Remember the Avengers? A set of Earth’s mightiest heroes coming together to save the world. Ring a bell? Just like a startup, that is most usually a few talented, driven people coming together to do something about a problem they have perceived. Although the Avengers franchise has a happy ending, the way they get there is questionable at best. Startup teams could definitely learn a thing or two of what not to do from the Avengers. A set of highly talented people coming together to attain a mission could often end up failing if they don’t get a time-travel redo!
Photo Credit: Marvel Singapore
While you are building your startup, you are on the search for the best talent out there. This includes rockstar programmers, innovators, disruptors, and marketing champions. Everybody loves superstars. But when you end up putting a bunch of them together, while just filling skill gaps, oftentimes, you will not get a good startup team. Why?
Avengers movies are an ode to the issues of having a collection of superstars as your team. Throughout the franchise, you can pick up a thread of all-knowing egos and a complete disregard for teamwork.
Are you thinking this happens only in the superhero world? If only that was true. According to a study, a group of all-stars tend to move away from coordination and cooperation, and towards competition and conflict. Talent does facilitate performance, but only up to a point, after which it becomes detrimental as intra-team coordination suffers.
Captain America to Stark: “Fury didn’t tell me he was calling you in.”
Stark answers, “Yeah, there’s a lot of things Fury doesn’t tell you.”
Right before Ironman jumps off a plane, Captain America says: “Stark! We need a plan of attack!”
To that Stark says: “I have a plan. Attack!”
Captain America to Stark: “We have orders. We should follow them.” That gets him a “Following’s not really my style.”
Are you sensing a theme?
A running theme throughout the franchise is the lack of collaboration between different superheroes. Constant squabbling over who does what better and the “put on your suit, let’s go a few rounds” to see who’s better. Many times, we see Captain America and Iron Man both independently working on the same thing, not trusting each other’s processes. Basically, both getting to the same place, but through different methods. Only if all that superhero power was used in a way that does not cancel each other out!
If you take a moment to reflect, it is more common than it should be in startup teams. As a startup, you are mostly working on unfamiliar terrain, solving problems as they come, and as is expected of talented people, each of them think they have the best way to solve the problem. But as a team, when you are strapped for resources, you need every soul in the team pushing in a single direction which seldom happens without good leadership.
Captain America to the Hulk: “Word is, you can find the cube”.
Hulk: “Is that the only word on me?”
Captain America: “Only word I care about.”
Good, because the other words were his volatile and destructive nature, anger issues, and delusions of grandiose. Startup founders tend to follow a similar approach while choosing their team. Most founders aim to collect “smart” people in the team while giving no or too little weight to their people skills.
While the singular objective given to Hulk was to “smash”, you may need each of your team members to do much more than that. Undermining the importance of soft skills in the team could lead to catastrophic results as is obvious from the Avengers as they run around trying to contain Hulk’s “personality” for the rest of the movie. Do you need all that drama while swimming upstream trying to build your business?
This famous Mark twain quote used as a metaphor for communication (or the lack thereof) between civilizations with very different backgrounds is squarely applicable in many parts of the Avengers franchise.
Two words: Ultron fiasco. Stark and Banner came together to build an advanced AI solution to defend the Earth. Great initiative. But they did not speak about the project to any of the other Avengers so as to avoid criticism and objections. No adequate review or safeguards were in place and viola, catastrophe.
This is common not only in the superhero world, but in the startup world too. Lack of communication between team members leads to misunderstandings and breakdown of team dynamics. Thus, creating silos within teams leading to trust issues. It is also one of those things that becomes a catalyst to many other problems that leads to failure like lack of passion, losing focus, etc.
Photo Credit: Marvel Singapore
So you have a bunch of Avengers in your startup. It is a task to handle, but they do get things done. How can you make them work together and save the day?
