This article is part of a series of posts we are writing in collaboration with our network of Operating Partners at Samaipata. These posts strive to be useful & actionable for early stage startups founders, and cover most of the key challenges faced at this stage, ranging from tech hirings to cultural growth pains. You can find them all here.
Who are the first key people to hire when building a digital business? Not an easy question to answer, right? Your first tech commando and your first engineers are very important characters on your journey and should be chosen carefully. It doesn’t end there either — you should always aim to retain and help them grow as your startup scales.
Samuel is currently the Chief People Officer and one of the co-founders of Ontruck, one of Samaipata portfolio companies. He has been the CTO at Ontruck for 4 years, the VP of Engineering at Delivery Hero for another 4 years and cofounded other ventures such as Valk Fleet and Inventure Cloud. As the CTO of Ontruck, he scaled the tech team from 2 to 50 people. He helps our other portfolio companies on tech topics, from hiring and structuring the tech team to technological choices, product advice and DevOps streamlining.
Disclaimer: the content in this article is mostly relevant for Seed / Series A companies that don’t have cutting edge tech at the core of its value proposition.
The different components of the Tech team
Let’s start from the beginning: what do we mean by a Tech team? What are the different tech components of a startup?
The Tech landscape includes anything that is linked to the use of software, not only as a product, but also as part of internal and external processes.
The chart above shows an overview of all the tech components required at some point in a tech startup, aka: what needs to be done!
Among all of these components, some of them are critical very early on, some can be done later on, some can be done by founders (even if they aren’t technical) while others will require additional hires. Let’s review them:
Product: The product stream is probably the most important part. At early stages, it is usually done by one of the cofounders, even if they are not a “technical” one (i.e. a software engineer). The discovery phase (i.e. list of all the features that need to be available on the product) will be handled by the cofounder who has the best domain expertise. Then, prioritisation and management of features, as well as design later on will usually be handled by one or several additional team members as the product continues to develop.
Tech: Most startups have 4 sub-streams in the tech stream: Frontend, backend, mobile and the back-office / admin part. One of the most common pitfalls is when the product team handles the front-end. In fact, these are 2 very separate tasks — Product is responsible for the product workflow, features and functional design while frontend takes care of customer facing technological choices and implementation of these choices.
Data: Data is also a key stream that needs to be implemented from inception of the company. You have to decide how you are going to “measure” your company’s performance (i.e. track the right KPIs and metrics), both internally and externally. Tech will usually heavily support the tracking process.
QA: This stream is about quality control of your product. It comprises 2 sub-streams — (i) automated testing that is generally handled by engineers and (ii) manual testing that is handled by the product people initially or specialised testers later on.
Internal tools: Tech is not only about what you will be building as a product or service, it is also about how you will handle all your internal processes such as Sales, Marketing, Finance and HR. Usually, these teams are more or less tech savvy and will need the tech team’s help to implement tools and processes that reduce manual work and make their workflows more efficient.
What is beautiful about this diagram is that at the very early stages, you can cover all of it with 1 or 2 of the right people. A technical founder can tackle Tech, Data and DevOps while a non-technical founder can cover Product, Internal tools and some QA.
That being said, some Founders who don’t have “technical” background (which is fine by itself) think they can get by just hiring some engineers. Unfortunately, proceeding this way could spell the beginning of many troubles. It’s important to have either a technical Founder or at least a Tech Lead to understand and manage the tech team from the very beginning. Very early in the life of a startup, many frustrations can come from the tech team because they can be asked to do things that they are not necessarily qualified for (i.e. anything that looks remotely technical will be allocated to them). Make sure you have a tech lead (either CTO or not) at the beginning of your venture.
Once you have your tech lead, then only can you get your first engineers. You will want to start with “short-fat” engineers (i.e. generalist tech engineers) who will understand and implement the basics of everything (cf. *Short-fat engineers are undervalued?,* Nested). Going further, you will need to hire i-shaped engineers (i.e. specialized tech engineers) to become more advanced on the most strategic activities (e.g. Data Science, Mobile etc.). With limited resources at first, you will need to compromise: what is the minimum amount of things that you need to do that actually requires dedicated engineers?
As a general rule of thumb, of your first 10 hires, 5 will be dash-shaped (generalists) and 5 will be i-shaped (specialised).
You can see above the first 10 hires of Ontruck: most of the engineers are concentrated on Tech per se. Only 1 person is responsible for the product design (the discovery being managed by the CPO himself). 1 person is doing the business analytics, not only building the data stack and the reporting process themselves, but also consistently monitoring it and reporting to the rest of the team. 1 person is responsible for internal tools to automate Sales and Finance functions. All the rest is handled by the CTO during the early stages.
Types of profiles wanted for first tech hires
First hires will require 2 main qualities: versatility and resilience. In a very early stage tech team, there are too many “hats” for too few people. You need people who are versatile as they need to adapt to new tech, new roles, jumping from one responsibility to another. An engineer who has built his own startup project on the side is good proof of versatility for instance. You also need them to be resilient, as early stage startup journeys can be quite bumpy and pivoting is common.
As mentioned earlier, if you do not have a technical cofounder who can cover the basics in all areas, you need a dependable Tech Lead. It has to be somebody you can trust, which can be difficult to find… In order to find the right tech Lead, you need to:
Think of your USP: why should they join you and not others?
Listen and try to understand their needs, especially the ones that are invisible (e.g. ways of managing, respect for their co-founders, etc.)
How to attract your tech talents — questions for a non-technical founder
Before going out there to hire your first talents, make sure to ask yourself (and answer) the following questions:
Do you have an interesting project for a technical person or just the need to get something simple built quickly?
How strong is your mission actually?
What are your values?
What do you want the company culture to be like? Will it be attractive for an introvert nerd?
What will they get from joining you in your journey? Personal growth? Upside? Unique experiences? Being part of something cool? Being taken into account in the big decisions? Building/using cool tech?
How will their priorities be decided? Who will decide them?
Do you know what technical debt is?
Where to find them
Once you have a clear answer for all of these questions, here are ideas on where to find your first tech myrmidons:
Networking and dedicated forums
Domain networking: ideally go for somebody who understands your domain. They will be more motivated and their knowledge will be invaluable in the product discovery.
Skillset networking: Go for engineering school and tech bootcamps networking events and forums.
Find good recommendations (good recruiters are surprisingly busy). Go for boutiques more than big recruiter brands.
3. LinkedIn outbound
Learn how to find the talent you need and invest time in personal introductions and explaining your product vision and your USP to them. They will love being reached out to by a founder directly. Good tech people are tired of recruiters.
Remember that any good dev receives 1 or more offers a week. Make yours special.
4. Tech events
At Samaipata, we are always looking for ways to improve. Do not hesitate to send us your thoughts. We strive to partner with early-stage founders and to support them in taking their business to the next level. Check out more ways in which we can help here or for all our other content here
And as always, if you’re a European digital business founder looking for Seed funding, please send us your deck here or subscribe to our Quarterly updates here.
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