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Starting a successful business requires a great product, strong market fit, and a relentless passion and curiosity to see the idea through. The other critical piece? All the people you need to surround yourself with – potential co-founders, team members, and advisers who will complement your skills and knowledge at critical junctures in your company’s evolution.
Whether you are fresh out of school or starting a business later in your career, identifying a talented team is the most important commitment you will make as an entrepreneur.
First step: You need to surround yourself with people who bring to the equation everything that you don’t.
Launching a startup is a massive undertaking that demands a wide array of skills, ranging from operations and financials to sales and marketing (and so much in between). It’s almost impossible for one person to assume all those responsibilities. And more to the point, these functions require different types of creative, analytical and strategic skills.
So while it’s great to start a company with a person – or group of people – who you have a good rapport with, it’s also important to find those superstars who excel at and enjoy taking on all those tasks that you don’t. Know what you bring to the table, and make sure that your partners complement those skills so that you form a well-rounded team.
Here’s what you want to have in common. You want to start a business with people who share your passion for the problem your company is solving. You want people with flexibility to adapt and eagerness to learn – people with resilience and energy and a willingness to pick each other up when challenges weigh you down.
Find – and be – the business partner who identifies the gaps
Here’s where I was prior to launching Hint in 2005. I had an idea – one that I believed in deeply: making water taste better without preservatives or sweeteners.
What I didn’t have was any background in the beverage industry or any experience launching a company. That sounds daunting, but I was not going to let that get in my way. Little steps. I had worked for a handful of startups in tech and media, each in different stages. But with this idea, I was excited, and I wasn’t thinking too far ahead about this giant mountain I was preparing to climb. I was eager to tackle all the unknown terrain ahead of me. Some days I had nagging doubts, but at the same time, all that uncertainty was invigorating. I embraced the challenge – and I also knew that I needed some help pursuing my mission with Hint.
So here’s where I was incredibly fortunate: I had someone in my corner, preparing me and conditioning me for the tough questions that I would need to address if Hint was going to succeed.
That person happened to be my husband, Theo. He was actually one of my first skeptics when I decided to launch Hint – mostly because I was pulling money out of our bank account to develop this idea. And while he loved the idea, he didn’t see how I was going to shoehorn my way into the ultra-competitive beverage industry. But he knew, and maybe so did I, that the odds for anyone succeeding at launching a beverage company – not to mention an entirely new category within the beverage industry – were loooooong.
Theo did see the passion and excitement I had, and helped me think through gaps in my business plan and sparked ideas for potential solutions. And when he had the bandwidth, he chipped in, filing trademarks for the brand (he’s an attorney by training), and taking care of even the most menial tasks when he could. “Theo, wanna come help me reorganize the pallet taking up space in the garage?”
I was starting to recognize something critical: Theo had a talent and interest in aspects of the business where I needed the help. And seriously, beyond helping me lift cases or file trademarks. He enjoyed focusing on logistics and he naturally gravitated toward solutions to problems that I didn’t have the bandwidth or background to solve. He was also beginning to see Hint’s potential – and knew that he could add value. Most importantly, he valued Hint’s mission of personal health as deeply as I did. Little did we know that once he’d had a taste of launching something this exciting (and challenging) he would soon jump in as Hint’s full-time COO.
This is how I describe our division of labor in my book, Undaunted: Overcoming Doubts and Doubters. “Theo had a strong science background, while my education was in communications and finance. He had expertise in intellectual property law, while I had experience in business development. We were also alike in several ways: We both worked very hard, loved building businesses, and were committed to healthier living.”
Having someone who can bring a fresh perspective to what you’re building is invaluable – precisely because they bring a level of objectivity and new thinking to the table. But someone who can do that AND complement your expertise and business instincts? That kind of partner is indispensable.
Find employees who take your company to the next level
The next challenge you’ll face, assuming you achieve an initial level of success with your start-up? You’ll need to bring on more people in essential roles who can grow and expand your business now that you’ve gotten it up on its feet.
A few years after launching Hint – which was mostly self funded up until this point – I knew that we would need more money to keep expanding. We had started speaking with a few individuals about taking an investment, and we had also been introduced to a family office who was very interested in what we were doing.
