Top tips for building your biotech startup team

December 4, 2018

It is said that investors put their money behind people, not ideas. This is supported by the fact that human factors (an incompatible team, lack of persistence, and loss of focus) are identified as primary causes of startup failure, not market forces. Clearly, attracting the right team members is key to startup success.And where startups are concerned, if you can’t scale your team, you can’t scale your idea, and your startup is dead in the water.We recently spoke with Richard Herbert of Helix Recruiting to see what hiring advice he has for startups trying to build a successful team. Herbert’s first piece of advice is meant to be taken prior to seeking Series A funding: Entrepreneurs should consider adding advisory board members with experience successfully scaling up products and teams from concept to commercialization. The rest of his advice centers on three key areas: the candidate experience, the job description, and, of course, the candidate.

The Candidate Experience

“The candidate experience is something that is overlooked to a fault,” Herbert told us, “and it’s a candidate’s market right now, no matter what tech industry you’re in.” Experienced candidates in growing fields like process engineering, strain engineering, and tissue engineering have lots of options. “Companies need to move at the speed of the market,” Herbert advises. If you keep candidates waiting, they’ll tire and find other interesting opportunities. Or worse, if you leave a candidate hanging, it could detrimentally affect your reputation as an employer: “Synthetic biology is a small world.”That being said, you are in control of how fast or slow the interview process goes. When meeting with candidates, dedicate the appropriate amount of time to it, as going too fast could lead you to overlook a strong candidate. To find a good middle ground, Herbert recommends creating a quarterly hiring forecast as soon as possible so that you can plan accordingly and move at the proper pace. Herbert also reminded us that it is the founder’s responsibility to make sure that hiring managers understand that the hiring process should have the same sense of urgency as meeting overall company targets. After all, the goal is to create a successful company.

The Job Description

To make the catch you need the right bait -- and to develop the latter you need the right focus. Herbert recommends creating a job description based on detailed technical skill sets and the company’s specific needs, rather than relying on general and redundant statements. When creating your job description, always bear in mind the scale of your company: C-level and Director-level roles are not the same in a startup as in a larger company.It is also important to treat each position in a startup as a specialist role. Combining positions is a typical approach to help save costs, but this can reach a point where it becomes detrimental by making it difficult for people to focus, causing burnout, and causing employees to question the importance of their role in the company.When it comes time to interview, remember that the candidate is interviewing you as much as you are interviewing them. Put together a pitch deck including articles and accolades, and make sure candidates see the information that you want them to see. Don’t assume that they are excited as you are about your startup. Pitch the company vision first. If a candidate is not excited about this, then the position is not likely to interest them.

The Candidate

Last but not least, when it comes to the right person, there are many aspects that must be carefully considered, such as experience and salary. Perhaps Herbert’s most important -- and hardest to swallow -- advice is this: Don’t be afraid to hire someone with more experience than you, or who is smarter or makes more money than you. Remember, building a team that can execute the company’s vision is the ultimate goal. And, don’t get hung up on failures in previous startup endeavors: Just because someone worked at a startup that ultimately failed doesn’t mean their experience isn’t relevant to you, says Herbert. In fact, such experience may help you identify the bumps so you can avoid them.It is also important to remember that if you are interested in a candidate, someone else is too. If you have a candidate on the hook, don’t assume there is a better one -- you just might risk losing the perfect candidate. And when it comes to salary, it is important to remain open minded yet realistic. Don’t pass on an interview with a potential candidate just because of their salary. Salary is rarely a candidate’s only consideration when deciding whether or not to accept an offer. Neither is equity.“Candidates are considering many factors,” says Herbert, “including family and work-life balance, benefits, cost of living, company culture... It’s a tight market and companies can’t afford to be jaded.” He advises that companies really put on their PR hat and sell their organization to candidates, all while beingaware of what salaries the market is bearing in your niche sector.It is often easy for entrepreneurs to focus all of their attention on their idea, failing to focus on the human component of success. It is critical to devote the same amount of time and effort to finding the right team as to finding the right business model. These are the two sides of the same coin -- the successful startup.

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