Five reasons a big founding team works

Startups come in all shapes and sizes. With big teams squeezed into small offices, or a few people scattered around the globe relying on shaky WiFi to stay in touch. There is clear flexibility in how you start and run a company, but often much debate centres on forming the perfect founding team.

Is it better to go solo or to find co-founders who believe in the vision enough to join you building from the foundation up? What’s the real impact on share distribution? Do co-founders need to be local, culturally similar or in posession of totally different skillsets?

A few months ago I joined Cocoon, a smart home security company with five founders (have a nose around the website, I think it’s cool but I’m biased). For the past six years I’ve worked with startups, but have never come across such a large founding team. It made me curious, would it result in more bickering, slower decisions, personality clashes?… Since joining the company I’ve been watching the dynamics play out, wondering if they’re onto something or if “too many cooks spoil the broth”.
I must say that, overwhelmingly, having 5 founders seems to work.


5 reasons having 5 founders works.

Accountability

For a solo founder or small founding team, if someone is on the wrong track it’s hard to pull them back in line. Even if a structure is relatively flat most employees won’t step up to correct a founder in critical decisions, it takes another founder to do that unless you have a really proactive board.

With more founders, there is more accountability around decisions, progress and results.

Support

Holding people to account can sound negative, but it’s all part of running a successful business and can’t happen effectively without a great support structure. If people are aware of what you’re working on then they can support you through tough decision making, creative blanks, problem solving and in knowing when you should push yourself or pause for breath.

This support system is something many solo founders struggle without. The value of working alongside others who are (hopefully) as passionate as you on a business can be the factor that secures success.

Reach

You meet all sorts of different people along life’s path and you never know who might one day prove helpful. The more founders, the more contacts you have who could open doors and extend your reach to a wider audience for investment, sales, mentorship or whatever it is your business needs.

Vision and Belief

One person driving a vision can be powerful, but when that person stands with others the passion becomes more contagious and the belief becomes reinforced to appear more viable.

Diversity

It is likely that with a larger number of founders there’ll be more diversity, and it’s a fact that the more diversity in a company the better they perform. (One of many pieces of research on the benefits of diversity by McKinsey)

More founders is likely to mean greater variations in cultural views, areas of knowledge, interest, and communities they’re involved in. But, maybe most valuable of all, is the likely cocktail of skill sets.

Cocoon’s founding team have a really diverse and complementary set of skills. There’s a chartered accountant who’s great at making considered opinions and really understanding their commercial implications, there’s a marketing professional well respected for his knack to understand customers and for being an animated fast thinking presenter. There are three technical founders covering hardware, software, platforms, servers, integrations, and UX. Their experience and understanding of project management and problem solving means they are incredibly powerful at creating smart solutions.

What unites them? They are all doers, with experience in building successful companies from the ground up, in managing teams, technology, and customer expectations. The majority have held leading roles for some of the world’s most well-known internet security companies so really understand how to secure the privacy of Cocoon customers. But most importantly, they all believe in making the world a safer place through home security that’s smart but simple.

*Yes Cocoon founders are all men. They can themselves still be diverse, and active promoters of diversity. This will be a follow up blog post.

The cons of a big founding team

Dilution

A larger founding team inevitably means more dilution, when starting out you’re splitting nothing between you. Spreading that nothing a little further means that the share you get out, if you reach success together, is a little less. But will you even reach success without their help? Might they help you reach far greater success, making the smaller percentage worth more?

If the chance of success is less without them, then you could end up with nothing anyway? Surely it’s worth having a smaller percentage in a far more successful business!

Slow decision-making

This is a real potential problem, early stage companies must move fast and lots of founders can mean slow progress, but put a few measures in place and a larger team needn’t make a company move more slowly.

These can be as simple as having clear communication systems, be they morning standups or a slack channel, scheduling regular updates, ensuring you trust each other to flag issues, and perhaps most importantly, giving people ownership of areas that match their expertise.


There is no such thing as one size fits all, every company is different.

There may be reasons why a large founding team is not right for you or your industry. Sometimes the right person can drive a company to success on their own, my good friend Jenny Griffiths (SnapFashion) is a prime example. However, as I see Cocoon go from strength to strength, it seems clear that our founding team work well for each other, our industry and our customers. In the case of Cocoon, many heads really are better than one.


Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success – Henry Ford

We’re putting privacy at the heart of home security

Your privacy and security are of paramount importance. From the very first moment Cocoon burst into existence we’ve put your privacy first. Our team have high-level experience in the world’s leading internet security companies, including McAfee and Trend Micro, and that expertise means that firewalls and encryption are just the basic layers of Cocoon’s security. The way it works also means you can relax at home in privacy, feeling safe in the knowledge that Cocoon is there for you.

Prior to launch, an external security company tested our systems for weaknesses. The concluding report declared that “the Cocoon device and its supporting services have been developed to a high standard. It is clear that the technology team and developers within the organisation have a high degree of knowledge with regard to information security issues“.

We believe that security shouldn’t cost you your privacy. See 8 ways Cocoon secures your privacy below.

Cocoon offers home security that's smart, simple and designed to protect what you care about most while respecting your privacy.

8 Ways Cocoon Secures Your Privacy

1.  Auto arm/disarm. Cocoon automatically activates alerts when you leave home, and disables them when you get home. This means Cocoon is not only hassle free, but also that your home life stays private.

2.  Minimal Cloud Storage. Cocoon only pushes data to the cloud when there’s an alert or you stream live video. Everything else is stored locally in 30 second cycles, with old data continually burnt over. If there’s an alert the previous 20 seconds are also sent to the cloud to make sure you never miss a thing.

3.  You’ll know if they’re peeking! If someone in your household live streams video then the LED light on your Cocoon will start flashing so, if you’re in the room, you can say hello!

4.  No extra sensors. Cocoon uses Subsound® so doesn’t need cameras and sensors in other rooms. It listens for sound waves inaudible to humans, that travel throughout rooms and floors, so can protect your whole home without listening and watching your every move.

5.  Encryption. This is the more technical bit, but is vital for privacy and security. Your video is encrypted at rest and in transmission (256bit AES). All communications from your Cocoon to our servers are over https encrypted links and no inward connections are allowed.

6.  Your phone is key. The Cocoon app is where you’ll receive alerts but also is the access key to your encrypted data. Cocoon never stores your access keys, that’s a private link between your Cocoon and your household’s phones, so you can be sure it’s secure.

7.  It’s all inside Cocoon. Your Cocoon learns the sounds of your home to minimise false alarms. No data or analysis ever leaves your household, it all happens inside your Cocoon.

8.  Penetration testing. It’s important that we don’t have the final say, so we regularly get external security companies to test our systems to make sure your privacy is as secure as possible!


If you have any thoughts, questions or feedback we’re here to help so please do get in touch via email or our website’s live chat.


 

I’m Mo. I break things. It matters

I’m Mo, nice to meet you.

My name is Mohammed (or Mo as everyone likes to call me), and I’m Cocoon’s first Software Test Engineer with a prominent focus in manually testing Cocoon’s iOS and Android applications, as well as the Cocoon device itself.

I originally was born into Web Development and soon acquired a degree in BSc Hons Web Design & Technology, but then later branched off into the testing realm. As I graduated in July 2014 and started reaching for the moon, I also knew I wanted to be a part of the startup scene. I have always childishly moaned and complained to my wife that I had been unfortunate to have been born and raised in Yorkshire – as I felt all the startup action was taking place in Silicon Valley, which is a few thousand miles across ‘the pond’

However, I soon stumbled onto Cocoon. As you all know, Cocoon is a smart-home-security-device startup founded by Dan, Sanjay, Colin, Nick and John (wow! I said that in one breath!). Together they have set off on a journey to disrupt the startup universe and, in particular, the ever so growing startup scene in Leeds.

What I do matters.

My job at Cocoon is to write extensive test cases which I later run multiple times (or, however, many times needed) to test everything from a Cocoon pairing to a phone successfully to a name input field handling all that it can have thrown at it. Essentially, I want to break as many things as I can now, so our rockstar developers can fix them before we ship to our anxious users – we want the end-users to have the best experience.

To date, it has been 8 days I have been at Cocoon, and the guys here have been amazing! I’ve been welcomed to the testing team by James Salt – the current Test Lead, and I have learnt a tremendous amount of skills in the use of test planning software, code repositories, virtual application test environments and much more.

Cocoon Home Security

So far, I have hit the ground running with already producing work which has directly affected and improved the quality of Cocoon. The general process involves me raising an issue on Github, writing a highly-explicit regression test, running the test and then finally producing a report which can help the developers pinpoint the issue and allow them to fix it.

