How to build the right team for start-up success

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One of the key ingredients to start-up success is a stellar management team. Attracting (and retaining) the right kind of talent is a challenge though, especially when trying to balance the skills and personalities of different individuals. Getting this balance right is key to a well-rounded and cohesive team that will let a company grow into its full potential. Here is our advice on some important factors to bear in mind when building a life sciences management team.  

This article was authored by Willem Broekaert from V-Bio Ventures.

Three golden rules (according to us)

Unfortunately, no rules are set in stone when it comes to life sciences start-ups. Each case is unique: the needs of a venture starting off with a €1 million seed round, versus one propelled by a €100 million mega-round (as seems fashionable these days in the US), are not exactly the same. However, in our experience, there are there are some universal snippets of wisdom when building a management team.

It takes a village

Our first piece of advice is that a team is always better than a single manager. However talented a person may be, running a start-up is akin to a treacherous mountain climb: not really recommended for solo adventurers. A single founding CEO can manage the helm for a short period of time, but as the venture picks up steam, additional team members need to be brought on board quickly in order to broaden the collective skill set. A founding CEO who lacks awareness of his/her own weaknesses and obstructs or delays in hiring others to compensate for the gaps, sets the course for failure

Diversity is best…

A second vital element for start-up success is team diversity. In the narrowest sense, diversity is about building a team with a broad spectrum of past professional experiences. The team needs to include members who each have complementary experience in the roles required for a life sciences company, such as general management, R&D, finance, admin, etc.

However, diversity should go beyond just picking the right suite of experiences and former functions. Research from a growing body of literature shows that companies with diverse management teams perform better in the long run. Building a team with a range of personal identities, with variation in factors like gender, age, social background and even education, is beneficial to a company. The archetypical all-white-male team with a background in pharma is often at risk of sharing the same blind spots. For the same reasons that genetic variation increases resilience in nature, diverse management teams are more likely to find creative and efficient solutions to the challenges that invariably crop up in a start-up environment.

… but don’t sacrifice cohesion

Having just extolled the virtues of diversity, you also need to ensure that your different team members work well together. Given the stresses and uncertainties in a start-up’s path to success, it is critically important that everyone in management is aligned on the same goals. This team cohesion means fostering a feeling of shared passion and solidarity, not unlike team sports. Always think twice before adding a new employee if there is a risk of stirring up serious personal frictions with existing team members. When hiring, considering team dynamics and how an individual’s disposition might blend with other personalities is equally important as assembling complementary skills and experiences. Constant fights over miniscule matters can sink a start-up, so make sure to keep your team diverse but harmonious.

Adding soft skills to the mix

In Europe, start-up investors usually like to kick off with a relatively limited budget. Once they become more comfortable with the progression of the technology and the team’s performance, they’ll gradually increase their investments in line with their rising confidence. With more money, companies can expand their teams, but this resulting growth requires constant balancing and adjustment to take into account the evolving needs of a maturing company. Although team members may come and go, at any given moment an effective management team should strive to cover each of the following six soft skills categories:

– Vision and imagination
– Drive and audacity
– Patience and prudence
– Organization and structure
– Focus and resourcefulness
– Outward orientation and communicativeness

It’s clear from this list that finding all these attributes combined in a single person is nearly impossible; some of the skills are even outright opposites of each other. An excellent team is one that collectively encapsulates all of these skill areas. Taking careful consideration when adding team members to make sure you have all bases covered is key to fielding an all-star team.

Read this previous BioVox article for more business strategy tips to help your company grow.

It’s worth noting that some playbooks say the CEO should be the person that radiates vision and imagination. However, we believe that it is more important that the CEO shows leadership by orchestrating and motivating the team, than that the CEO conforms to any particular archetypical profile. Although it certainly helps if the CEO is a bit of an all-rounder, we’ve seen highly effective teams where these soft skills are embodied by various combinations of different team members, not just the CEO.

As a VC fund focused on building companies from the ground up, we have witnessed the evolution of many management teams over the years. The companies that do best tend to have well-rounded teams where members with diverse experiences, skills and identities work together to tackle challenges. This cohesiveness increases resilience, with teams able to make the best of the ups and downs invariably faced by life sciences start-ups.