When vetting the three parts of a startup, the Idea, the team, and the execution, the part that is the most subjective and varying between investors is the team. How I go about vetting a team by no means is the absolute correct way, but it should give you an idea on where to start and with time and experience you should be able to develop your own methods and processes.
For me and most investors, a big thing to look for is how many startups have the team members been through. Specifically, how many startups have the founders been through and to what stage did they get to. It doesn’t matter if they have succeeded or not, but the fact that they have experience in the startup environment as an operator means they have learned lessons that give them an inherent advantage. Winning is a bonus as it means they have seen the whole journey of a “successful” startup, but just like in poker, you can still lose with a good hand.
A lot of times, it is good to ask how they handled situations in their other startups, and to call other people who worked with the team to see what it was like to work with them and to see their perspective on how they handled situations. Maybe even go to their office or sit in on a meeting, to get a ground-level view of how everyone works together.
A divisive requirement for some investors is for a team to have domain expertise. I personally don’t give this too much weight as sometimes the best ideas come from outsiders of an industry. Look at companies like Uber and Facebook, their founders were not domain experts and they might not have approached the problem they wanted to solve as disruptively if they had domain expertise and were clouded by the domain standards. That is not to say that it can’t help to have someone with domain expertise to help navigate, but it is not necessarily a requirement. In this day and age, it is very easy to connect to people with domain expertise and to even bring them on as advisors which would serve the purpose of giving guidance.
The next thing for me is how the team works together currently and what is driving them to work together. An easy way to see if everyone is aligned is to see how each team members’ equity has been given out. For me, if the equity is not based on some sort of performance vesting schedule, it is a hard sell for me to accept that everyone is pointed in the right direction. Some teams have an exceptional passion for the mission and vision, and if that shows through somehow, that can usually be good enough for me as well.
There is one last thing I look for, this one is really hard to explain thoroughly. Basically, there is a look or a feeling that I get when talking to someone who I think has a maniacal drive who is going to take their startup all the way. This drive or passion could be the single factor that takes a startup into unicorn territory.
To summarize, I usually vet a team through startup experience, how a team works together, how a team is aligned, and if they give me the sense of having a maniacal drive. Having access to a domain expert is a bonus, but not a requirement for me.
I hope this post helps with where to start on vetting a team.
“You need someone that behaves like James Bond more than you need someone that is an expert in some particular domain.” -Sam Altman
Sources: Personal experience, This Week in Startups, Angle by Calacanis, Straight Talk for Startups by Komisar & Reigersman, Self-learning.