Successful Startups Are All About The People

I’ve done a bunch of startups. The biggest lesson I have learned over 22 years is that you cannot build a successful startup business without the right people.

I got my first taste “intrapreneuring” in a large Midwestern technology company and, over ten years, I was able to participate as a founder or founding member of 4 intrapreneurial ventures. But after a decade in that big company, I got bored and frustrated with the bureaucracy.

Itching to venture on my own, I left. Over the last 12 entrepreneurial years, I have started 3 companies (now on my fourth), ran a venture-backed company and another privately funded one. I have certainly scratched the itch.

I have met many entrepreneurs who believed cash was the most critical factor in building a prosperous startup. No doubt, cash is a big deal. Some of my endeavors had gobs of cash. Others were starving for it. The benefits of cash to a startup are obvious. With cash, the business can more aggressively pursue revenue-generating activities like marketing and off-site prospecting. More importantly, startup capital allows you to pay salaries. And, believe me, it is much easier to find people when you can pay salaries – but it doesn’t make it easier to find the right people.

While it’s very difficult, I’d rather do an underfunded startup with the right people than a loaded startup with the wrong people. And, I’ve already done both.

So, who are the right startup folks? They are:

Fiercely committed. 80% of startups fail. Team members must do whatever it takes to increase the odds in order to survive. If folks are unwilling to give 100% to do what it takes, the probability of success decreases. Everything has to be about the business. Big boys and girls are required to make it work.

Diverse. Diversity of skills, experiences, gender, etc. is critical. Using a football analogy (my wife hates it when I use sports analogies) – you can’t have three QBs or left tackles. If everyone on the team has the same background or skills, you won’t be able to do certain things or will have to pay for someone else to do them for you.

Challenging. The right startup folks push each other. Everyone can’t be nice. There is no need for jerks, but a little conflict and disagreement is essential to a start-up success. Those who can’t battle and then hug it out afterwards won’t fit.  

Comfortable with uncertainty. Remember, 80% of startups fail. The right start-up folks can handle risk. Startups are fluid environments and those needing formal structures won’t make it.

Smart as hell. I love working with people who are smarter than me – smart people make each other better. 

Working with the right folks is very fulfilling. And, as I said, finding them is hard. Very hard. Over the years, I’ve made mistakes in selecting partners and team members. In those instances, I moved as quickly as I could to correct the problem. Because when it’s bad, it won’t get better. I always found it was preferable to have an empty seat than a seat filled with the wrong person.

Now, I’m on my fourth and hopefully last gig but never say never. Finding the right person for this one was actually easy. I am doing this one with my wife, Lisa. I’m the nice one. She’s the smart (and right) one.

What are your thoughts? What would you modify the list?

About the Author

Shaun Emerson

Shaun Emerson is a Partner at Tutto Persona. After 12 years with big companies, he has spent the last 11 years indulging his entrepreneurial spirit by starting two companies and running both a venture-backed and privately funded company. Shaun resides in Glen Ellyn, IL with his wife, a woman in HR, and his three kids. He blogs at Tutto Persona and you can connect with Shaun on Twitter as @shaunemerson and on LinkedIn.


Women Startups

I think sometimes for women it’s hard to network because they are so worried about finding other women who are better at something than they are. But that’s the whole point! Finding great people who can really help you get going and motivate you. Just gotta learn not to be afraid and embrace the differences 🙂
Thanks for the post,


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