Startup Teams: Why Capability Doesn't Matter Without Trust

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Startup Teams: Why Capability Doesn't Matter Without Trust


I’ve been thinking a bit this past week about startup teams and what makes them work (or not work).  Most people that are in and around startups will readily agree that recruting the best team possible is critical to success.  This leads to statements from startup pundits that look a lot like “get the best people possible.”  Far be it from me to argue against this kind of sage advice.  You should get the best people possible onto your startup team.  All things being equal, who wouldn’t want to recruit the best people possible?

However, the phrase “best people possible” is a bit too vague for my tastes.  The question is, what makes a given team member the best?  Are they the smartest ones?  The ones with the most experience?  The ones with the greatest skillset for a given role?  The ones with the most domain expertise?  For purposes of this discussion, I’m going to “merge” all the things that makes a given individual really, really good into something I’ll call “Capability”.  You can feel free to make Capability a function of whatever attributes (intelligence, experience, skills, etc.) as suits your taste. 


Capability = How well the person can do the job

Now, this article isn’t really about capability.  It’s about a somewhat orthogonal concept that I’m going to refer to as Confidence (or Trust).  By confidence, I don’t mean how much confidence they (the candidate) have.  I mean the degree to which the rest of the team believes a person has the required capability.

Confidence = How strongly people believe in a person’s Capability

My argument is this:  The best people to recruit into a startup are the ones that have the optimal mix of capability (can get the job done) and confidence (trust from others that they’ll get the job done).  Even with lots and lots of capability, if there is moderate or low confidence, the individual will be second-guessed, undermined, and ultimately just plain ineffective.  Even if they would have a bunch of good decisions, it’s not really going to matter, because they won’t get to make that many, and the ones they do make might not “stick”.  Unfortunately, this kind of team dysfunction does not jump right out at you, it creeps in when you’re not looking.  Everyone has the best intentions.  A quick (totally made-up) example:  “Billy’s a great web design and UX guy…and he’s been lobbying for this simplified design to replace the $25,000 website we created last year.  Sure, he goes to all the conferences and stuff, but does he really get that sorts of people come to our website, not just customers?” 

So, you ask, why would people making the decisions ever hire folks that they didn’t have confidence in anyways?  Isn’t that stupid?  What’s the point talking about that?  I’d respond with two things:  First, confidence is not a binary thing.  It’s an analog thing.  There are degrees of confidence.  Second, confidence may start out being really high, but can be chipped away at as time goes. 

Now that we have some of the baseline behind us, here are some thoughts on capability and confidence when it comes to startup teams:

Capability vs. Confidence

1.  How did we find this person?  Certain sources of referrals engender more confidence than others.  Did your co-founder bring the person in?  Is she your niece, once-removed?

2.  Who has the most confidence in them?  Is it the person that introduced them?  Someone that will be working with them?  One of your investors?  One of your advisors?

3.  How important is confidence for this role?  There are certain areas in your startup where folks need to have a fair degree of discretion.  For example, regardless of how smart and passionate the founders might be, if you hire a professional UX designer, you have to let them do their thing.  Debates are good, but whoever is the best qualified to make the decision should make the decision. 

4.  Who on the team loses the most if they don’t work out?  Yes, I know, everyone loses when you lose a team member.  But, who is impacted the most? 

5.  Is the eroding confidence justified?  Is it possible that a bad hiring decision was made?  Did people expect a degrree of capability that just did not get delivered?

Some though (but important) questions. 

Closing words of advice:  When recruiting team members make sure someone on the team will go to bat for the person when things are shaky.  You need a trusted member (like one of the co-founders) to help objectively assess issues of eroding confidence — and help restore it if needed.  Otherwise, things go into a downward spiral and nobody wins.

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Tue, Aug 19, 2008


Nice spell out of this creepy thing *eroding confidence*.  
It is very natural and happens every day as a build up of some mistakes people do. We still humans, we do mistakes, small and big. It keeps feeding on the confident until it is gone. 
It happens on every level of social interaction. Wife-Husband relation faces the same *eroding confident*, only at that level, we tend to accept out of there is no other choice and life should go on. You still see many side effects of this eroding confidence despite, well ... life goes on. 
On the business level, the bond is not that strong. Hence you see all sorts of firing, quiting, low work quality etc. 
The idea of getting back confidence is very well. Yet, I think best approach is to take chance of a tough situation where the team work together to get out of it. Event making up that tough situation. 
Something like "The Painted Veil" ;)

posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 12:01 PM by Nader Soliman

Your argument "The best people to recruit into a startup are the ones that have the optimal mix of capability (can get the job done) and confidence (trust from others that they’ll get the job done)." is valid to a point.  
No one wants to work with a slacker, that's a given for choosing wisely. But then there are those who are a disruption to the team and make working with them extremely unpleasant. By this I mean "Super Ego", "Whiner Extraordinary" and "Over There We Did It This Way". Sure, everyone has a bad day comes with the territory but dealing with these 3 everyday can make what started as a good idea a painful experience for everyone.

posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 12:05 PM by Gina

Good post Dharmesh. I think this topic takes on additional complexity when you apply it to the management team layer.  
Dynamics and trust this level can be swayed heavily by things like: i.) How the startup is performing (let's face it, it's never a straight line);  
ii.) Where the team member came from (i.e. did the founder find her or the VCs)? 
iii.) Ambitions - Are team members behind the founder / CEO with no agenda or do they have ambitions that might get in the way? 
I posted on this a while back ( and have lived the good and bad sides of high performance management teams. 

posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 12:14 PM by Mark MacLeod

One of the best indicators of a quality start up team member is start up experience. 
It is difficult to determine how someone will react in a new group of people facing a continuous stream of very important decisions in an accelerated timeframe. 
Skills that you learned in kindergarten- being nice, sharing, listening, working together in a group, is probably as important as anyting else. 
Most start ups lose folks along the way- that is to be anticipated and expected. Everyone wants to be on the cover of Fast Company- few want to pay the price

posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 12:44 PM by Dan Tyre

I really like your point, Dharmesh, but I do have to respond that it only works if the leadership doing the hiring (and leading) is both credible and confident in themselves. In my Seattle-area startup experience, I've seen competent, trust-worthy talent undercut and eventually maligned by reactive, waffling leadership. There are few guidelines like your article directed at talent (or teams) who realize their contribution is capped by leadership weakness.

posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 5:11 PM by Tiff Fehr

Confidence, or trust, is a funky thing. It can be borrowed. For instance, if you tell someone that is confident in you that I'm good at what I do, I'll be 'borrowing' the trust that your friend has in you from you. If I earn your friend's confidence, yours grows. If I prove to be untrustworthy, your reputation might be tarnished. Total confidence can only be earned. However it starts, we must prove our capability to earn 100% confidence. 
Very thought-provoking.

posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 8:09 PM by Rick Roberge

I would say that trust and confidence do contribute to building that team spirit that is quite important towards hurdling the many obstacles startups face. 
Thanks for the post, Dharmesh! 

posted on Wednesday, August 20, 2008 at 2:54 AM by friarminor

Trust is a critical component of building an effective organization. The founders of the venture backed startup where I work lack this trust in their team and it has demotivated the entire team.

posted on Wednesday, August 20, 2008 at 7:04 AM by Trust Tree

Your comments about executive backing are important. Without them, those folks who are traditionally "pains in the ass" within the team don't grow. I speak with authority here, being in a startup while being a major pain!!! 
Secondly, capability when coupled with "growing people" doesn't always work on every project. Everyone should at some point truly recognize someone's strengths and weaknesses and not try to fit square pegs in round holes. Unfortunately, most are judged on the performance of their last project. 
Lastly, a bad team can be a great team when a great manager joins the team.  

posted on Friday, August 22, 2008 at 9:18 AM by Jack Stack

Interesting article; I'm confused by point 4, though. I can't figure out what situation you're describing.

posted on Friday, August 22, 2008 at 5:21 PM by Owen Raccuglia

Owen: Point #4 is subtle (that's a polite way of saying it makes little sense without explanation). 
Here's some clarification: The trust and confidence an individual team member will engender is based partly on who's got the most skin in the game. For example, if a founder goes out and personally recruits a team member (even when the choice is not "obvious"), it's a signal of trust and confidence. It's a signaling device. The founder's reputation is on the line when they make these kinds of choices. They're highly impacted. 
In short, your personal currency (the trust people have in you) is a function of the choices you make in terms of who you trust. 

posted on Friday, August 22, 2008 at 6:57 PM by Dharmesh Shah

The first question is "Why would you (or need to) hire someone in the first place. 
If you do not not know exactly why you are hiring someone, then the problems start before they walk in the door. 
If those leading and doing the hiring dont have pretty clear objectives needed to be achieved by the new employee, it's only a matter of time before the relationship goes sour. 
Fitting the person to the job is most critical at startup when speed to market is of essence.

posted on Thursday, August 28, 2008 at 4:04 AM by Bruno

This is absolutely true and so crucially important that I've never actually thought about it before -- it's just so integrally obvious. It's not only true of your startup team: it stays true as you grow and grow. But the startup team must all think that they are all all-stars and be delighted to be working with these co-founders. I don't know how one could get through the trials of starting up a company without that! 
I know a few programmers who are smart, get things done, and are very nice people, but cannot work in a group. We had someone like that at Object Design: she was amazingly smart, learned object-oriented programming faster than anyone I've ever seen, was a super-expert at high-speed transaction processing, produced great, working code, and was friendly if a bit shy. But when we tried to increase her team size from one to two, it just didn't work out. Evidently she had to keep everything in her head, and she could not delegate effectively. That would be a real problem in a startup situation, where everybody has to work together closely.

posted on Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 8:12 AM by Daniel Weinreb

What happens when a person who joins the startup for his own ambitions.  
What if the smart people are not rewarded . 
Some of people joining a startup end up moving out to start there own venture. 
how could this be controlled

posted on Friday, September 19, 2008 at 3:25 AM by Biji

Skills that you learned in kindergarten- being nice, sharing, listening, working together in a group, is probably as important as anyting else

posted on Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 3:33 PM by sohbet

It is very natural and happens every day as a build up of some mistakes people do. We still humans, we do mistakes, small and big. It keeps feeding on the confident until it is gone.

posted on Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 3:49 PM by yonja

Comments have been closed for this article.