Guest column

Here's what Houston startups need to keep in mind when building their teams

Teamwork can make the dream work, but lack of a solid team can be a startup's downfall. Pexels

The top two reasons for startup failure are no market need and running out of money, respectively. But the third reason for failure is not having the right team in place. Like market need, evaluating the management team is on virtually every venture capitalist's list of what they look for in their target investments and you need to get it right.

It is well known that new technologies have a limited window of opportunity to succeed and there are rarely second chances, whether choosing the right strategy, market, customers, partners, or raising rounds of financing. If a particular window is missed a chance to pivot may be available, but that typically requires a good, experienced and nimble team that is right for the overall opportunity.

Luck and timing are factors largely out of your control in a startup, but good-to-great teams are capable of dealing with fast changing conditions or lessons learned along the way.

There's not one "right team"

It is easy to say you need the right team, but the same team is not the right team for every startup. Any team needs some basic skills, and of course have the ability to deliver a solution to meet its customer's needs.

In addition to a diverse technical team, a startup needs different skill sets, including various business, professional and soft skills. It is obvious that software is different than medical devices, but within "software" there are a wide variety of skills needed from user interface to security and everything in between. Within medical devices, the variety ranges beyond technology from working with the FDA to medical reimbursement.

Similarities between standard business processes like customer billing, collections and capital asset management often do not vary much across some otherwise pretty diverse businesses. On top of that, the needs of the team change over time as startups progress from concept, to prototype development to launch and through growth phases.

Having experience with many different startups, I have had some recurring team members with whom I worked with again in my next venture. I have also experienced significant turnover of individuals and growth within individuals that where ready for a new challenge to keep them motivated. The right team varies from venture to venture.

Know your industry

One lesson is to have a few cornerstone roles in the organization. First learned in my consulting days, a talented team member might serve in a kind of cornerstone role where you know that job is "solved" and you will not have to worry about it. You then complement and build around him, adding more experience in a complementary role if the first individual has raw talent and enthusiasm. You would add young talent with plenty of room for growth around an experienced individual that has the ability to mentor those around them. No one way exists to create a good team, other than the best practice of mixing experience, talent and diversity in creative ways based on who based on availability.

However, patterns should be identified and assessed to complement customers when deep engagement is a key part of your model or with partners, distributors, channels, or other strategic parts of your extended business model. Some customers will accept less experienced staff; others will not. Some markets can be targeted successfully by inexperienced sales or customer service representatives, while others require field experience or at a minimum extensive targeted training.

Finding support

Beyond patterns, consider some other best practices that are appropriate for various markets; for example, the risk incurred by having an inexperienced FDA process lead in an FDA regulated product. Having little real experience with FDIC, SEC or similar relevant federal or state agencies creates a lot of risk in FinTech companies. In any startup, some areas can be easily contracted out while others need to be core internal strengths, even if developed over time.

That last word is key, the "time" component of startups. Early stages of a startup have parallels to my consulting days. It is a project that is managed like any other project, balancing the big three assets: resources, money and time. Any project is a balancing act of acquiring and managing those three assets, at least when you take out administrative details like payroll and the like. The next stage is more operational in nature, whether stabilizing operations or managing for growth, but it is common for a startup to have two or more CEOs between founding and exit as needs change.

Since VIC primarily is focused on university technology startups, the inventor is often a university researcher with decades of experience in the field of the invention. We follow a best practice of bringing in one of our senior team members as CEO, an experienced business savvy entrepreneur who complements the inventor well in those early technology de-risking phases.

We support those key team members with a shared service team to handle finance, accounting, legal, websites and more, outsourcing specific areas of expertise like intellectual property in a given technical area. We then fill out gaps with select hires. Over time, we work ourselves out of a job when the technology has progressed to a point that different skills are needed, such as handing off to a growth-stage CEO.

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James Y. Lancaster is the Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development. Lancaster, who lives in College Station, oversees business there, in Dallas, and in Houston.

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Building Houston

 
 

Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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