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

 
 

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

Kerri Smith knows accelerators. Through her over 18 years at Rice Alliance, she's been responsible for overseeing several and was on the founding leadership team of Houston's first energy tech startup accelerator, SURGE. After years of focusing you accelerating Rice University's student-focused program, Owl Spark, she's transitioned back into the energy tech space.

"I've worked with many types of founders. There's not one unique characteristic that everyone has," Smith says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal is to help move them along and help them move the needle. At the end of the day, we want them to have a good experience and to meet their goals and objectives."

The Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator launched last summer with its inaugural cohort of 12 cleantech startups, which represented energy sectors from solar and wind innovations to hydrogen, geothermal, and more. Smith says the startups represented a wide range of stages and were from all over — only two companies were from Houston originally. The out-of-town companies were able to make critical partnerships in town and set up a presence and a home here.

"We were able to build a family-like culture among our group, and that was something that was wildly appreciative," Smith, who serves as executive director of the program, says.

Applications for Class 2 of CEA are open until May 31. While the program will offer the same access to mentorship and opportunities, the program will change slightly. CEA will focus on seed and series A-stage companies and will be a hybrid program. Throughout the 10 weeks, which begins in the fall instead of the summer this year, founders will visit Houston three times at the beginning, middle, and the end of the accelerator. Each startup will receive a grant to cover the expenses of the equity-free program.

CEA is just one part of a greater ecosystem of innovation under the umbrella of Rice University, which includes the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, The Ion Houston, Owl Spark, and more. All these entities also play into the greater Houston area's innovation ecosystem.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

With CEA specifically, some of these collaborations include working with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"We're a cog in the wheel. We do really well with that. We play well with others – in ways that the founder has a good experience and can benefit," Smith says.

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on the podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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