To ensure I am progressing in the right direction and at an appropriate speed, I have one-to-one sessions with James weekly and on a bi-weekly basis with Dan.

I find excitement in the tasks I undertake as no one day is the same at Cocoon. The growth of my skillset, experience working in a tightly-knit team and, of course, the FUN (the main bit) would be very difficult for me to find elsewhere. Also, the work environment as I found is highly flexible, relaxed and anything I have to bring to the table is always listened to by Dan, James and the other co-founders with the utmost consideration.

The future…

I soon look forward to learning and writing automation test scripts in Java or Python, on and off the cloud, with the assistance of James, enabling me to better test Cocoon and essentially allowing us to release a Cocoon at the highest quality.

User-centred design

Cocoon has always been a company driven by data. I joined the team in February 2015, as Head of Customer Experience. My first task was to ensure that our customers are central in our product design process.

The Cocoon team had more data than usual about who had pre-ordered a Cocoon. From surveying and interviewing people who had pre-ordered, we understood more than just average age, location and gender. We knew why people had pre-ordered, what it was about the product they liked, and how they anticipated Cocoon fitting in with their lives.

Great, you may think – and it is. But anonymised data exists in spreadsheets; it takes time to absorb and comprehend. How do you make this information meaningful and useful, so that the customer really is at the heart of what we do? One technique we use is to create personas.

Personas are the first step in a user-centred design methodology. They can be created on assumption alone (following Lean UX principles), on known facts or a bit of both. Personas help you understand who your customer is. They do this by bringing hard facts to life with storytelling techniques – weaving a bit of fiction into the data, to make it resonate emotionally.

What are personas used for?

Personas help get the customer visible in a business, more so than insight and data held within spreadsheets. They can help provide clarity in terms of strategic direction (who you are making the product for) and, in a practical sense, personas help add an objective view to design discussions. Rather than discussions on features and functionality being about the team’s preference, conversations can be reflected to the personas – ‘would ‘Dave’ use/want this?’ If the answer’s no, then we probably shouldn’t be building it.

Lean UX approach

As a development team, we created 3 personas in 45 minutes. This follows Lean UX techniques, where thinking is based on assumptions, with the understanding that it is a living document which will change as you learn more about your customer. You start by imagining who you think your ideal customer is – based on gut instinct rather than insight.

The benefit of a Lean approach is that things can be thrown away. Spending 15 minutes creating a persona document on a flip chart means that when you check the data or speak to your customers and realise something is wrong, it’s OK to rip up the paper, and start again, but from a more informed place.

Refining with data

Running the assumptions, captured in our Lean persona, and working through the data collected from our Indiegogo backers, helped us to refine the work we’d done. We quickly realised where we were wrong and validated where we were right. Adding this insight to assumptions makes the personas more credible.

Refining with testing

As part of our development sprints, I regularly conduct testing of our designs with real people (you might have seen my tweets asking for volunteers!). This exercise means we are getting constant insight into customer attitudes and behaviours, which shapes and refines our understanding of the people we are designing Cocoon for.

Creating personas enables us to ensure that the right people are at the centre of our product design process and ensures that we create a product that really does meet our customers’ needs.

Team Building: Finding developers

Sanjay at Downing StreetFresh back from 10 Downing Street, Sanjay is speaking this week at We’re All Hackers Now at which Harvey Nash will announce results from their IT recruitment survey. Since our crowdfunding campaign we’ve welcomed seven new faces to our development team and have been trying to optimise our recruitment process to get an edge in a competitive talent market.

Why should anyone join your business?

You’re asking someone to spend much of their waking life devoted to your organisation for several years. Your pitch better be good!

When we made an offer to one person I could tell he was made up and I knew it wasn’t because of the salary and option package. Coming from a company where its the norm to read e-mail on holiday he can barely believe we insist our team don’t check e-mail when away. It’s things like this that can set a start-up company apart, big corporations will always win in a salary arms race.

