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How Startup Founders Can Build Their Own Badass Team

Leadership matters, but teams deliver.

I recently had the privilege of speaking on a panel in Silicon Valley alongside mental conditioning coach Trevor Moawad on Building An Elite Mindset For Entrepreneurs and Startup Founders.


 (Yes, I'm wearing purple)

In talking with the startup founders in attendance, the other top challenge entrepreneurs face—in addition to managing the mental game—is bridging the expertise gap.

Meaning, that for the majority of their lives they’ve relied on their own technical expertise to excel in their current endeavor.

But now, as startup founders, their new challenge is collectively coordinating others’ technical expertise--building a team of technical experts who think and act like a team should.

Before I forget, I'm hosting an online coaching group called The Next Level. It'll be limited to only seven people. Learn more here.

Building a team is a skill.

It’s a skill that startup founders must learn if they want to not only get their startup off the ground but keep it off the ground flying to new heights.

The cost of building the wrong team is more than I care to highlight in this article because, well, it’s just too depressing, but, suffice to say that turnover can cost a company up to 400% of an employee’s annual salary. That’s a lot of dough—especially if you don’t have any to begin with.  

When I spoke with the founder of Kill Cliff and former Navy SEAL, Todd Ehrlich,  for my upcoming podcast, he put it this way: “If you can build a team, you can build a company.”

Which supports CB Insight’s research findings that the third reason why startups fail is that they didn’t build the right team.

I’ve been lucky enough to work in and with elite teams all my life, as a former Navy SEAL and a current day team coach for companies large and small. Below are four lessons for startup founders in how they can build their own badass team:

60% of a team’s effectiveness starts before the team begins.

Research from Harvard University found that 60% of a team’s effectiveness can be traced back to the conditions that set that team up for success to begin with [PIPELINE LINK]. What this means is that if those conditions aren’t established, then the team is starting out at a 60% deficit of potential.

The cost of poor teamwork is astounding. Aside from poor teamwork being the number three reason why startups fail, small to large sized companies equally suffer from the annual ropes-course-check-in-the-box that they think breeds teamwork but really ends up being a headache and 24 hrs of your life that you’ll never get back.

  •  You don’t build muscle by heading to the gym one day a year.
  • You don’t get faster by running a sprint whenever you feel like it.
  • You get better—at anything—through consistent and deliberate practice, and working as a team is no different.

 When I started coaching and consulting in companies after leaving the SEAL Teams, it was mind-boggling to me what those companies were willing to settle for in terms of how they operated—and it wasn’t out of ill-intention. Rather, it was a lack of understanding about how teams should operate.

Start your startup right by getting your team right, and all the other pieces will fall into place.

Cascade meaning, not goals.

To “cascade” is to translate a goal from one level of the company to another ensuring alignment between the two, and companies typically get the cascade equation wrong:

1) They “cascade” in one direction (ie top down)

2) They cascade goals only

Here’s the problem with each. Vertical alignment reflects a direction, such as top-down. Think of it as all business functions pointed in the same direction. That’s great, but it’s application doesn’t mean anything because there’s no action behind it. It’s conceptual. The implication is that these business functions will somehow operate better because they’re “aligned” but there’s no tangible plan for ensuring they do so. That’s why vertical alignment means nothing if the pulse of the organization—meeting frequency, communications, decision making—is out of whack or unpredictable.

Bottom line: you need vertical and horizontal alignment because horizontal alignment is what connects the day’s priorities with strategy (and if you’ve ever had “everything” be a priority then you know what I’m talking about). Ultimately, you want everybody in the same boat, pointed in the same direction, rowing together—consistently. 

The second problem is they cascade goals, not meaning. I hate to say it, but I don’t care about your goals. I care about mine. I’m “bought into” achieving company goals when doing so means something to me; when my goals align with the meaning those company goals provide. Achieving a goal for goal’s sake is pointless if people don’t see the meaning behind it.

“Those who succeed at creating meaning — either on their own or with the help of their boss — tend to work harder, more creatively, and with more tenacity.” – HBR

To paraphrase Nietzsche, “He who has a why to work can bear with almost any how.” To get the most from their employees, leaders should do all they can to make this “why” clear.

When there’s meaning, there’s engagement, and when there’s engagement there’s productivity.

Rodeo clowns are okay.

One of the members of my last SEAL Team had been a professional bull rider prior to becoming a SEAL (rodeo clown just sounded cooler for a sub title). Another was a stockbroker, another was an English Literature major who also used to play in a band. The point is, cognitive diversity and diverse skill sets are important, yes, but what matters more is how stockbrokers, bull riders, and every other crazy background fuses together to work as a team. How people work together is more important than who’s on the team. What brought us all together wasn’t our backgrounds or what we could do (i.e. our skillsets), but where we were going—a common purpose forged by a common identity (see below).

Define who you are and who you are not.

When I speak at events one of the things I share is how clearly defined my life path was at 18 years old. I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what I wanted to do, which was to become a Navy SEAL. When people ask me how I knew, my response is this: it wasn’t that I woke up one day with an epiphany of knowing what I wanted to do, but rather knowing what I didn’t want.

  • I didn’t want to work in an office
  • I didn’t want to work in a cubicle
  • I didn’t want to do the same thing everybody else does

 There’s nothing wrong with any of the above, they just weren’t for me at the time (nowadays I’m happy if I never get on a plane again OR jump out of one).

The point is, if you try to boil the ocean and identify what you like, your brain is going to find a reason to say yes to everything.

  • “Well, I suppose I like analytics.”
  • “I guess I could see myself in sales.”
  • “Maybe working in corporate wouldn’t be that bad.”

The brain wants to find the most direct path toward a yes because it’s the path of least resistance. It doesn’t want to find a “no” because “no’s” are associated with pain, and the brain doesn’t like pain.

Try this instead: start with what you don’t want. What we don’t want or what we don’t like is oftentimes much more clear than what we do. You can even make a list of all those things that you absolutely DO NOT want (what I call a “not list”) and will not settle for. Doing so does two things:

1. It serves as a reminder of your values
2. It holds you accountable for your vision

One of the biggest challenges entrepreneurs face is staying focused—trying not to boil the ocean. Remember, when “everything” is a priority, then nothing is. Identify what you absolutely will not settle for, work backward from there, and use your “not list” as a springboard for your startup’s identity.

Identity is a powerful motivator and a powerful weapon when establishing a brand. One of Dale Carnegie’s rules for winning friends, influencing people, and not being a douchebag is to give people a reputation to live up to. Why? Because people want to please others; they want to do better. People want to succeed. You can apply this concept to your brand by identifying exactly what this sort of “next level” aspiration looks like (and what it doesn’t) and applying it to your marketing message.

The best example I can think of who did this successfully is Ernest Shackleton. If you’re unfamiliar with his story, the leadership lessons gleaned from his remarkable story are worth the read (and if you already know the story, it’s worth revisiting again).

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Every week I share news, articles and insights on mindset, leadership, and teams designed to help you grow as a person, as a team and as a company.


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