Choosing entrepreneurial teams
July 16, 2012 9:53 AM   Subscribe

Choosing teams for an entrepreneurial team project to solve problems in the developing world. Help me! *snowflakes inside*

I'm participating in an entrepreneurship incubator that applies technological solutions to problems in the developing world. As part of this incubator, we have to choose teams of 4 - 6 people to work with for the rest of the summer. Many teams in previous years have gone on to form real companies, get funding, etc.

My goal is to turn this project into a company going forward and have an impact.

We had a hard deadline to choose teams last week. I was choosing between two sets of people and was really stressed out trying to decide. I ultimately made a decision, but I am allowed another week to switch teams if both teams consent. I'm trying to decide if I should try to do that, and what factors I should consider.

Team 1: Successful entrepreneur with track record, German hedge fund manager, marketing exec, computer science professor.

Team 2: Microfinance experience in the developing world, TV producer, artist/hacker, physics PhD

Team 1 seems much more "get it done", and much more conventional, buisness-like, etc. I don't think I'd be as comfortable introducing them to my friends (who are mostly hacker/geeky/alternative types). We don't flow conversationally. Except for the computer science professor, they are a bit "MBA-ish".

Team 2 is much more like a group of friends. We enjoy talking about non-work stuff. I could see having them over for dinner years later and just hanging out. After I didn't choose Team 2, they added another person, so they have 5 people at this point. I like this fifth person as well.

I chose Team 1, on the basis that I wanted to get work done, not have a good time. Most of my friends advised me to choose Team 2.

After I made the choice, I was really upset. The more time I spend with Team 1, the more I fear that the personalities are not going to mesh and it's not going to be much fun working with them.

It's a bit awkward to switch back at this point, and some feelings would probably be hurt. One of the people on Team 2 is a bit upset that I didn't choose them and might block me from coming back, but I did not talk with him about it yet.

So, hive mind, after a million details, what should I do?
posted by carolinaherrera to Work & Money (16 answers total)
Are you selecting friends, or selecting the people that you could have results with and form a company? Because Team 1 sounds _way_ better on everything except the buddy part.
posted by bfranklin at 10:01 AM on July 16, 2012

The more time I spend with Team 1, the more I fear that the personalities are not going to mesh and it's not going to be much fun working with them.

Look at this as an opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and learn to deal with a crowd of people that's different from your normal experience.

Team 2 is much more like a group of friends. We enjoy talking about non-work stuff. I could see having them over for dinner years later and just hanging out.

Presumably you have enough friends already, no?

If this were a question whose backstory of previous AskMes was something along the lines of, "I've moved to a new city and don't know anyone! How can I get involved in things where I can meet people?", I'd say, "go for group #2." But you said, "My goal is to turn this project into a company going forward and have an impact" and that this only lasts for the rest of the summer (6-8 weeks, I assume).
posted by deanc at 10:17 AM on July 16, 2012

I'm not sure why introducing these people to your friends is a relevant factor. Even if you're thinking about how people work with each other down the line, your first goal is to get through the incubation period, right? That's an artificial situation for a few months, then if the resulting product works out, you can think about modifying the team.

Looks to me like team 1 may be better at troubleshooting and executing ideas and team 2 may be better at generating creative ideas and identifying workarounds to implementation problems. Which skill set better complements yours? Do you have experience in the developing world? Do you have a business background? Which team offers more skills and attributes that you think you need?
posted by EvaDestruction at 10:17 AM on July 16, 2012

Can you find someone with any experience whatsoever with user centered design or user research (ethnography major? anthropology major?) someone with the necessary skills to empathize enough to under the disparities in quality of life yet recognize and respect the common humanity?

Too much technology and not enough understanding of the demographic's needs, wants and operating environment has littered the developing world with too much technology rusting in a corner.

Or, with your choices, Team 2.
posted by infini at 10:19 AM on July 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Team 1, all the way. It's got a far better balance of people, and it's much, MUCH easier to resolve conflicts of idea with a professionally-oriented group than a friend-oriented group. Hang out with Team 2 for fun, but work with Team 1.
posted by smirkette at 10:20 AM on July 16, 2012

fwiw am right now fixing a startup from one of these incubators after two years of their burn rate still showing no results because the last mile problem has never been solved. Technology isn't going to walk over the nearest village by itself.
posted by infini at 10:22 AM on July 16, 2012

EvaDestruction - I'm much more the creative type, and have experience in the developing world as well as a business background. I was hoping for a group that would keep me in line a bit, which is part of why I picked Team 1. However, many say that starting a company is like marrying your co-founders and you should pick people that you really love spending time with. You'll be spending lots of late nights with them, tying your destiny to them, etc. In that case, I should have picked Team 1.

Infini - I have user-centered design experience and have done ethnographic research. I completely agree about most approaches to technology in the developing world. Does that change your assessment about Team 1 vs. 2? Just curious.
posted by carolinaherrera at 10:22 AM on July 16, 2012

No, I'd say even more go with Team 2. You'll figure out the solutions and you'll enjoy working with them. That lowers the barriers to success if you want this go from classroom exercise and into a startup with funding mode.
posted by infini at 10:24 AM on July 16, 2012

Infini - How would you approach this with team 2? I feel a bit embarrassed about switching. I'd also be leaving Team 1 in a weird spot. How do I approach it with them?

