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Advice on hiring and building a great team

Dan Emerson

In any industry, building a healthy, well-functioning company involves much more than recruiting talented people. Success requires assembling a compatible team comprised of people with shared values, emotional intelligence and a willingness to work toward common objectives. Successful life science entrepreneurs offered some lessons they have learned along the way.

In selecting partners and hiring team members, Kim Popovits, CEO of Redwood City, Ca.-based Genomic Health, emphasizes the importance of filtering upfront – “choosing people who share your values, who have a willingness to embrace change, 'grow' an organization and be leaders. Being smart isn't enough, and, as you grow, 'smart' becomes less important,” Popovits says. “It's really about building a healthy company. 'Smart' won't create 'healthy' but having a healthy company culture will make you smarter.”

How do you build a healthy culture? The first step is to “embrace a small set of nonnegotiable values, and hold people accountable for those values,” she contends. Based on those values, every company founder needs to “communicate a clear and sustainable mission.”

For any life science company, “the question 'Why are we here' is really important,” Popovits adds. Once people are in the organization, promoting and moving people into new roles requires the same clear-eyed approach, she says. “When you grow an organization, there is often a tendency to promote your smartest person, the best person in a particular area – looking at their core competency – and that's not necessarily the best thing to do.

“The example I have often used is that your best sales person is often not going to be your best manager – because of the nature of what drives them. So understanding what motivates people is a huge indicator of where you want to place them in the organization.

“It's very important that you establish career paths and expectations for people so that they're engaged and loving their careers,” Popovits explains. “But don't put them in a role where you're expecting them to grow and lead and develop if that isn't what they want to do.

“That's how you build 'healthy' – knowing who is on your team and being very clear about what you're expecting them to deliver, in whatever role you put them in.”

Sofie Qiao, co-founder and president of Palo Alto-based LINQ Pharmaceuticals, cited an interesting paradox of entrepreneurship. “I was taught that greed and ego kill companies,” Qiao says. It is somewhat ironic that startup companies need a certain amount of those qualities to succeed, she said, but “it's important to keep that in check. To push your ideas through, you may want to be somewhat greedy and egocentric at times, but you don't want to show those qualities to your team.”

Geoff Clapp, founder of the Palo Alto-based Health Hero Network, agrees that intelligence and competence are not the only qualities to look for in recruiting team members. “You don't hire to skills, you hire to passion, and the people you believe can develop those skills. You don't need the best engineer; you need the person who is most passionate about what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Clapp recalls that “when people joined our company, we handed them pictures of who we serve – patients. We needed to find people who cared about the end users, the patients, as much as we do.”

Avi Roop, co-founder and CEO of Milbrae, Ca.-based Miret Surgical, emphasizes the importance of personal relationships in building a healthy, sustainable enterprise. “They are absolutely crucial for early-stage companies.” Roop says working with people he trusts implicitly “helps me trust that I am going to get honest feedback. And we need people who can vouch for our technology and vouch for us as passionate, intelligent people,” says Roop, a Kauffman Foundation pediatric medical device innovation fellow who co-founded Miret Surgical during a fellowship at Stanford University.

It takes a variety of personality types to make a successful startup, says Nicholas Franano, founder and CEO of Kansas City– based Novita Therapeutics. “Different people have different shapes, and you want to put those together to make a square. You need to bring people in who balance you, because no single person can operate such a complicated organization.”

While shared values are important, a certain amount of interpersonal tension is not necessarily an unhealthy thing, given the mix of talents and expertise required to succeed in the life sciences field, says Elliot Cohen, co-founder of H@cking Medicine and Corengi, Inc., in Cambridge, Mass.

“Some members of the team may be more patient-focused, if they are clinicians. There can be tension between those team members and people who are focused on other reasons for the company, such as driving revenue,” he says.

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