1. Your Team Checklist

I have these skills on my team: 

  • Teaching and learning expertise

  • Business/fundraising expertise

  • Technical expertise

  • Marketing and sales expertise

I know how to find teammates at Harvard:

  • We have created a venture profile on Startuptree to help us find relevant events and people across Harvard and MIT

My team  is discussing how to structure our partnership:

  • We have a partnership agreement

  • We've agreed on equity and ownership percentages with my partners - and contingency/vesting plans 

  • We have agreed on roles and responsibilities 

  • We have agreed on timing and after graduation plans  

  • We have shared our motivations for taking on this idea

We have thought about the roles we may need or want:

  • Co-founder

  • Joiners

  • Interns 

  • Advisory Board

  • Board of Directors


2. How do we know if we have the right team?

One of the ideal ways to finding the right team is to think about your existing team’s content expertise and what gaps do you have.


Example: “I am a world language educator and have classroom experience with diverse students.  I want to create a technology platform that makes language learning digital curriculum available for sale to teachers across the country.”

Then, identify co-founders and teammates who might compliment your expertise by rounding out the skill set of the team while also demonstrating a passion for your idea.

Sometimes you may be starting off alone, so getting a co-founder is instrumental. In this case you probably want your cofounder to share the same interests as yours with regards to the vision of your venture, but have a different skill set or area of expertise that complements yours. 

In other instances, you will be starting off with an existing team. Something may bring you all together, such as shared interest in the idea or a particular class project, but you may still have expertise gaps on your team. Choosing a founding team is one of the most critical steps in launching a new venture. 

When thinking of how to approach building your team, take an inventory of your skills that you can leverage on behalf of your idea. Next, think about where there are gaps in your own knowledge and skill set around the problem you are trying to solve.  


A Fellow shares her experience:

“When I founded an educational nonprofit, I planned to leverage my background in business and marketing. However, I lacked deep knowledge of the education sector and pedagogy.  In building my organization, the first team members I found were ones who had teaching and curriculum design experience." 


A common mistake many entrepreneurs make is thinking that they can “buy” experience by paying people to join the team. If you are starting a venture that will include creating a tech platform, it is imperative that you find someone on your founding team with this experience. For most entrepreneurs it will be too costly to pay someone to do the work in the startup phase. As we’ll discuss in “What should I look for in teammates?” team agreements and culture plays a role.  At the early stages you want team members with the right experience who buy into your theory of change, are clear on their roles, and get the vision.  

Questions to ask yourself:

  • ​What experiences and expertise does each team member bring that will allow us to solve the problem?

  • What expertise is missing on our team that we need to find?


3. How do we find co-founders?

Co-founders refers to anyone who was included in the founding of the idea or startup. The title does not necessarily mean that the person developed the startup idea or was there from the first day. While these can be true, the co-founder role can also be used to incentivize a persona to join the organization who brings signification content or technical expertise or other resources that will enable the launch of the business.


Many founders who are launching technical startups will bring on a cofounder with coding or other technical expertise. As shared previously, it is a hard road to take to try to buy expertise on an early stage startup - especially in education.  One way to barter for this expertise is with the co-founder title.  A team member who would normally command a big salary for their technical or content expertise might consider joining the team in a cofounder role if they receive an ownership and equity stake in the company. A cofounder typically is willing to commit time and resources and forgo a salary in the short-term as they are invested in the longer terms success of the organization.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Have we outlined the roles and responsibilities that are needed to solve our well-defined problem? 

  • Have we taken the “How to Build Great Team” workshop at the Harvard Innovation Labs?

  • Have we thought about what content expertise or technical expertise that would be ideal in a co-founder?


4. How do we find content expertise?

Content expertise is the topical knowledge that you or another team member has about the well-defined problem that you intend to address with your solution due to her study, training, or experience in the subject matter.


As it relates to content experience, a well-rounded team will have content experience that comes from both personal and professional experiences.  This allows you to both understand the problem from a potential user’s perspective while also having an understanding of how a business approaches the problem.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What types of expertise does my team have around the problem we are solving?

  • Is this content experience derived from our personal or professional experiences?

  • What resources and people can help us learn more about the problem we are solving?


5. What is a joiner?

Joiners are team members who have entrepreneurial interest but are not necessarily interested in founding an organization.  They typically are interested in the startup environment that provides the opportunity for autonomy and entrepreneurial thinking along with the ability to focus on a specific role versus a founder who is more of a generalist.   


Many joiners like the idea of a start up but may or may not have an idea of their own or the appetite to start an organization themselves.  The Harvard Innovation Labs maintains a list of organizations who are looking for joiners. You can also browse for teammates on Startuptree if you want a join a startup, but don't know which one might be a good match. 


