The essential startup team: content, analytics, design, engineering

I was recently thinking about what would a minimal, initial team for a software startup comprise of. Imagine you have a brilliant idea for a startup and you have some funds to hire an initial team. But like most smart entrepreneurs, you want to hire a minimal team first and only expand later, if and as needed. So, what would be the essential, minimum team for your startup? Of course, technically, the answer is one. Minimum number of people you need for your startup is you (and possibly a cofounder). But, I am more interested in exploring what functional roles need to be performed in an early startup that is just getting off the ground. You could be doing all roles yourself, or you could be having different people for these different roles, but in my opinion, following roles define an essential startup team:

  • Content expert
  • Analytics and marketing expert
  • Designer
  • Engineer

Update/note/disclaimer: As pointed out in comments, at extremely early stages, product/market fit is what you should be aiming at and for that matter “product manager” (which is founder in most cases) is the person who will test and refine the startup until that fit is achieved. The team I describe is relevant once you know you have discovered the right market and have a pretty good sense of what product is going to look like.

Let me describe these roles in details and comment on why I think these are absolutely essential for an early stage startup.

Content expert

words

What s/he does? This person owns every aspect of your startup related to content. Activities include: writing amazing posts on your blog; writing guest posts on prominent industry publications and blogs; copywriting for website and landing pages; managing and engaging community on Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels; engaging your startup online (by commenting on relevant blog posts, forums, Quora, etc.); writing whitepapers, case studies, etc. (if yours is a B2B startup). This person also interacts with the analytics expert to A/B test and refine headlines/copywriting and supplies content for email newsletters. Essentially, this person understands and gets what compelling content looks like and also understands why good content is so important to the startup’s success.

Why is content expert important? Content does two amazing things for a startup: a) it is super important for SEO purpose; more content you have on site and off-site, more likely are you to be ranked highly on search engines; b) good content helps your startup gets noticed. Companies like SEOMoz, Unbounce, Mint, OKCupid, etc. have shown what wonders good content can bring. With our product Visual Website Optimizer, I am trying to do the same by writing weekly posts on I love Split Testing blog. From my personal experience, I can tell content helped people notice our product as a serious A/B testing contender. Good content attracts much needed attention towards your startup and consistently good content helps create a nascent community around your startup. What more could you ask for?

Analytics and marketing expert

analytics

What s/he does?: This person is responsible for everything related to analytics (and marketing) in your startup. The list of what work needs to be performed is huge: properly utilizing Google Analytics to optimize funnels and understand where traffic is coming from, taking care of SEO, A/B testing different pages to maximize conversions, designing and implementing user engagement strategies (through email/retargeting/etc.), designing strategies to maximize retention of users/customers, increasing engagement on pages, doing PPC and display campaigns which show ROI; designing effective customer feedback loops. This person needs to work with content expert and designer to make killer landing pages and website structure. And s/he should also work with engineer to design retention strategies (trigger emails or badges or to implement any other novel strategy analytics expert may think of). Bottom line is this: analytics expert is responsible to maximize your conversions, sales and retention in any way s/he can.

Why is analytics expert important? In early days of startup, there is a risk of settling down towards a “good enough” framework. You have a website and you get a few signups daily, some of your users are canceling and you seem to have a vague understanding of what your users are doing on your website/app. All this process/information can quickly become de facto in your startup. As a startup, your team may be busy adding features, getting press and responding to customer queries. With all these day to day activities, analytics and optimization can take a back seat. Imagine how beneficial would it be for your startup, if your traffic increases from 10 hits to 1000 hits a day, conversion increases for 2% to 8% and churn reduces from 10% to 2%. Isn’t all this worth having a person doing the analytics and optimization job?

Designer

painter

What s/he does? Obviously, this person is responsible for everything related to design. Tasks include: designing website, landing pages, application, email newsletters, banners, mobile app/website. Designer works with content expert to create visuals/images/infographics to be used in the content. S/he is also responsible for layout and visual appeal in whitepapers, case studies, etc. Designer works with analytics expert to create effective landing pages and call to action buttons. Designer works with engineer and analytics expert to skin the application and make it usable. A good designer intuitively understands the importance and impact of good design on how a startup is perceived.

Why is designer important? Needless to say, visitors and potential customers will judge quality of your product/service from design you have. In an era of design made popular by Apple and other companies, the bar for good design has really gone up. No longer can you hope to slap a basic HTML/CSS skeleton on your application and expect it to be received well. More than ever, design has become a significant competitive advantage and startups that realize this will be more successful than the rest.

Engineer

coder

What s/he does? This person is responsible for technology and engineering behind your startup. Responsibilities are numerous: choosing frameworks, programming, server administration, maintaining databases, testing, QA, scaling operations, etc. The person should be smart enough to not over or under invest in engineering. Engineering and codebase evolves as startup evolves, so the person has to have a long term vision and give your technology an appropriate structure.

Why is engineer important? Initial choices you make in your engineering will have a long term effect on your startup. The programming languages you choose will define what kind of talent you attract. The framework you choose will guide direction of your code base. Choice of server architecture will become semi-permanent. The concept where your choice of technology/engineering effects your future decisions and efforts is called Technical Debt. So having a right engineer with good perspective on things is very important for a startup.

Bonus: customer support expert!

customer

Technically, you don’t need a dedicated customer support person. In early days, it should be performed in rounds by everyone in the team. It helps the whole team be closer to the customer and understand (and hence fix) her problems and needs. However, if you really have to hire a fifth person in your team, I’d say hire a customer support expert. Keeping existing customers happy with swift and intelligent responses is sure shot way to differentiate from competition. Customers today are generally immensely unhappy with support of most (large) companies, so if you manage to surprise them with a good customer service, you may win much needed evangelists for your startup. In early days (and even now), this is precisely how we got people to love Visual Website Optimizer. We aim to provide absolutely the best customer support people may have seen.

10 thoughts on “The essential startup team: content, analytics, design, engineering”

  1. I’m a bit short of time but very generally: the most glaring omission in the article is the lack of the product development function, i.e. a product manager. The main focus of a startup is defining a product, and building it along — things that you emphasise the most, like communication, marketing and design, are not unimportant, but they follow the product and the market’s response to it.

    You have correctly identified analysis as an important feature, but it’s not a marketing feature. Unless of course you consider product development as part of marketing — which it is, but in a startup that part is so dominant that most of the other elements take a back seat. It’s only once your product has been proven on the market, gained traction and built reputation that the advertising, PR and communication efforts gain significance.

  2. I should have mentioned that the team I describe is relevant once you know you have discovered the right market and have a pretty good sense of what product is going to look like. I agree with you that at extremely early stages, product/market fit is what you should be aiming at and for that matter “product manager” (which is founder in most cases) is the person who will test and refine the startup until that fit is achieved.

  3. Thank you for the clarification. I think that it is important to state the assumptions when giving startup advice, since startups are veri diverse and differ widely, despite the common misconception.

  4. Hi Paras,

    I agree with Berislav.

    Its very important to understand which stage the company is in. At the very beginning, it is hardly important to have people dedicated to marketing efforts and bloggging.

    Product development and market validation should always come first. MVP’s help startups begin to test their ideas without pouring lot of money and resources only to realize that nobody is willing to pay for it.

    Great post anyway, love the blog, but I hope that you will redesign your blog and give it a more personal flavor. I am sure a great blog design would enhance your blog further.

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