Taking your business from an idea to a product-selling reality can be a lonely path, but you will not be able to make anything happen solo. At some point, every business idea needs a team of people to bring that idea to fruition.
Staffing your business will depend on a variety of factors—cash flow, current demand, forecasted demand, and so on. Based on these variables, you have great options with freelance project work, internships, full-time engagements, or perhaps a hybrid of them all.
Regardless of what combination you choose, at every step of the way, you need to ensure that you—and anyone on your team—have a deep understanding of the project, job requirements, and desired outcomes. Having that will improve everyone’s chances for success—especially the success of your business.
Here are four tips to help you in building a team to make your business a success.
1. Rent Expertise with Consultants and Contractors. When we were getting started with our product-design business, we needed outside expertise. Early on, we needed engineering and prototyping support. Later, we needed web development and graphic design skills. Our best solution was to design a project and hire short-term help.
Tip: Invest time up front to clearly define the project, key deliverables, and compensation. Write it down and sign it. Also, many of these folks are running their own small business, so try to pay them first, not last.
This tip is also known as “Don’t do deals in bars.” We made a galactic blunder with our first engineer, a close friend of my partner. In retrospect, a—shall we say, somewhat “cloudy”—conversation at a bar about a CAD project led to an awkward, avoidable conflict six months later when we got the first invoice. Nobody remembered the terms of the handshake deal—a real shocker given the late-night dive-bar “boardroom” in which the deal was struck. Misaligned expectations created great heartache for all parties that took years to resolve.
That experience contrasts sharply to the one we had with our prototype engineer, who worked with us on a clearly defined proposal with time lines, compensation, phases, and deliverables. The unexpected happens in every project, but the up-front investment in the relationship made everything easy.
2. Use Elance and the Like. The Internet continues to shrink the world, and the global market for talent is enormous. We used Elance to source amazing talent for editing photos that we needed for our website and marketing materials. The talented woman we found really became a team member, completely invested in our company’s outcome. While not every Elance freelancer is created equal (and in many ways, we got ridiculously lucky with Sandrine), the opportunity to find amazing talent at a great value is out there.
Tip: Elance forces you to outline terms and milestones. We experimented with small projects to evaluate the relationship, and it worked beautifully every time, especially if you remain responsive to the freelancers and their needs (which includes paying invoices promptly when the work is done).
3. Get an Intern. Internships are great ways for ambitious, talented people with limited experience to hone their skills. It enables small businesses on a budget to source great short-term talent that could lead to a long-term relationship with a full-time position. This Fast Company article, Secrets to Hiring Great Interns, offers tips for creating a great internship program in your company. Put simply, a well-defined project will go a long way toward making everyone happy.
Tip: Interns generally require more up-front work on your end—meaning, they may not know how to jump in and create the right project for themselves with appropriate milestones and deliverables. Your interns expect a useful experience in exchange for giving you their time. That experience will largely be defined by you and the effort you put into designing a successful project for them. In other words, free things are not exactly free.
4. Find the Right Full-Time Hire. At some point, your business is going to hit a growth stride that demands adding a full-time employee. That’s a meaningful passage that requires you to think deeply about your company’s mission, values, and culture.
Thomas Lyle, co-founder and CEO of Frontdesk Anywhere (a startup that optimizes back-office operations for small hotels and chains), explains his company’s approach to building a team. “When you are self-funded, not VC-backed, you are not going to lure away the star players from Google or Apple. You have to find the star-potential people. We also look for people who are passionate about our space—travel.”
His strategy has been to look for that star potential in individuals who have a passion for travel—the off-the-beaten path dude ranch, the exotic location, the unique hotel. “We’ve found that when we look for these qualities in someone excited to work for a small company, the culture doesn’t take a lot of massaging,” Lyle says.
Tip: While you absolutely need to pay close attention to the qualitative aspects of fit, culture, and commitment when taking on your first employees, you also need to consider the legal aspects, which are significantly more involved than the arm’s-length relationship of a consultant or contractor. Entrepreneur magazine offers an overview of the legal commitments businesses need to make to all employees in this article, “Hiring Your First Employee.”
Some of the tips in this article may seem a little extreme, and you don’t have to use them all. But, if considered as a means to ensure a healthy situation for everyone, they are worth evaluating in depth.