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

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.

Lean product design with Google surveys and glossy magazines

Right at the birth of our company we recognised the importance of product design. Cocoon had to be designed not as an electronic accessory but as a complement to the home. We wanted Cocoon to be an object of beauty and asked why so many technology products are nondescript black boxes.

First concepts

Quality can be an issue with freelancer marketplaces like DesignCrowd and Elance but that is reflected in their low cost. They allowed us to cheaply generate a range of low quality but radically different concepts from a variety of designers.

design-concept-wooddesign-concept-eyedesign-concept-balldesign-concept-butterfly

We try to follow the lean start-up methodology and showed our early design concepts to 50+ people in our first customer development interviews. This process allowed us to tune our initial value proposition and get qualitative feedback on each design concept. Most importantly though, it was the start of learning the customer profiles most likely to buy our product and therefore learn who we are designing for.

Quantifying good product design

Customer development interviews executed well are indispensable for learning what you hadn’t yet thought to ask but they will never give statistically significant data. What’s more, design can be subjective and we found some people liked a concept for the same reason others disliked it.

Peter Drucker famously said “What’s measured improves” and we needed a clear way to measure improvement (or deterioration) in our product design as we developed the concepts.

We tried a number of tools but settled on Google Consumer Surveys, a service which poses questions to people who wish access premium content:

google-consumer-survey-in-page

Google Consumer Surveys is best for asking thousands of people a single question. In such scenarios accuracy is high, a poll run on the platform correctly predicted the result of the last US presidential election.

To create a baseline, we ran a poll of the concepts that performed best in customer interviews alongside a competing product:

Initial product design concepts

Directed improvement

Feedback in customer interviews gave us hypotheses as to design changes that could improve each concept, each of which we could rapidly test by making the changes and running a new poll on Google – results come back in a couple of days.

We liked that poll data can be broken down by the respondent’s gender, age, location (including urban density) and parental status allowing us to check design preference in the cohorts our customer development had shown were most likely to want our product. Two demographic groups we’d identified as important responded very differently to changes and the challenge became to find a form that would poll well in both groups.

You can pay for data on magazine readership profiles but we found some magazines publish the demographic of their readership. Those that don’t will send it free in response to an advertising inquiry. There are no surprises in this example for Grazia magazine!:

Magazine demographic data can inform product design

We identified publications with a readership very focused on each of our demographic groups and picked up some copies. A little judgement was required to pick out products featured or advertised in each magazine that appear to be successful due to their aesthetic quality but it gave us some direction and ideas as to the design properties that might appeal to each group.

It took several attempts to melt the ideas together into a successful design popular in both groups but progress has been made:

Cocoon product design changes test results

We need your help

We’re not stopping there, in our latest set of concepts we’re exploring the use of textiles for the sound and pressure sensor covers and have refined the shape of the base. We’d love to know what you think: Do you prefer fabric or metal mesh sensor covers? The sloped or rounded base? Which color would you choose?

Which Cocoon product design would you choose?

Please give us your feedback, good or bad in the comments section below. We really value your thoughts on our product design.