About Startup teams

It seems everybody is talking nowadays about how important it is to have a dream team. During the last year I took many hard lessons regarding teams and I saw the matter from the developer's perspective. My usual thing was to do some or all of the job and in the end something happened and everything was thrown away (I'll explain later some personal cases). I was a bit aggressive with the "business people". From my travel to SF I had the chance to meet another guy (a doctor) who is (or was) a "business person" and he also shared with me his failed attempts with developers. It helped me see things a bit differently and I'd like to share what I think was the main problems, at least on my cases.

I'll share my experiences without refering the names of the ideas-startups.

First try

In my first attempt, the problem was that we started without the terms. It was a startup but I would be more of an early employee (their first engineer) than a core team member, so it was obvious that I would have a contract. We said verbally and we agreed (with some difficulties and haggling) about my shares and my monthly salary. After a month of work (and many delays of the contract), I received it. The contract wasn't at all at what we had agreed. After some discussions, we couldn't find a solution and I simply rejected it. Just for the history, my disagreement with the contract terms was the following:
  • They haven't mentioned that I would be paid after 6 months of work, but it was clear in the contract (until then I would get a symbolic "salary")
  • It didn't say anything about my shares, it was like I haven't any stock options. Everything would be kept verbally only and they tried to convinced me that this was the only way and I had to trust them as we are a team
  • It had all the kind of clauses that I will be responsible if something goes wrong and I would have to pay compensation

Lesson Learned: Don't start to work / participate for a startup if you aren't sure about the terms. I consider myself a professional and that I wouldn't do this mistake, but I was in a very strange psychological situation, the guy was introduced to me by some trusted friends and I thought that everything would be ok.

My second try

After the above, I decided to try my own attempt with some childhood friends. They aren't programmers, actually they aren't familiar with startups and businesses at all, but I thought that everything would be ok. We throw some random ideas, we found one that we immediately thought that it would be great and I started working. After two months of fulltime commitment, I have created this site stolepto.com. Our idea was to create video ads of one minute with people talking about their CV.

The problem was that my friends had the usual thought of "build it and they will come" and let's advertise it to our friends. I suggested many actions we should do to find people, but they didn't want it and we left it as it is... and as a natural thing, I build it and nobody came. My only problem now is what should I do with the code. I am thinking of uploading as an open source project. I blame myself, not my friends (we are cool together).

Lesson learned: Well, even though this was my biggest and most stupid mistake of all my attempts, it taught me the most things. Let's start:

  • Ok, you are very good friend with somebody and you may think that you can do it very well. But try to see what he can really do for the team. I could see that my friends couldn't do much, but I selected to start it with them
  • Try from the beginning to set weekly goals. Everybody should do something, otherwise he shouldn't be part of the team
  • Be sure that everybody wants it as bad as you want. If not, then find another team, so simple. Try to communicate it before you start working

My third try

For my third try, I participated again in a team with a very good friend. He has coding skills, he is willing to learn and we had done projects in the past so I thought that this would be a good chance. After some months we had a battle ready social application, it was pretty good and it was very impressive. In fact, whoever saw it, was amazed. I was looking at it, I was proud and I was thinking that this could go very well. But it happened to do again the mistake from my first try. I haven't talked exactly what our shares would be, he thought that I would be an early-stage employee if we got funded. I thought that we shared evenly the profits and the stock options. He proposed me an offer that it was too low to accept (1% for shares and a salary which would be much less that the salary I am already being paid). I felt like I've done almost all the work and that I was thrown away. I rejected the offer, my friend thrown away the app that we have created and he started from zero with another technology (he said that this solution we had created was thrown away, because he got feedback and users wanted something much more simpler than that). My friend paid me nonetheless for my work and we are even and still friends.

Lessons learned: Well I learned many things from this one too. Let's start:

  • Be specific at what you are gonna get and what you are gonna give in the team from the beginning
  • In the team there was another member which had relation with my friend. It was really difficult to say exactly what I wanted because of that relation. So the obvious lesson is, try to avoid relations in a team like that, or if there are, find a formula which will not affect the team.
  • Try to be a team player. If you go in a competitive game, trying to write down the hours you worked and how much you achieved, you lost the game. You are in a team, if you are not passionate in the early stages about what you are building and you are trying to convince the others that you worked more, abandon it and start something else
  • Don't underestimate the work of a business person, but also see what this person achieves. Being a business / idea person doesn't mean that you aren't going to do anything until the product will be built
  • Be open and have clear communication. Share your thoughts and say exactly what you believe

Last thoughts I would like to share

  • The startup ecosystem right now in Greece is really immature. Everyone wants to be a mentor, everyone has an idea and is looking for developers to built it as free as possible, everyone wants to make "easy" money from startups by raising funds. If there weren't funds, the ideas and the startups would be far less than what it is now. It shows clearly that nobody really wants to have fun building his idea. The only thing it matters, is the money and all the lifestyle.
  • It is really difficult to find a good team to build your tech startup, especially if you aren't a developer. My current team (I am building something new right now) is really an awesome team of developers and I found it really easy. We have worked on a project, we really rocked it, we had an idea and we are building it. So simple. My friend from above (the doctor guy) strives to find a good developer. He has a very good idea, he has a domain expertise, he is the only business person I know that he is so passionate about it and I would really like to do a team with him. He still can't find a decent developer. Why? Most developers don't trust business people. Most business people (at least here in Greece) think that the idea is what matters most and the business development part. Most developers think the opposite. So there is a conflict and we don't trust each other. So, what can it be done? In the case of the doctor, he is so passionate to create it that he started learning programming. In case of people, we must be more educated and recognize that every specialty is needed on a startup. From the developer, to the designer, business, marketer etc. Don't underestimate the value of each specialty and if you have your startup, you may need to wear different hats from time to time.
  • Try to have developers that really want it to be built and are passionate about creating things. It is very common to have people without the motivation or with only motivation the money they will earn.

Conclusion

Well, three attempts, many lessons. I had some more failed attempts, but I won't mention them for now. There are good and bad things when you have tried and failed too many times. The good things are the lessons that you are gonna get which helps you to continue and avoid the same mistakes in the future. The bad things are that they may dissapoint you, make you see "ghost failures" everywhere and make you conservative, fearing to risk to new ideas...

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