A cofounder typically is willing to commit time and resources and forgo a salary in the short-term as they are invested in the longer terms success of the organization.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Have we thought about what are the joiner roles that we will need to solve our well-defined problem?

  • Have we thought about what content expertise or technical expertise that would be ideal in a cofounder?


6. What is a board of directors?

Board of Directors are a governing body that has fiduciary and legal oversight of a specific organizations.  The CEO of companies report to the board of directors. The Board of Directors as a body provides strategic advice to the CEO.  The Board is typically comprised of individuals who have experience bring content expertise and technical expertise related to the organizations they serve.


A Fellow shares her experience:

Example: "When I founded the an educational nonprofit, I enlisted board members who had backgrounds in education, finance, marketing and legal.  I also looked for teachers and parents who had lived experiences with the problem I was trying to solve by bringing global education opportunities to the New York City Public school system."


In addition to oversight for the organization, the individuals who comprise the board of directors can be strong advocates for the organization helping to introduce you to financial resources and strategic partnerships. 

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Have we developed a board of directors job description?

  • Have we reached out to a Harvard librarian to find board and governance resources?

  • Have we talked to other Harvard and MIT entrepreneurs in education to understand their board structure?


7. What is an advisory board?

Advisory Boards are a structure an entrepreneur can use to convene a group of experts who have content expertise or technical expertise.  These experts make a commitment to providing strategic guidance and connections. Different from a Board of Directors, an advisory board does not have any legal obligations to the organization.  An advisory board role can be used to attract high profile individuals as the commitment is informal can be tailored to meet their availability and interest 

A Fellow shares an experience:

"When I founded the organization, I deliberately sought after high profile learning experts who could add credibility to my organization and who could also connect me to other experts and resources in the field."

It is important to note that while advisory boards are informal in nature that these high-profile individuals can important to the lifecycle of an organization. They can also be strong unpaid ambassadors for your organization.  It is well-worth your time to keep them informed of your progress and think strategically how about how they add value to your organization 

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Have we developed an advisory board job description?

  • Have we talked to other Harvard and MIT entrepreneurs in a similar line of business to understand their Advisory structure and how to connect this group with other high-profile board members and advocates?


8. How should we set up the advisory board or board of directors?

One of the most important things to consider for any founder is whom to solicit as advisors and board members. They are a part of your credibility and network in the future. Typically, you can fit advisors and investors into 3 broad groups:

Board (member or observer) - get people on the board who will contribute either with money (or in-kind support), expertise or with their network/reputation. 

  1. In for-profit enterprises beginning to scale, its ideal to not have more than 3-5 board members, of whom a couple will be investors, 1-2 may be independent directors and 1-2 will be you and your co-founder. Additional people (eg. investors who have invested less amounts) should be bought on as observers if needed. 

  2. For a non-profit, have a maximum of 10 board members at this stage.

Advisory Board

  1. You may have more people than the numbers mentioned above who are helping and whom you want to involve more. A good way of doing this is to put them on your advisory board (or alternatives like young leaders board) etc so you can make use of their talents.

  2. As they get more involved, graduate a few to the official board.

Personal Board - we’ve talked about the organizational board so far, however, make sure you also have a ‘personal board’ - folks who you trust and respect and who can advise you on the best way ahead for your life (without being bound by their statutory duties to your organization). 


9. How do we find mentors and advisors?

Good mentors and advisors will be an important objective source of advice and expertise as you build out your idea.  


It can be daunting thinking about finding mentors and advisors but that is a big part of the HILT students grants program and we are here to help. Take time to think about the kinds of profiles and people who might help you grow your idea. Be sure to look for connections and ask for intros. 


An advisor generally provides input on the specific idea and should have some domain expertise - be it general (‘how might we scale our business by taking it online’) to quite specific (perhaps a professor who has researched the subject area you are working on). A mentor need not have content expertise in the area that you are working on but they should be able to provide advice on your work, often with a big picture perspective of where you are going and a good understanding of your values and goals. 

It is a good idea for team members to look for their own mentors to ensure there is some diversity in the advice you are drawing on. The most important thing is to feel as though you can share both the positive and negative aspects of your progress working on the idea. 


Lastly, as you tackle a pressing problem with a bold idea, you will hear a lot of feedback from your advisors, mentors, and others. That is such a valuable thing and it will make your idea better. It is important to remember that not all feedback is actionable or even right. Think of feedback as someone offering a perspective. You get to choose whether you take it and action it or leave it.  

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do we have at least two advisors who have domain expertise in the problem space we are working on?

