What Makes a Great Startup Management Team 5

IDG CEOs photo

The extended IDG Ventures team: Alex, Pat, Phil, some of our advisors (Gil and Tom), CEOs and founders from our companies: Minted, Krux, Smartling, ParkMe, and Vidible.

As a venture capitalist, I have been privileged to work with some truly great entrepreneurial teams. Running a high-tech startup is one of the hardest jobs on the planet. I applaud entrepreneurs who are doing it and love that I get paid to spend my time helping them.

One of the most critical tasks for a founder is assembling the right team. The collective qualities of the executive team are a huge determinant of a startup’s success or failure. So what makes a great startup management team? Below I’ve listed what I consider to be the most important components.

1. Get at least one A+ player.
The A+ person can be the CEO, CTO, VP Product , VP Ops– as long as that person know his/her domain inside and out, and is truly outstanding at it. The A+ player delivers 100x what somebody else would in terms of results and will inspire others on the team to reach their best. Additionally, A+ players attract other A players, whether employees, consultants, customers, or even board members. And if you are fortunate to have multiple stars on your team, hats off to you! Every company I have backed at IDG Ventures counts at least one A+ player on its team.

2. Be cheap.
There many mistakes one can and indeed will make in running a startup. Mistakes are often great learning experiences, and they can be fixed. The only one you can’t recover from is running out of money. I have observed many entrepreneurs take extreme measures to conserve cash and to set an example. While he was CEO of Wikia, Gil Penchina paid himself $1 per year and stayed in youth hostels when he traveled for business. These sacrifices paid off, as the company reached profitability on $15 million invested, while growing significant revenue.

3. Persuade outsiders to help you.
When you’re in startup mode, you need to get as much as expertise, endorsement, and help as possible, quickly. So how can you obtain free advice and help from those who have no need to help you? Don’t be afraid to ask, persistently and nicely. Get the other person excited about your project. Mariam Naficy, founder and CEO of Minted, is exceptional at getting help for her cause. Marissa Mayer, Jeremy Stoppelman, and many other influential high tech executives invested in Minted. Model Christy Turlington helped launch a new product line. The prolific help and exposure have all helped Minted continue its remarkable growth.

4. Hard work and laser focus.
All those startup stories you hear about late nights, weekends, sacrifices, and sleep deprivation are true. I can cite many examples from every one of our companies.  Running a startup requires exceptionally hard work and long hours in the face of long odds. But hard work alone isn’t sufficient. You and the team have to work smartly by executing on the company’s top priorities and ruthlessly saying “no” to everything else.

5. First-hand experience with the problem you’re solving.
I’ve met a surprising number of startups in e-commerce who have never sold anything to consumers before. Similarly, I recall meeting a database company started by a team with no experience in databases. You can really only know the market and customer needs if you have experienced firsthand the problem you are trying to solve. An great example of this is Jack Welde, CEO and co-founder of Smartling. In his prior company, Jack was frustrated by the labor-intensive process of translating large amounts of web content into multiple languages. So he sought to come up with a company offering a SaaS solution to manage the process. Smartling now counts over 1,000 customers.

6. Desire to change the world.
Startup life is hard.  Really hard. Late hours. Constant ups and downs. You really need to have a strong desire to change something big and to leave your mark in this world. This intensity is requisite survival armor for inevitable hiccups like not getting a top candidate, losing a customer, having a website outage, multiple VCs pitches. To quote George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” The world is changed only by unreasonable women and men who persevere until they reach success. At IDG Ventures, we look for those unreasonable women and men.


  1. Agree with all of the above but would add “be aware and responsive tomarket change” as the business most start-ups go in as are not the sectors/products or geography they end up in in 18 months.

  2. In reference to the “desire to change the world” what about the reasonable man or woman who adapts their product to the world in order to change how it works? One needs persistence, but also the flexibility to adapt to maximize the value of the product or service offered.

  3. All A+ players is fine… as long as the all agree on direction and execution. A+ people tend to know they’re A+ people and generally have strong opinions on these things… so could be less efficient than something like the surgical team model (surround A+ people with an appropriate team – in this example the A players).

    Gil was bitching (in jest) one day that his salary was only $1 and he hadn’t been paid… so I took a dollar out of my pocket, wadded it up and threw it at him. “Here… you’re paid…. quit your bitching.”

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