(I guess this is a general question for anyone who thinks I should switch.)
posted by carolinaherrera at 10:29 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

To be fair, the odds of going from an academic exercise into a product/company are stacked against you. It happens for sure, but you should optimize toward completion and competence with team #1 because at the end of the summer there is no company without a product and if, in the most likely of cases, it isn't a viable product in the marketplace the next best thing is having a very good story about how you worked with a professional group of people to build something.

The risk with team #2 is that you don't succeed in making a good product or company. The only reason I can think of #2 is if the social dynamic is too complicated with team #1, but reading between the lines I sense that you get along better with team #2 and have some trepidation about team #1. That doesn't seem like a deal breaker for an otherwise better partnership.
posted by dgran at 10:30 AM on July 16, 2012

The function of social enterprise incubators (tech focused or no) is to enable the emergence of a viable solution supported by a feasible business plan.

Team 1's strengths are logical. The number of Team 1's 'bopping' around with their solar lights, water filters, smokeless cookstoves and lets not forget the laundry machines in random developing world villages are countless.

Hence I'd put my bet on Team 2 actually coming up with something innovative or remarkable for a change instead of teh usual "take 2 MBAs and add an investment banker" approach.

As for how you can make the switch? Can you just say better fit given your own creative background and that of the eclectic Team 2 vs the more traditional Team 1?
posted by infini at 10:48 AM on July 16, 2012

Also, if you've been part of a design team, you know then chemistry matters for quality of outcome. Force fitting into Team 1 may not benefit anyone.
posted by infini at 11:20 AM on July 16, 2012

I personally think that the non-mba types are more likely to come up with a truly risk-taking or innovative idea. I'd go with them. And then if it feels worth it, in the future i'd try to recruit/hire someone with the expertise to help actually bring the idea to life, if that skill set turns out to really be missing.

I'd just ask - tell them you were confused about who to go with, but that on reflection you realize that their styles are more compatible with yours. They'll get over the previous slight. The worst thing they can do is say no. (Don't quit your current team until the other team says yes.)
posted by Kololo at 11:33 AM on July 16, 2012

Here would be my litmus test. Which team already thinks it has an answer to a problem?

Avoid that team.

I'm with infini here. Having worked with about a hundred of these types of teams over the last 6 years, I see a few things. Few of these projects eventually become viable companies. It can happen, but it is rare. And by viable companies, I mean a project that becomes financially and operationally self-sustaining, not a "we're going to call ourselves WIDGET! And we had a meeting with some dad's friend's neighbor who is a VENTURE CAPITALIST! And he told us that we TOTALLY are the next big thing! Our logo is AWESOME! We have a video on YouTube, check it out!" Good development is sustainable. It doesn't just solve a health problem in a third world country (like mosquito nets preventing the spread of malaria). It does it WITHOUT costing the local economy jobs, polluting the environment, etc. It introduces "good" without producing unintended negative consequences. (Like mosquito nets being manufactured in another country and being shipped into a village to be distributed for free, thus killing the local economy for the few citizens who do make less clever but still basically effective mosquito nets.)

The best teams that make an actual impact have a solution that combines a few different things--technological expertise AND a commitment to involving participants in the process (through on-the-ground observations in country, participatory prototype development, and testing of prototypes in context) AND someone who has a "social systems" view of how products/services are consumed and maintained in the developing world. A quirky idea might make a splash as a blog entry on "GOOD", but then become destined to for the bin of discarded ideas known as "the bottomless pit of social system incompatible products fueled by naivety." Or they get introduced into the social system that the team is trying to help and the related effects end up causing more harm than help.

Sorry to be such a negative Nana, but that is my experience.

Related to your choice of teams, Team 1 might look attractive to you because they seem to have a skill set that you don't have in your own circle of acquaintances or for yourself. And I wouldn't down play the importance and usefulness of access to legal and financial skills/experience, as well as to potential funding contacts, should the team create something interesting. Team 2 is attractive because you would enjoy working with them, you seem to know intuitively that they would be more creative at the process of working, and you realize that this is a group that you might have to spend a lot of time with at some point.

My litmus test is always the same: Which team is more curious about defining a problem than just rushing toward a solution, which team has a track record of being pretty resourceful in learning things that they don't currently know, MacGyvering stuff in order to build what they need, and has a tolerance for doing some occasionally boring/unfun nose-to-the-grindstone work in order get real work done with a positive attitude. I would join that team. Which team believes that they are already experts? Avoid that team.

That's my vote.
posted by jeanmari at 5:26 PM on July 16, 2012

Great perspective, jeanmari. Neither team thinks they have a solution (we are encouraged to keep an open mind and form teams without reference to a specific idea). So, hmm...
posted by carolinaherrera at 5:43 PM on July 16, 2012

Maybe it would help if I inserted the sentence I forgot :)

...And I wouldn't down play the importance and usefulness of access to legal and financial skills/experience, as well as to potential funding contacts, should the team create something interesting. BUT THE TEAM HAS TO CREATE SOMETHING INTERESTING FIRST. Team 2 is attractive because you...

I also always err towards the team with the best possible chances of creating something interesting :)
posted by jeanmari at 6:08 PM on July 16, 2012

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