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How to Start a Startup Right: Team First, Then Idea?

This is something I was thinking about yesterday on my way back from a meeting.

Most people, when they start a startup, or go into any new idea, go about it in this order:

1. They come up with an idea.

2. They evaluate whether the timing is right.

3. They set about building a team to put that idea in action.

4. They execute on the idea.

That seems right, doesn’t it? Seems natural.

But I think maybe there’s a better way to do it. It is this:

1. Start by putting together a team – the best team imaginable for the area you intend to work in. Try different people. Get everyone working together, knowing each other.

2. Take stock of the opportunities presented by the market.

3. Come up with an idea (or rather come up with several ideas) that address these opportunities.

4. Evaluate them, and execute.

The first way, the most common way, puts the idea at the center of things. It says, “This startup is about an idea, and that idea is sacred above all else. It is a Great Idea.”

The second way puts the team at the center of things. It says “This startup is about some wickedly smart people seizing the best opportunities in the marketplace as soon as they arise”. It recognizes that at any given moment there are lots of ideas, and lots of interpretations of ideas that are ripe for development. What it takes to be successful is an eye for seeing them, and the perfect team in place to pull them off.

I think that second way is more interesting, and gets you farther than the first.

One problem with putting the idea first is that you come up with an idea, then you start pulling together a team, and by the time you’ve got your team in place, four other competitors with the same idea have launched as well. You had an idea that was “of the moment”, but it then took you several more moments to put a team in place – and during that interval, others seized the moment too.

Another problem with “idea first” is that once you have your Great Idea, you tend to rush to build your team – because you want to execute on it quickly. You tend to take shortcuts on team building just to get to launch.

I’m starting to think of this in terms of bands creating music. A musician doesn’t write what he/she thinks will be his/her masterpiece song, then go out and find a band to put that song together with. (Or most don’t – the good ones don’t.) Musicians play around with other musicians, find a fit with ones they think are best, then start writing the songs that are going to put them on the charts.

That makes a lot of sense to me. Another song will always get written, another idea for a startup will always come along. But having the right team in place, working together well, able to seize on opportunities, seems like a much more elusive part of the whole equation to me.

This is, of course, how Twitter emerged – from The Obvious Corp, a bunch of people who had formed into a great team, had been working together for a while, and were focusing on several ideas that were “of the moment”.

This is also why I’m thinking a lot about incubators these days.

Just seems to make good sense.

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Letha E. Strothers

I think this was the idea behind “quality circles” in the 1980s, started in Japan. In addition to their normal job, every employee was assigned to a team and they met regularly around a topic.I forget why they faded away.