There’s a logic in the tech industry—popularised by books like The Lean Startup—which explains that the goal of any start-up is to achieve product-market fit; the perfect nirvana of a product that people want, that solves a real problem, and customers who are willing to pay.
It takes a lot of time, effort, talent and money to reach true product-market fit, and the majority of companies fall by the wayside. That’s often because they run out of time, run out of money, or lack the talent needed to get them there in the first place.
There’s another piece of tech industry logic, which is variously described as “ship early, ship often”, “move fast and break things” or “build, measure, learn”. It’s a combination of learning by doing, and the realisation that speed and momentum are key.
I generally hold these concepts to be true, with a few minor caveats. I’m always surprised that there’s a third and final piece of tech company wisdom that seems to undermine these two philosophies. Something that actively slows production and the search for product-market fit. What’s this concept you ask? It’s the fixation on doing everything in-house and building the perfect team.
I get where this is coming from. VCs invest in talent as much as ideas, so they want to know that you have the team to deliver the goods. The problem is, building the perfect team is a lot harder than you think.
Assembling a team
The first problem is simply finding good people. It can easily take six months to assemble your founding team and get them up to speed; to get them forming, storming, norming and performing. It’s also hard to know what good looks like, especially if you're a first time founder or from outside the industry.
There’s a mistaken belief that talent is widely distributed and largely equivalent. That one designer, product manager and engineer is much like another. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve seen founders go through multiple design, engineering or product leads before they find the right person. This all costs time and money. Often that’s time and money the founders don’t have.
It’s also worth noting that teams aren’t a static thing. In fact the team you need to invent a new product is going to be quite different from the one you need to scale, monitise and maintain the product. And because there are a lot more companies in the scale, monitise and maintain phases, they’re much easier to find.
So if you’re kicking off a new product, how do you go about finding the right team for the job? I think there are three opportunities available to you that are faster and better than trying to recruit a permanent team.
The first option is to go freelance. To find individuals who have a proven track record inventing and scaling new businesses. These people tend to be pioneers. They enjoy the challenge of solving new problems so probably aren't looking for a permanent position. They know their worth and will be reasonably expensive on paper, especially if they’re looking for equity.
It will take time to find these people. But if you find a good freelancer, they’ll undoubtedly know other people they’ve worked with and trust. This can help reduce the time it takes them to get up to speed, avoiding the forming and storming phase, and jumping straight to norming and performing.
If you don’t have the time and contacts to build out and manage your own team of contractors, the next most obvious solution is to hire a pre-built team with a proven track record, in the form of an agency.
While agencies may feel more expensive than permanent staff when you consider day rates, you need to add on the time you're saving by not having to recruit, onboard and bring these teams up to speed. There’s also a tendency for agencies to work faster, so they’re regularly able to deliver in 6 months what would take an in-house team a year or more.
The final option is to look towards a new breed of “sweat equity” investors. Rather than offering you cash, these investors will agree to design and build your product for a share of equity. Like all investors, these companies are taking a huge risk so would typically expect a higher reward. Usually something in the region of 20-30% equity.
This is a really interesting new model, so it could be worth a try. However because it’s so new, it hasn't really been stress-tested yet. So there’s a chance that the teams may not be as good as they claim to be, but unlike a relationship with an agency, it’s much harder to offload an investor you don’t like. If you are going to go down this route, it’s worth doing your due diligence, and see if they have the track record to back up their equity stake.
Whatever approach you choose, it’s always important to balance time, money and risk. Building an in-house team takes longer, and therefore presents a higher risk. Get it right and it can save you a lot of money, but get it wrong and you’ll hit the end of your runway fast.
Using contact or agency talent helps reduce the time, risk and managerial overhead, but it comes at a cost. The equity funding model is a new and exciting approach, but yet to be properly proven.