Top Talent Needs at a Startup – Thoughts from SSTI

What can we learn from other people in other parts of the U.S. about expanding the innovation economy and helping startups succeed? That’s the reason hundreds of people from 48 states came together earlier this month for SSTI’s 20th Annual Conference, hosted by Rev1 and The Ohio State University.

At the SSTI Annual Conference, we asked the audience of innovation leaders to name their top priorities and challenges in attracting the right entrepreneurial talent to the startups in their regions.

Here’s our short list of challenges and some ideas on how the mentors and experts in the First Connect network can help.

#1: Finding and Attracting C-level Talent

A startup can’t succeed without the right Leadership Team.

Mentoring a startup is an effective way for a senior executive to road test whether that type of environment is a fit or not. Advisory relationships help both entrepreneurial founders and executives establish professional chemistry. One originally unintended but very welcome aspect of Rev1’s program is that we get to see mentors in action with our portfolio companies. This gives everyone—the entrepreneur, the executive, and Rev1, as an investor—a view of that individual as a potential CEO or board member.

One of our portfolio companies had the right CEO, but they on-boarded a complimentary executive with strong industry knowledge to help the start team scale in the coming years.

We’ve found that about 10 to 15 percent of our 130-plus mentors are a fit and are interested in leading new businesses. We’ve connected nine c-level leaders and startups in less than a year.

The supply of qualified executives who are both willing and able to become c-level leaders of startups is limited.

Startups are the hotbed of life-changing technologies and solutions. There are executives—often cashed out entrepreneurs—who are passionate about solving a problem or creating a product or business that changes their industry or even the world.

But, you can’t drop just anyone into the CEO role at a startup and expect them to succeed. Seek people who want to build a company, not just run a company. Does the candidate have the financial flexibility? The desire (versus enjoying golf or the beach)? Do they have the endurance, mental toughness, and stamina to do what it takes to raise investment capital? Are they connected with other business people and capital sources in their geography and industry?

After the CEO, the most challenging leadership hire is head of sales.

Many companies go through two to three heads of sales before they find the right fit. This is an expensive proposition for an established company; it’s a nightmare scenario for a startup. There are plenty of candidates, but, there often isn’t the experience in the startup to evaluate a sales executive candidate—especially in startups with technical founders. Mediocre sales leaders can give great interviews.

A startup is looking for that rare sales executive who can do it all—from closing sales to making cold calls, setting up lead generation, and creating marketing collateral. The right mentor—particularly a general manager who came up through the marketing and sales ranks—will understand the territory and can help a startup qualify the right candidates and turn away those who aren’t.

#2: Finding and hiring talent of all types, regardless of geography.

Tap into the talent that’s already in the region.

Developing a large enough pool of talent to support an innovation-driven region is a long game. Leveraging the talent already available is the place to start. You can’t build a bench of engineers and IT professionals over-night. But you can’t get started until you get started.

Startups can align with existing talent pools and resources. Attracting skilled talent doesn’t mean that a startup must hire on a full-time basis. Rev1’s Investor Startup Studio is made up of attorneys, CPAs, marketing professionals, and more—companies and individuals who offer services at greatly reduced or pro bono rates. There are retired executives—CFOs or CMOs for example—who may be willing to work part-time. Serving as a mentor to a startup gains access, for both sides, to these opportunities.

Events build more than buzz.

It can be easy to over-do events, but with balance, like-minded people participating for a purpose creates energy and leverage. At the SSTI Conference, Jared Stober, from the North Dakota Department of Commerce, noted that a successful Startup Weekend event (with 150 talented people there) was a tipping point in his region. He said that event, at least in part, contributed to Fargo being recognized by NerdWallet as a Top 10 City for young entrepreneurs.

In Columbus, happenings like Startup Weekend, Startup Week, or Rev1’s Innovation Hop connect entrepreneurs and the rest of our business community to share our regional efforts at innovation through the success of our startup companies.

#3: A region must create a basic structure for finding talent and then iterate.

It all comes down to people relationships and networks.

You cannot automate connecting with people to truly understand their motivations and where they fit, but with hard work and some innovation you can scale some aspects of this process.

When Rev1 first created the mentor network, we had a sense that our region needed to build connections. We knew it was important, so we created a network of mentors and vetted service providers without being sure how it would work; not surprisingly, like the startups we support, in the three years since, we’ve pivoted multiple times. Now we have a structure that connects startups not only with mentors and vetted service providers, but with talent and future customers.

It’s a work in process. We want to improve our use of our network and make it even more responsive to entrepreneurs and the mentors, experts, and business people whose impact on the startups and entrepreneurs that they mentor is profound.

The far-flung geographic and economic regions of this country are very diverse, but many of us share the same challenges when it comes to helping startups find the talent they need to succeed.

Rev1’s  mentors and vetted service providers are a solution hub here in Ohio – want to help even more?  Stay engaged and get out to participate or lead the myriad of events that are out there.  If you are not a part of the program but are interested in working with or for a startup, contact us.