Startups are a team sport. The players you choose to work with have such an outsized impact on the team (for good or ill) that you really have to have “A” players at every position. But it’s not enough to just say “go hire all-stars”. There’s very specific attributes you need to look for, and that I found this week watching Joel Embiid lead the Sixers to a gritty overtime win.
Joel Embiid is the embodiment of the Sixers philosophy in hiring (AKA drafting) championed by Sam Hinkie. He has grown to become a dominant force in the league, consistently ranking at the top in scoring and defense. But when you see him play it’s clear he’s not just your typical all-star. He has a unique blend of skills that serves as a powerful model for early-stage startup hiring.
Eye for Talent
Pictures speak volumes. Beyond his pure physical growth, Embiid is improving his game every year. He’s consistently added different nuances to his offense. This year he’s improved his recognition and passing out of double teams (helps to have shooters to pass to, thanks Daryl!). This eye towards growth has translated into success on the court.
Startup hiring is about finding young talent that you can grow into high performers. It’s probably the trickiest, most challenging, and arguably the most fun aspect of hiring. Like Billy Beane trying to find inefficiencies in the market, it’s rewarding to not only identify talent early but help them grow as a significant part of a team trying to build something from nothing.
What’s even more poignant about startups is you have to get it right fast! Pro teams get a new draft class every year, and can make up for mistakes like this or this or even this (though I’m still rooting for him). Startups don’t have that luxury. The window for getting the timing right can be so small, and can literally mean life or death, that you have to be brutally efficient when it comes to hiring.
Wears Many Hats
Here’s the line for Embiid from Tuesday night:
Excellent scoring, great defense, made all 13 of his free throws, just all-around dominance. This is a big man who can be top 5 in scoring and defense, is strong from the foul line so you can’t resort to hack-a-Shaq, and is a good enough shooter to force defenses to respect his presence beyond the arc. At one point on Tuesday he had three guys trying to defend him to no avail, I mean how do you stop a force like that?
Point being, it’s very difficult to build startups with specialists. You are going to pivot at some point, and the cost of having high turnover to constantly mix and match narrow puzzle pieces is too inefficient. Seek generalists early, then once you’ve established traction think about more specialized roles. Generalists cost too much you say? Then be generous with the equity upside. Give them real skin in the game, and then give them room to operate.
The most impressive feat in Tuesday’s win was in the third quarter, Embiid dropped 22 points in 8 minutes. He literally decided to take over the game, got the ball almost every trip down the court, and willed the team to victory. Talent is one thing, but having that pure strength of will is rare and really fun to watch.
Find me a team of folks who have that same will to not only push through on execution but also the honest determination to understand what’s true and the vision to navigate, and I’ll bet on them every day of the week. It takes a special strength of character to survive the inevitable ups and downs of startup life.
I’ve been a Philly sports fan all my life, and Embiid has to be near the top as far as local popularity goes. He’s outspoken, goofy, works hard and wants to win. Similar to Allen Iverson, he gives it his all, and expects his teammates to do the same.
It’s cliche to say that culture matters in startups, but it’s important to note that it starts from the top. Leaders set the culture, either consciously or otherwise. Now more than ever, it’s important to take care of your team, understand their challenges on and off the field, and build an environment that supports them in every way shape and form. Who wouldn’t want to work for a team with a culture of excellence?
Trust the Process and Have Fun!!!
Lastly and most importantly, we’re on this earth a short while. Let’s have fun and play hard!