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You gotta build

Every so often, I'm asked to look over a startup pitch deck. I'm no longer investing, but if I have bandwidth and I think the elevator pitch is interesting, I'm happy to provide advice.

The team slide is, of course, the most important part of any pitch, because the people in your team are the most important part of any startup. Lately, I've seen the same problem again and again.

Here's a lesson I learned a long time ago, the hard way: in a startup, everyone has to bring something important to the table that meaningfully pushes the organization forward. The people who just want to tell people what to do, or who are there because having a startup is cool, add burn, slow you down, and reduce your chances for success.

That might sound like obvious advice, but over the years, I've encountered a lot of people who want to play-act working on a startup. They performatively hustle and talk the talk, looking and sounding the part, but when the rubber meets the road, they fall flat. They have the political and interpersonal skills, but they can't build.

Having an idea is not bringing to the table; neither is running a meeting; nor is strategy alone. You've got to make and build, bringing all of your skills and creativity together to actually create something from more or less nothing. Crafting a concrete experience is bringing something to the table. Building a process to repeatably sell is bringing something to the table. Writing and maintaining code is bringing something to the table. Telling other people what to do is not. And you've got to make sure those dynamics, that bias towards action and focus on execution, is a core part of your company culture and how you think about running the business.

It can get nasty. Sometimes, I've even seen non-builders actively try and subjugate the makers in an organization in order to cover for their own shortcomings. In larger companies, organizational politics are an inevitable if uncomfortable part of life, but these kinds of games can kill a startup very quickly. (65% of startups fail because of preventable human dynamics.) Founders need to watch for the politicians and the talkers, and optimize for the people who are not just willing and able to get their hands dirty, but willing and able to make that their entire job.

One of the most common mistakes I've seen in people who move from larger organizations to found startups is to build an organization out of people managers, and then outsource the making part. In effect, the blood and sweat and DNA of your service gets outsourced, while the only people in the office are talkers. It's absurd, and it belies a dismissive attitude towards building things that is orthogonal to success. At one startup I met, someone referred to the engineering team as "the back-room guys". Who would want to join that team?

If your team isn't able to make meaningful progress without outsourcing its work, it's the wrong team. That might not be true when you have a larger corporation's resources at your disposal - although I'm not convinced that it's not - but it's certainly true when you need to build something at speed.

Here's how it came out in the people slide of one deck I recently read. The entire founding team had MBAs and high-level management backgrounds, with no other applicable skills. (The best way to list those is describe what you've built in the past.) Inevitably, the team slide also proudly declared which schools they had graduated from. It couldn't be a bigger red flag: there was nothing to say they could actually build the startup they were proposing. Nobody had ever designed a user experience or written a line of code. To reiterate, it's not alone. This was far from the first startup I've seen - or the hundredth - that had the same problem.

The bottom line is: if you can't say definitively why you're the right team to build (not ideate, not strategize, not pitch, but build) this startup, then you need to stop kidding yourself and find something else to do. It's harsh advice, but in an environment where entrepreneurs are the new rock stars, a lot of people seem to want to cut corners and get famous (such as it is) without putting in the work. The truth is, there are no corners to be cut, and a startup made of people managers will inevitably fail. There is no alternative to building.