Think of developer recruitment as you would think about defining your product and marketing strategy.  First understand needs and how you can fulfill them. Then consider how to reach your target market with your message.  Everyone is different but the needs you might consider in priority order are below.  The good news for start-ups is that job security doesn’t feature highly (developers know they can get another job easily) whilst innovation (oft associated with the start-up) is right at the top.

recruitment_top_reasons_for_moving_jobSource: Harvey Nash

I thought our fun, flexible working environment and innovative technology aligned well with many needs but we had improve our communication of it on our careers page.   We applied online marketing principles to our recruitment adverts adding a lead message and focusing first on what we can offer.  The goal of the advert is not to list your requirements.  As the start of the funnel the goal is the visitor spending more than a couple of seconds on the page!  Test your proposition on your current team then get Google Analytics coverage to see how you’re doing.

recruitment_advert_pitchOur job board pitch starts with an attempt to sell ourselves

Online marketing is a minor channel

We placed our roles on the big general and IT specific job boards through Recruitment Genius which seemed more time and cost efficient than listing separately on each. Though none of our current team found us this way, we found several candidates for future roles.  Considering the low cost we’ll continue to advertise through this channel.

More interesting to me was Stackoverflow careers which offers high granularity targeting of candidates in their community:

recruitment_stackoverflow

StackOverflow is implemented as a developer careers site should be, showcasing the team, technologies and benefits a company offers. Unfortunately our experience mirrors that of our friends at Shortlister in that applicants were mostly overseas without a UK visa and there is no way to automatically exclude them.  My impression is that the careers site is used by candidates actively searching job boards rather than the community on the main site. With few local candidates on their database and at £325 per listing I don’t think we’ll be using it again.

We drove some traffic through our Twitter and Facebook profiles. We didn’t take anyone on that found us this way but it seems like a no-brainer to continue to publicise roles through our social network pages.

social_network_careers_referals

We also experimented with Facebook adverts which in principal can be targeted by geography and to some degree skill set. The adverts we ran resulted in no applications but I wouldn’t say we exhaustively tested.

careers_facebook_adverts

I realise that I have touched only the tip of the iceberg with social recruiting. There are tools like TalentBin, Entelo, HiringSolved and Gild that use social media and community profiles to find passive candidates. Their cost and the time taken to use them has led me to conclude they are best left to external recruitment consultants.

Recruitment consultants have a role to play

The online marketing would be done by a good recruiter but running it in house delivers cost savings considering the low effort required.  Though we’ve not recruited anyone from it yet, it seems to be driving awareness of our proposition in the community and candidates for all types of position are starting to reach out to us proactively which bodes well for the future.

Developers I asked said they’d be more likely to engage directly with an employer so I do think its important to be proactive yourself but recruiters have access to networks and tools that enable them to reach passive candidates we can’t. We’ll continue to work with Leigh at pro-quest Resourcing to ensure we cover all angles.

The power of the network and legwork

Staff recruitment sources
Team Cocoon recruits by source

I worked my LinkedIn and offline network, asking for leads from everyone I know.  For two months “Do you know any good developers?” was tacked onto the end of every conversation I had. Online and offline community interest groups were attended by Cocoon delegations.

We tended to lead with why anyone would want to work for us rather than what we’re looking for now as over the long term, we’ll need lots of different skills.  So far, 6 out of 7 of our new colleagues were found through this type of activity. Clearly there’s a cost to our time but I just don’t think it can be outsourced. I’m confident we wouldn’t have reached or brought on board the team we have using outsourced recruiters alone.

Hopefully the network and legwork approach can go viral throughout our team to scale the approach as we grow.  The early signs of that are already present with one colleague being referred by a recent new team member.

The next recruitment hacking sprint for us

An applicant tracking system needs to take over from my e-mail folders to ensure we can find details of people proactively contacting us now as roles come up in the future.  Such a system could also streamline communication internally during the interview and review process.

We’d like to host some community interest groups in the event space we have at our new HQ (photos coming soon).  We want to do that for fun and to expand our horizons anyway but I expect it’ll bring us into contact with more Cocoon team members to be.

The coding project we ask some candidates to complete needs some development to ensure its result can overcome the uncertainty we’ve sometimes had after looking at code applicants have shared with us or published.

In conclusion

Remember that you’re only half way through the process when an offer is accepted. Its important to be proactive in ensuring new colleagues feel at home and integrate into your organisation. Great people can walk back into their old job if they don’t like their first weeks and its in everyones interest to do what you can to get them working at their best.

I’m tiring of hearing “hardware is hard” but I can now at least respond with “recruiting software developers is hard”.  I’m turning my attention to recruitment of our QA team now. Hopefully with what we’ve learned that’ll prove easier!