  • Do we have  at least one mentor who is excited to see me succeed and whom we feel we can be candid with?


10. How do we build out the team?

Useful concepts to think about: (1) Where do you find employees? (2) How do you evaluate potential hires (3) Don’t hire too fast too soon (4) Centralization vs localization (5) How should you compensate employees? 

Where do you find employees?

There are three main sources of new employees - (1) referrals from existing employees (ii) inbound applications through word of mouth from existing employees / PR (iii) Outbound advertisements through online networks (college google group) and websites (eg. LinkedIn, company website) 


Tell your teams and/or HR staff that they should try to leverage each of these routes, depending on their own networks - if these are strong in the field of the required function, then referrals and word of mouth works. Otherwise advertisements are required. In the beginning, referrals and outbound advertisements through LinkedIn / mass emails to groups (eg. HGSE or Teach for America alums email groups) or startup job portals (EdSurge may carry vacancies as well) will be most effective. As you and your company build up a brand, you will start getting incoming requests and applications on your website. In general, if you have less than 30 employees in total, teams can do their own hiring. Once you have more, you need to start thinking about getting a formal HR staffer for recruitment and management.


How do you evaluate potential hires?

The traditional way to hire is through resume shortlisting and interviews. This may still work in some cases - however, often for startups, looking at portfolios of past work (eg. UI of ed-tech app) or taking potential employees on as interns can work better. Looking at portfolios works well for people in particular functions where skills can be tangibly demonstrated .eg. designers, software engineers, etc. For other positions like operations and managers, getting people in to intern is a good way to understand whether to hire them full time.


Always look for not only competence, but also fit. In a small company, having even one person who is difficult and doesn’t fit the team culture can demoralize and derail a group, and just make folks not want to come in to work. The other thing to make sure of is that you and your teams are not only hiring people that are just like you - this is a natural tendency which robs you of all the benefits of diverse viewpoints. So put in place techniques like implicit bias training, blind resume selection, etc. 


Economies of scale only after a point - don’t hire too fast too soon

There is a conception among founders that they’ll get economies of scale with more employees - or at least every additional employee will yield a particular additional amount of revenue/growth/profits. This often leads to frantic hiring in a quest for scale. However, how it often plays out is that additional employees only lead to scaling once basic functions are fulfilling - so increasing employees from 30 to 60 may streamline and improve quality of the work that the 30 were originally doing but will not double the revenues or customers. But going from 60 to 120 may double revenues as now basic functions are covered and each extra employee directly impacts scale. It’s important for founders to think about what these numbers are like for their company and plan their scaling plans (including fundraising and hiring plans) accordingly. 


Centralization (Base Camp) vs localization (Mountain Peaks)

Originally, the entire team will typically have been co-located. However, as you scale, you will need to have base camps (centralized teams) which will work with mountain peaks (regional offices). You will have to figure out which tasks will be controlled by base camps vs mountain peaks, depending on your model. Some models need extreme localization (eg. Bridge International Academies - a chain of low cost private schools) so local teams have all the power and the bulk of the hiring, while central teams will act as vendors to them. In other cases, the product would be controlled by central teams (eg. Khan Academy ed-tech platform), while local teams would do some tweaks and take responsibility for getting customers in their region. To decide, identify the key differentiating features of your solution and determine who is best equipped to handle these.

How should you compensate employees

You’ll pay your team cash, employee stock options (ESOP), or a combination of both. Whatever it is, make sure you are able to align incentives of individual team members with the success of the company. One example of this is to ensure a vesting schedule for the ESOP to retain employees for a guaranteed period of time.

The other thing to keep in mind is that employee who join early stage start-ups place at least as high as value on their learning, experience and the mission of the company. This is also something that you can provide more easily compared to hard cash when you’re still in the process of fundraising. Sell people on personal growth, responsibility they will have, impact they will create and then follow through on your promises. 

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Are we tapping into our personal network adequately for hiring?

  • Do we have relevant evaluation methods for different roles?

  • Will this hire streamline quality or increase revenues?

  • What is the key value (salary, exciting project, etc) we are offering this potential employee?

  • How important is localization to our venture?


Resources at Harvard

  1. Startuptree is the best place to start - it's a platform that is open only to Harvard and MIT students and alumni to help find relevant people and resources. Create a quick profile to find a team - or find teammates.

  2. The Harvard iLabs is the best place to both get advice from experts and advisors and to meet potential joiners from the Harvard student community who will become part of your team. 

  3. Student clubs conduct cross-school mixers, release weekly newsletters etc. Check out HILT's database of education-related student organizations across Harvard.

Know of more resources?