Blog: team building

By Avery Faller

Who: Leonora Valvo
Company: etouches

Leonora Valvo HeadshotThe internet has profoundly changed the business world, not just with the explosion of tech startups, but also, at a fundamental level, in how companies are structured.  In the past it was often necessary for companies to hire employees who could work in the same office; today, free tools such as Skype have made international communication affordable and efficient, enabling a new class of remote workers.  Earlier this week Leonora Valvo spoke to the YEI Summer Fellows about her entrepreneurial career and how she successfully turned a services business into a software business.  Her current company etouches, which helps companies manage events, has employees based in several countries to meet the needs of her global customer base.  

Virtual Workers and the Company Culture

etouches LogoVirtual workers offer many advantages to a developing company.  Often their salaries are lower than an equivalent on-site employee’s would be, and their skills can be better matched to company needs with geographical constraints out of the picture.  On the other hand, virtual workers present some unique challenges, such as dealing with multiple time zones and instituting a corporate culture.  At etouches, Leonora has developed methods to effectively work around these problems.  Every morning at 8am EST, the heads of all the branches and departments have a video call to discuss that day’s updates.  Since etouches is a global company, there are people from Connecticut, Washington D.C., Sweden, the UK and Australia on the call.  The employees feel connected as a company despite their physical distance because they “see” each other every day.

Leonora also has a strict policy in place for hiring: No one gets hired without meeting her either in person or through a video chat.  This is important to ensure that employees will fit into the culture of the company, even if they won’t be in the same room.  And, when employees come to the American offices, they stay at Leonora’s house to make them feel like they are part of the family.  “It’s a little like a dorm,” she said, half-jokingly.

The Takeaway

Working with employees in multiple countries presents a unique set of challenges, not the least of which is cultivating a distinct company culture.  Hosting daily video  meetings via Skype with your employees is a good way to help them feel connected and updated on the company’s condition and progress.  Personal touches like letting employees stay at your house can be a memorable and rewarding way to inspire employees with your enthusiasm for the company.  Overall you will have to find your own solution to the problem—every company is different—but a good rule to remember is that just because an employee isn’t in the same room as you, doesn’t mean they have to feel like an outsider. 

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By Avery Faller

Who: Gilman Callsen
Company: mc10

Who: Bruce Judson
Position: YEI Entrepreneur-in-Residence 

When starting your venture, should you line up a team or go it alone?  Two of last week’s speakers gave views that at first seemed opposing, if not ultimately mutually exclusive.  Gilman Callsen (YC ’08), who heads up business development for mc10, a company creating high performance semiconductors that are flexible and stretchable, spoke to the importance of quickly building up a strong team, while Bruce Judson, author of Go It Alone! The Secret to Building a Successful Business on Your Own emphasized how far one can grow a business before hiring anyone else onto the team.

Bruce Judson: Proof of Concept

Bruce Judson Headshot

Working alone on your venture can give you insights into the nature of your concept.  Bruce highlighted the importance of fast proof of concepts, especially when it comes to internet ventures, which can ultimately save you the time, money, and frustration that comes from trying to make an untenable idea work.  In order to get your product to market as quickly and efficiently as possible, Bruce encouraged entrepreneurs to make use of the many services that are available for free or for a small monthly fee on the internet.  Why reduplicate these services if they are not part of your core product?  Thus by working alone you are forced to concentrate your time and effort on the core of your business, which you must define and understand. 

Go It Alone

Working alone also forces you to be a master of time management.  Although external services, such as Google Analytics,, and, can save you minutes, Bruce pointed out that it is easy to get stuck in the endless cycle of servicing your services, and there is a difference between working on your business and working in your business.  “Be aware of what is essential and what is good enough,” Bruce said. “Don’t get caught in perfectionism.”  In that regard, be aware of how long it takes you to do day-to-day tasks.  Constantly ask yourself if you are using your time well. Does that design really need to be changed from red to yellow?  Does that bug in your code really bother people that much?  In this manner you can quickly advance your company from concept to market testing as an individual.

Gilman Callsen: Human Capital

mc10 logoAlthough internet ventures are relatively easy to test, real world products are often not.  It may take years and millions of dollars before a medical startup even has a prototype.  In that situation, Bruce’s fast proof of concept model doesn’t really apply.  Instead, an intelligent strategy can be to concentrate on building up a strong team that will work cohesively for many years.  This is aligned with Gilman’s strong belief that “it takes a village” to successfully build a company.  How do you go about attracting the best technical people to work with you, especially if you are not a technical person yourself?  Gilman believes that the best way to get other people to join your team is to truly believe in what you’re doing.  “Enthusiasm is infectious,” Gilman said, “but be honest.  People respect honesty.”  

Gilman Callsen Headshot

When it comes to meeting people, Gilman encouraged the Fellows to be outgoing and use the networks available to them.  He described how student entrepreneurs, like the Fellows, held a distinct advantage in their efforts to build their businesses because most people are open to meeting with or giving advice to students free of charge, whereas most advice in the real world is not free.

The Breakdown

Although their messages may appear to be in opposition, in my opinion Bruce and Gilman are just reiterating similar themes for differing audiences.  Bruce made the case for initially “going it alone” on an internet venture, allowing you to test the venture’s concepts early to ensure that you are working on a useful and realistic product.  Gilman emphasized the importance of building a strong team early on—and in regard to companies working on physical products, it is often logical to want to focus initially on building strong teams that are technically competent and whose members complement each other.  

Bruce and Gilman’s advice wasn’t mutually exclusive though.  Both told the Fellows of the importance of concentrating on big concept ideas over details and paperwork.  And although Bruce’s catch phrase is “go it alone,” his framework allows for entrepreneurs to outsource parts of their company that are not crucial.  Perhaps the most important point that they both strongly agreed upon was that an entrepreneur’s most valuable asset is his time.  “Companies don’t run out of money,” Bruce pointed out, “they run out of time.”

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