and the only way to personal development” Lars Hinrichs – Xing

“There are a lot of moments like that where you don’t know what you’re doing, but this was the whole point.” Giacomo Peldi Guilizzoni – Balsamiq

“Do it.” It’s the best decision I’ve ever done in my whole life. […] And I was studying engineering as well, and I had one hundred classmates. And I know that almost zero of them actually went on to start a company, which is kind of crazy because I know a lot of them have good ideas. But none of them quite felt that they were able to pull it off.” Eric Wahlforss – Soundcloud

“I have been lucky enough to be born with optimism.” Richard Moss – moo.com

“Hang in there. Don’t give up. I heard that most start-ups fail because the founders stop working on them.” Richard Jones – last.fm

“I would be realistic and I would say, “Look, if you think you are the lucky sperm that’s going to get the ovule, go ahead and start the business.” It’s a very difficult thing to do with a very high probability of failure. But it is essential for society and even those who try and fail are also helping society. So I encourage people to try, but at the same time warning them how difficult it is. I am tenacious and I am sometimes lucky and I’m good at spotting trends. But I was also lucky. Most people who try businesses fail. That’s the truth and people should be warned about that.” Martin Varsavsky – FON

As a conclusion let me quote Saul Klein in his foreword… “Right now, Silicon Valley is peerless at both supporting innovation and creating serious scale. There’s been no master plan, but the 60-year interplay of government as an early catalyst; academia and established companies as early customers and sources of talent; and of course, investors willing to take risks and a long term view, have given entrepreneurs fertile ground to sow seeds and try to grow monsters with dragon’s teeth ready to conquer the world.You need every element of this ecosystem working perfectly to create monsters. This is serious progress. But the straight facts are that while we are unquestionably masters of invention in Europe, we don’t yet have the ecosystem— or perhaps the attitude. […] For me, the big question is if we are truly able to do this.”

Post Scriptum: I am not finished yet. I love to add cap. tables and not so many of these entrepreneurs are running a publicly quoted company. Strangely enough, one is Russian, Yandex. Its foudner and CTO says something great about sales: “I think one of them is when you create a software product, you have to learn how to sell it, you have to learn how to make it a product. It’s a very basic skill. I think every engineer has to try that at least once, to sell the software he created, regardless of how bad it is. No matter how unpolished your product is, you have to try to explain why it is good for someone else.”

Here is Yandex amazing cap. table…

Click on picture to enlarge

Of Start-ups and Men

Second contribution to the EPFL “start-up of the month”: after venture capital with Aleva, I focus on the team with SWISSto12.

12.03.12 – A killer product is not the only key to success for a young start-up. Even in the high-tech sector, the human-factor can be vital, and the founders of SWISSto12 know just how to use this to their advantage


Emile de Rijk, Alessandro Macor founders of SWISSto12

SWISSto12 is the ideal model of a “starting” start-up company. It has all the essential (and sometimes counterintuitive) ingredients for success. A critical factor for a good start is the trust and transparent dealings between the individuals making up the original team. The two founders, Emile de Rijk and Alessandro Macor, may not have the experience you (wrongly) think they need, but their dedication will move mountains. They have invented a Terahertz Signal Transmission technology and, because this answers hitherto unsolved problems, SWISSto12 had a client even before it was established! An opportunity arose, and the two scientists made the most of it. More importantly, their innovation may open up new markets no-one had even thought of – such is the beauty of high-tech, with all its uncertainties. No need for a business plan at this stage: what matters is having a vision and finding the right people to make up the best possible team – which is the subject of this note.

First of all, I strongly advise not to embark on such an adventure alone. Professor Ansermet of the Laboratory of the Physics of Nanostructured Materials was impressed by the enthusiasm displayed by the two young scientists and provides friendly support. This is an absolute must.

EFPL backed up this support with its Technology Transfer Office, which helped to patent the technology and grant an exclusive licence to SWISSto12. (If I may make a brief digression here, one often sees entrepreneurs frustrated at the difficulty in negotiating IP rights. Although the perception is rather negative here, exceptions [such as the Bose adventure at MIT] should not obscure a much more transparent reality).

This start-up made the most of all the local support mechanisms: coaching at the PSE, Innogrant, VentureKick, CTI, and I probably forget others as the EPFL ecosystem is so efficient – to the point that this may even be dangerous if you rely solely on these support mechanisms.

SWISSto12 also secured an outstanding mentor in Valtronic founder Georges Rochat, who I recently found out has lived in Silicon Valley and knows the environment inside out. He not only contributes his own experience, but also a network and credibility which are key to the start-up’s development.

When the time came to recruit staff, things became tricky. After the exhilarating first few days, the new team realised that some dynamics were incompatible with a start-up’s culture where everyone lends a hand and “reporting structure” is considered a rather rude expression. A painful, but unavoidable decision was made to separate on good terms. In a start-up company, the main reason for failure is the human factor, much more than the technology, product or market.

I shared the idea of this column with Emile de Rijk, who said that you must “play out in the open and be honest with your partners to as to create win-win situations”. SWISSto12 is about to look for investors and the company’s potential should make it possible to realise these ambitions. I spoke of success criteria earlier. Naturally, there is no guarantee of this and entrepreneurship is always a careful balance regardless of a company’s size, and even more so in the case of a start-up. Still, in my opinion the founders’ passion and enthusiasm, combined with their ambition and lots of good sense, have definitely put them on the right track!