Everything about building a new business comes down to people, in one way or another. If you don't get the right people and, more importantly, get the people right, the foundation and the future of the business will be suspect from the start. And, because you can't always find or afford the perfect people when you're beginning, you take what you can get, and you try very hard to make the best of the situation and to do the best with the team and the resources you've assembled. As your business grows, nothing will be more important than attracting and retaining the best talent.
At the outset, the smartest thing you can do is get started. The risk is that in the frenzy to get busy, you'll overlook some of the basic rules and end up somewhere you never hoped for or wanted to be. Cultures in startups are like fast-drying cement, they take root quickly, and once they're set and firmly established (basically in stone), they're almost impossible to alter or improve. You set out on a great mission, with a set of values that Gandhi himself would be proud of, and then you make a few missteps and you discover what a slippery slope it can be. Values rarely break; they usually crumble slowly if they are aggressively not enforced and reinforced. It's like they used to say at NASA about rocket launches: "Off by an inch at the start, miss the target by a mile."
So, there are a few important things to learn right away and to keep top of mind.
1. Since there are only a few of you, the impact of each person's contribution, performance and attitude is far more consequential than it would be in a big business. One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. If someone's not working out or getting with the program, they've got to go. You'll find, as often as not, that the people who are early problems are the ones with a bad attitude or those who are treating their team members poorly rather than people who are deficient in their smarts or skill sets. If they don't fit the culture you're trying to create, they're a cancer to be cut out. Personality problems aren't like fine wines--they don't improve over time--they suck from the start and don't get better. The truth is that you have to hire and fire fast when you're starting out.
2. Since everyone at the outset is doing multiple jobs and since you can't be everywhere at once, you've got to trust your people to do the right things in the moment, since there's no rule book, no time for extensive preparation and instruction, and there's rarely a second chance to make a great first impression with a lot of new and prospective customers. Very few startups have the luxury of OJT (on-the-job training). This need to let go a little and let your people do their jobs isn't ever easy for anal-retentive entrepreneurs--which I guess may be oxymoronic. Tell your people what needs to get done and how it needs to be done, get and give them the tools and resources they need, and then get out of their way and let them do it. Continual and consistent communication is critical to make sure that everyone is headed in the same direction. Do it until you're sick of hearing yourself talk, and you might just have done it enough to get the job done.
3. Not everyone on your team to be is going to be a crazy, driven entrepreneur or as neurotic and paranoid as you are. But this doesn't make them bad people and it certainly doesn't make them bad employees. Some great contributors just want a steady job that they can do well and then go home and have a life. They don't want to be part of your crazy campaign or macho mission. And that's actually OK, as long as they show up and do their jobs every day. You can't build a team that makes sense if you're trying to make everyone look and act like you. A very important part of your job is to make room for all kinds of people and to run interference for the risk-takers and the real pioneers. Talent comes in strange and wonderful packages and--while we're happy to have the upsides-- we are all too often not willing to understand that there are going to be trade-offs that come with the deal. You don't get to pick and choose, and you've got to make sure that there's a place for everyone (including many who don't speak, act or look like you) in your business whether or not they believe that bathing is optional or prefer working all night long to showing up before the bell rings in the morning. Productivity and results are what you're looking for, not punctuality.
4. Finally, I've tried for years to figure out why some seemingly smart (and arguably perceptive) people never rise to the highest levels of trust and responsibility, even though it's pretty clear that they are hard workers who are definitely trying to get ahead. And, of course, that turns out to be the answer. They're working hard, but they're in it mainly for themselves--not for the business; not for the cause; and certainly not for you. Maybe it's a little naïve in these days of rampant narcissism, but for me, it all still comes down to one word: loyalty. In the struggle for a startup to succeed, when no one has time to look over their shoulder to make sure that someone's got their back, an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness. If your heart isn't in the right place, having a huge brain won't help.
Consumers and customers may be feckless a--holes--always looking for the next best thing and anything better or cheaper--but the people you rely on to help you build your business have to be loyal beyond reason. They have to be the ones willing to walk through the walls and get the job done. The ones who always show up and stand up.
And while a fierce commitment is necessary, it's not sufficient for success. The kind of character that really makes a difference is the combination of commitment and loyalty. It takes a bunch of both.