Building And Nurturing An Early Stage Startup Team

I was recently invited to speak at Startup Saturday Pune and share some lessons I learnt as I built the wonderful Pricebaba team. While it is easy to speak with a retrospective view, let me put it upfront – its a chaos and building a startup + team is pretty much managing constraints.

The kind of team one hires for varies depending on the growth trajectory and stage of the company. When Pricebaba got through its first round of seed investment, we grew our operations team at a crazy pace and almost every second person interviewing and showing up with a smile was hired. Two years later we had a tough time realigning the team and building accountability. Over the last year, we have had steady growth (~5x vs ~30x before that) and this has given us time to build out our culture & values, hiring process, review systems and financial discipline. This comes with a reasonable confidence that if we are required to grow the team from 30 to 300 in a couple of months, we would do a much better job than before. Large part of this confidence comes from several other empowered leaders being present within the company today.

I am very proud of how we have navigated Pricebaba through all the constraints that we faced, both in terms of resources & our own skills. But If I am to do it again or advice any startup, here are the things I will do.

a) Accountability

I have seen this with countless early stage startups that haven’t made it big. And I wonder if this is the reason that makes the BIGGEST difference. When the team is small, target is big and resources are scarce, you need each and every person in the team to be delivering aggressively. If you have to worry about people completing work assigned to them or working unsupervised, then you have the wrong team. My No. 1 request to young startups is the make the tough calls early. You may think today that you need to put up with poor performance until you reach a certain milestone or find better people, or to keep the ship sailing. That’s a fair thought, but driven by fear. We miss the large point here. Time is of prime importance. You are investing the best days of your career in building a startup and with every compromise you are losing more than you can count. So please build accountability in your teams and don’t let complacency set in the team.

b) Set the bar high for talent

Good talent will ensure that you fail with dignity. Great talent may give you a faint chance at winning. Make your choice wisely. Hire slow, spend more time evaluating talent, trust people, train them and with every hire make sure the average people quality of the company is going higher. Hire for attitude and train for skill is a noble idea. But I would rather hire for attitude after qualifying on the basis of skills (more on this below).

c) Build a healthy mix of experience & potential

A part of doing something unachievable is to not know that it is unachievable. Young talent with less burden of experience helps on this front. At the same time when it comes to executing defined and known industry practices, experienced talent is much preferred. I would request startups to think through their job openings and evaluate if they need a young mind that can be groomed for the role or experienced talent that can start executing from the 1st month. It takes a few months to get a new talent to start performing without much supervision (in my experience anywhere from 4 – 8 months). This is not just in terms of skills, but for them to adapt and gain control of their position within the company. Not every business has so much time.

d) Set expectations right

Startups go through a lot of change. A part of the leadership is to keep uncertainties to themselves and let the team execute on a given path. At the same time manage change and bring the team up to date with what’s next. Setting your team expectations during this time is crucial. The last thing you want is a driven team left with a feeling that their efforts are being wasted. Which btw is often the truth – ask InMobi or Snapdeal (Inmobi was Mkhoj and Snapdeal was group buying / coupon play like Groupon). I like to call this process of change and discovery of our true purpose as ‘Becoming Batman’.

For my startup friends going through a similar phase of uncertainty and hard learnings, here is a thought. One of my mentors once told me ‘the human mind once expanded, cannot be contracted again’. The learnings that we are picking up today, would certainly live with us for decades to come. The journey is the real reward 🙂

My Slides: 


By Annkur Agarwal

Annkur P Agarwal is the co-founder of Pricebaba & SahiGST. Pricebaba is a product research engine that helps you research and shop consumer electronics. SahiGST is a SaaS platform for Indian SMEs to effectively manage their GST compliance.

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