Enter Julio Pekarovic. Julio first came into my orbit when he invited our family to, of all things, his daughter’s birthday party! We lived in the same small community in the Bay area, and it turned out that we knew several people in common. I left the party thinking that Julio was a good person, and a good person to know – and that we would cross paths again soon.
In fact, Julio called me the very next day, excited to talk further about Hint. I sensed his enthusiasm for what we’d set out to do as a brand. “Listen,” Julio said. “If you are ever raising friends and family capital, please let me know.”
“Julio, let’s meet,” I said. “It so happens we’re doing a round now. And I’d like to talk with you about joining our board.” I had an instinct about Julio, and I knew I had to follow it.
“Your board? I know nothing about the beverage industry!”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “I didn’t know much about it when I started out either. You do know a lot about finance. And you’re obviously a huge fan of the product.”
Julio not only invested and joined our board that year, but he eventually became our CFO. And his deep background in finance and fundraising was exactly the skill set we needed at that point in time. I guess that’s what kids’ birthday parties are for, right?
Investors are an essential part of you team as well
As your business continues to grow, you will want to ally yourself with investors who not only believe in your mission, but also believe in you. That is critical. Investors who have a deep connection to your company won’t just provide support and advice, but they will be your greatest champions.
Enter Ken Sadowsky. We had met Ken when we were first talking to distributors on the east coast. His family had started a distributorship in Massachusetts, and Ken worked at the business periodically. He had also been on the board of another company that we were very much aware of – Vitamin Water. Ken loved our idea, which was a great sign. But more importantly, we connected with Ken personally. And we felt that he could share valuable lessons from his journey with Vitamin Water. He not only came in as an investor, but he then introduced us to our first big outside investor, Verlinvest, a family office based in Brussels. They had backed Vitamin Water, and Ken spoke highly of their team. And when we were rounding out our board, Ken also joined. He has been a valuable board member, investor, and friend to this day.
Then there is Sonja Perkins, founder of Broadway Angels. She is exactly the kind of person I wanted as an investor in Hint. She had been passionate about Hint long before we even met. Along with being a Silicon Valley investor with an incredible track record, she is a cancer survivor who had been enjoying Hint for years as a way to help her drink more water. When we were introduced through mutual friends at an event (yes, always be networking), she was so excited to hear that I started Hint. She had a personal interest in supporting female founders, having invested in other female-led companies including Minted and The Real Real, amongst many others. As I was leaving the event, she stopped me and casually threw out, “If you are ever raising, let me know.” And we were. Sonja and Ken, along with so many of our investors, are our biggest supporters. Not only do they carry the product around and get it into their offices and events, but they also speak out about the company and our team. Aligning with investors who have that connection and passion for our brand has been key. They aren’t just putting capital into the company, they are emotionally invested in our success.
In the end, find people who will support your vision and the business
Not everyone will have a family member or spouse or neighbor who is a perfect fit for your venture. I get that. But you want to find the people who are willing and capable of getting in the ring with you. People who will be excited about the business, eager to add value and make some necessary leaps of faith.
I always say this as the number one lesson for start-ups: there is no defined roadmap for building a successful business from scratch. Every start-up and every set of founders is different. And you need to trust yourself and go with what feels right for you, for your company, and finally for what serves your customers. Oftentimes that will mean venturing outside your comfort zone and defying conventional wisdom. Having people around you who will trust you – and who you can trust – is critical.
No doubt, you will face your share of unavoidable challenges and potential setbacks. Trying, learning, iterating, and improving will all be part of this journey. If you and your team go in with this understanding, you’ll be off to the right start.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
She has received numerous accolades, including being named EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2017 Northern California, one of InStyle's 2019 Badass 50, Fast Company's Most Creative People in Business, WWD Beauty Inc.'s Feel Good Force and Fortune's Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs. The Huffington Post listed her as one of six disruptors in business, alongside Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.
Previously, Kara was VP of Shopping and Ecommerce at America Online where she helped lead the growth of its shopping and ecommerce business to over a $1 billion in revenue.
She is an active speaker and writer and, in 2017, she launched Unstoppable with Kara Goldin, a podcast where she interviews founders, entrepreneurs and disruptors across various industries. Kara's first book, Undaunted: Overcoming Doubts and Doubters, published by Harper Leadership, will be released in October 2020.