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How to scale a startup team

A strong team with varied experiences and skill sets is a must for a startup that’s seeking to scale.

We recently held a Fireside Chat with Sam Norman and the YV Community, covering how to scale a team, how to incentivise early team members, and how to build a company culture. This is what we learnt.


While the precise answers will look different for every company, there are a few staples that can be applied across the board if you’re ready to start expanding your team. Here are a few considerations and tips to help you build a team that’s in it for the long haul.


Focus your teams using OKRs

Setting goals and understanding what needs to be done to achieve those goals gives long-term vision and short-term motivation. It helps employees better understand where to concentrate their efforts, time and resources.


OKR is a goal system that was first established by John Doerr, one of the most successful VCs of all time. The system aligns teams around measurable goals and OKRs are usually set and re-evaluated quarterly. They describe both what will be achieved and how the achievement will be measured.


The formula is essentially: I will [OBJECTIVE] as measured by [KEY RESULT].


Objectives are qualitative descriptions of what you want to achieve - they should be short, inspirational and engaging to motivate and challenge the team. Key Results are a set of metrics that measure progress made towards the Objective. For each Objective, there should be around 3 Key Results and each should have a quantitative element.


Weekly goal meetings can help keep people on track and working towards their quarterly OKRs. It’s also important to ensure that teams are not siloed, focusing on their own OKRs with no holistic overview of how all the teams within a startup (tech, sales, customer success) work together to achieve desired results. Alignment is therefore key and small incremental steps on a daily/weekly basis eventually lead to the achievement of much bigger goals.


Get creative with benefits

Employee benefits are the non-wage compensation provided to employees in addition to their normal salaries. People are your number one asset, and as a startup you need to invest in them. However, it’s not always feasible for startups to provide extensive, more traditional benefits (e.g. healthcare, retirement plans, paid-time off, life insurance) - primarily because they can significantly add to your operational overhead and increase business expenses.


Non-traditional benefits can still incentivize employees from traditional backgrounds to join your startup, so get creative when it comes to incentivising your team. Benefits don’t have to necessarily cost the company too much money - a morning or afternoon off for strong monthly performance is, for example, a valued perk. There are plenty of cost-effective tools out there to help startups provide quality benefits to their employees, including ThanksBen and More Happi.


Reward your early employees with share options

Giving equity to your employees is a fantastic way to attract top talent in the early days when cash is scarce. It’s one of the main ways startups compete with high corporate salaries, and align employees with company goals.


Generally, the relative amount of equity you give away as the company grows will be dependent on company cash flow. Earlier stage companies can’t normally afford to pay the market salary value for employees and therefore equity option compensation for first employees is higher.


The idea of giving away equity in your company to early stage employees can be quite daunting and it’s important to familiarize yourself with the guidelines around how much equity to give away, and how to put safety measures in place to ensure that the employees are working towards that equity rather than receiving it all upfront.


At a very early stage and when making your first fundamental hires, you might expect to give up to 1% of the total company equity per employee. This will of course be subject to a vesting schedule and often a cliff too. As you become a larger company and salaries start to increase, it’s common to then start granting options based on seniority or performance of the employee.


Develop a robust hiring process

Now more than ever before, it’s essential to actively work on a company culture. Whereas it used to come naturally, it is getting more difficult with the rise of remote working and distributed teams. If you hire carefully and make sure everyone in the team has the same work ethic, goals and passions, you should be on a good track to developing a strong company culture.


A good hiring process will generally start with a talent screening call to assess overall suitability for the role, prior experience of the candidate etc. This initial screening call will then be followed by a line manager video call and a task-oriented interview, to ascertain skills and capability for the role.


Finally, when it comes to ensuring and maintaining company culture, it’s important to get the founders (or senior management) of the business in at the final stage of an interview, to speak with any prospective employees to establish whether they’re the right fit for the environment and culture.


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