Wearing Many Hats

Having come from a finance background, I had always worked with individuals of similar background to myself.  I don’t mean background in the sense of traditional demographics, as my last office had team members from around the world, but more with regard to skills-set and professional background.  In finance, a focused set of backgrounds made sense – we were purpose built for investing.  In a start-up, at least at the early stages, it’s seems so important to develop a team of individuals with a broad range of skills.  The diversity allows you to recruit from a broad talent pool, while ensuring that the company has the flexibility to manage itself, execute efficiently, and produce rock solid products.  Essentially, since you need people to wear many hats, you want to make sure that the hats fit.

At IGC our team was relatively homogeneous from an experience perspective – good education, several years of investment banking or PE grunt work, and then onto IGC.  For an organization with a singular focus, such as a late-stage venture capital firm, it was a terrific group – incredibly intelligent, easy to work with, great to learn from, streamlined, and very efficient.  We had a singular purpose, and, in my opinion, we executed that purpose quite well.

As I’ve realized in my brief time at a start-up, a narrow background set would prove a detriment to the organization.  At my current company, many of us do have that same great education, although our backgrounds post-college vary broadly.  Of course, simply the nature of a technology company brings together business-people with engineering, but the backgrounds of those individuals must be broad enough to sustain the business through the early days.  The engineers must often function as the IT group and sometimes the product managers; the business-people are the sales group, the operations group, the product management group and, quite often, the first-line legal group as well.

Of the colleagues I work closely with, there are some originally from the start-up world, as well as former lawyers, former consultants, former bankers, former investment professionals, current and former engineers and, given our business, many recent graduates.  After this experience, I couldn’t imagine attempting to build a startup without a broad range of backgrounds.  Of course, it goes beyond just the utility of having (for instance) a former lawyer to do the first draft of an agreement.  We all look at problems in different ways and have different tools to solve them.  As an example, given my engineering education, I problem solve in a different way than my colleagues with economics degrees, who problem solve in a different manner than my colleagues with law degrees.  With a wide range of backgrounds, a small skilled team can replicate the work that would otherwise require several different divisions. 

Additionally, while your customers are going to ultimately drive the direction of the product, and getting it into their hands early is the best way to garner feedback and thus product development, you have to start somewhere.  Having team members who can weigh in during the initial consideration, design, and development of key features (and sometimes even product sets) empowers you to more fully flesh-out product considerations, features and future direction before going to market.

Personally, as a member of the business development team, I’ve used the PowerPoint and Excel skills garnered in my prior finance life to help generate marketing materials and firm wide presentations – tasks atypical to a salesperson.  I’ve also weighed in on some product design, and have also started to run our SEO/SEM efforts.  My business development colleagues with former start-up experience have helped to develop our products and have even begun to generate additional products.  My colleagues with legal backgrounds have expanded beyond their operations and business development roles to help strategize as we focus our products on that market.  Without that blurring of the lines, our product and company wouldn’t be nearly as robust as it is today.

Lastly, I’ve realized how important it is to keep early-stage recruiting open to individuals who are passionate, intelligent, and capable, even if their background isn’t a 100% fit.  The bottom line is that you want good people.  Passionate, intelligent, and capable individuals can usually morph into the role and in doing so, also lend their experience to provide significant value across the organization.  I assume that with continued growth the lines between groups will begin to crystallize, and new hires will be more specialized, but I believe that the versatility of the early group will have formed the basis for future growth.  

24. February 2011 by Jonathan Drillings
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