Most startup founders do not actively think about their role as a leader of the team. Being a leader is not the same as being the boss. You may not need hierarchy in your team, but you do need leadership. Leading the superstars is going to be harder than leading a regular well-balanced team. Understand that your superstars might not instinctively know how to value each other’s emotions, remember birthdays and to catch the signs when someone in the team needs help.
As a leader, you cannot afford to be passive. Actively identify areas for them to work together. Understand the strengths and weaknesses, and the management style required for each teammate. For an Ironman persona, it may be good to give them the flexibility to explore innovative ideas and concepts, but be prepared to reinforce the objective, so that they don’t get lost in fantasyland. If you have a Hulk, keep them away from the stress and give them the space to problem solve. When you have other priorities, Captain America can be the loyal leader who never loses sight of the big picture.
Despite all their differences, Avengers banded together, in the end, to save the day for a bigger and sentimental purpose. You may think it does not come along in real life just as it does in reel life, but that is not true. Find the “why” behind your business and actively champion your team behind the cause. Do not mistake purpose-driven for non-profit. Purpose holds your team together, helps guide your decisions objectively, and ensures the authenticity of your actions.
In addition to being a glue, the purpose will also guide you on day to day decision making as to what is beneficial for the business against vanity based distractions. As unstable as a startup journey can get, you need your team to be united behind a common vision, ready to support each other and not only be content- but revel in being a part of the team that saves the day.
Most startups think ‘team-building’ activities are for corporates that have way too much time at hand and money to spend. Team building does not necessarily mean an expensive retreat to Mauritius. It can be solving an escape room together, paintball, or board games. Dedicating a few hours every month towards these inexpensive activities will take down the walls within the team. This will pay you dividends later as stories and inside jokes of “remember that time when…” which are uniquely yours and will bring your team together at every retelling.
Another way to bring human emotions into play is to take away the screens. In a tech startup, communication is mostly through instant messaging sites like Slack or Discord. Although extremely convenient for day to day operations, it keeps you removed from the emotional closeness cultivated from face to face communication. Encourage in-person communication that builds camaraderie in the team.
Captain America and Ironman are not expected to agree all the time. It would definitely make for a less thrilling movie. Conflict breeds creativity. The point is not to have a bunch of extremely talented individuals agreeing with each other all the time. That will lead to a very in-the-box team who never challenge each other. The first feedback you get should not be from your customer or your investor. Your team is the first line of offense.
You can do this by embracing conflict as a part of startup culture. Understand that no one in the team (including you) has a monopoly on being right. Encourage everyone to actively question assumptions, ask questions, and call out objectivity. Be cautious of the criticism getting personal. We need teams that are talented, well-adjusted, and disagree enough to better the value of the product. Ultimately, the goal is that when you go out there into the shark eats shark world, your product could not have been any better than it is.
While functional profiling should still be an important metric in hiring, the personality of the potential hire, and how the person fits into your overall team framework is equally important. It is hard to resist when you come across someone with a skill that is exactly what you are looking for. But do not make split decisions. Take ‘meet the team’ part of the hiring process seriously. It would even help to get a potential hire to come on one of your team building activities to see how they react and work together when there is no formal interview setting.
As a founder, it is for you to understand the big picture, whether hiring this person will add something or take something away from the team dynamics. Maybe it is better to go for a well-adjusted candidate who is 75% there in terms of skill than a 100% skill match who just may not fit. But sometimes, when you are strapped for resources, there may not be a choice. In those cases, weigh the pros and cons and make an informed decision. It is then up to you as a leader to put in the extra effort needed to manage and keep the team together.
Everybody loves superstars. But having a cohesive group of highly motivated, and diversely skilled people is what your startup really needs to succeed. As a founder, you need to take your role as “first among equals” seriously and rally your team to save the day!
In 2017, when I was 19 and completing my studies at Temasek Polytechnic, I founded Out & Ink, a company that specialises in temporary jagua ink tattoos, drawn on the spot by our team of artists.
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I’m the co-founder of The Kint Story, an online platform dedicated to rebranding second-hand clothing so that they’re no longer seen as second best.