Getting People on the Bus

Craig Dunk
6 min readApr 25, 2023
A bus moving quickly and filled with excited people
A bus (startup) piled with people

In a very early startup I was debating with a cofounder whether we needed to know, in much detail, what the company was building or if we just needed talented and effective people on the bus (the startup) to help us identify the right places to go. At the time we concluded that what we ultimately wanted was the people on the bus — but concluded that very few people (in the Waterloo tech startup scene at the time in particular) get on a bus if they don’t have a good idea of where it is going, and so the detailed-but-expected-to-change plan became an important first step.

Since then there have been a few observations that have changed how I think about this and about the people and resources needed early in a startup, and how I try to connect with folks:

The first observation came from a team member who felt that there was a failure mode for “servant leadership” in which the senior leadership of a company would not provide necessary structure and high-level direction. They could use the label of “serving” not as a way of reorienting the team relationships, but of abdicating responsibilities that they are uniquely able to accomplish and ultimately responsible for. Specifically directional decisions, and high level decisions about what _not_ to prioritize — of course in making these decisions senior leaders can take input, be humble, and even put in place techniques for people to experiment or deliver without always getting approval. Translating back to the “do we need a very specific place we are going to or do we need people on the bus” I now see a much more significant role for org leaders to take responsibility for a high level direction; where the definition of “high level” changes with the org stage and capabilities. And to do this not just as a means of getting people onboard.

The second observation came from a cofounder I was working with. He used a concept that was different from (and a significant improvement on) the idea of “fit”. Aside: fit is a problematic framing in that it ends up being a “veto” and tends to work against diversity and give blanket reasons to find fault with candidates or employees who don’t think or work the same way. The prompt my cofounder used, among many factors in finding teammates was “are they energy giving?”. Certainly not everyone needs to be positive (and toxic positivity should be avoided) but we had some great examples to draw on from disagreements or different approaches and some of the situations gave energy and others were energy draining. The differences seemed to be in the behaviours of the people involved. I fully believe that it is a skill and learnable, I expect it is related to a combination of conveying respect, owning one’s own contributions, looking for a solution together, and some measure of commitment to trying solutions. And in that situation even very different ways of working or different points of view could be energy giving. I bring this up because — as is often said — entrepreneurship can be hard and very often energy is one of the key constraints you are running up against. So back to the bus: a consideration I now weigh much more materially in colleagues is whether they arrive with “energy giving” skills.

This is on my mind for the build-in-the-open startup as we have some key capabilities that would be valuable on the founding or early team — one example is deep hands on technical experience in synbio — that is likely more effectively brought in via a dedicated team member than learned. But along with capabilities, other factors are on my mind. For example the recent Properly teams have been the best example I have worked with to date of being effective at turning different experiences, different approaches, divergent ways of thinking, and diverse backgrounds into an effective group — and I want to recreate that value in future organizations. And of course given the two observations above I am also thinking about early leaders on the team that can help take on that responsibility for direction and that have the skills to be energy giving.

Given some of the capabilities I am seeking are not in my usual subject matter domains I am going through a much more “first principles” approach. I also prefer more one-on-one and direct conversations over large group networking events so most of the items below are direct connections. Here are some things I am doing and planning on doing, for anyone looking for how you might try to expose yourself to more early teammates with a particular skill in a startup context:

  • Community interest groups — I have joined and am helping with iGEM bridge bio; even though I have not been an iGEM competitor. The group is focused on bridging from industry to the iGEM program
  • Getting in touch with grad students and profs through university programs around industrial partnership (UofT Biozone, U of G Masters in Biotech, and still working through the Waterloo Centre for Biotechnology and Bioengineering — also identifying appropriate schools internationally but starting with the organizations I have connections with)
  • I am personally ramping up with a podcast — Grow Everything — and have connected with the hosts, and where it makes sense I reached out to the guests on the show to share what I appreciated and connected with them as well.
  • Of course, I am writing on the topic and experimenting with “building in the open” as a way of connecting with folks with interest in this space. And this has actually translated into a “we should catch up” chat with someone from the investment space.
  • (Future) find an interested party where the time is not right for them to join (late career, in a different project) and solicit their help in identifying folks I should talk to. A version of this is actually using a professional recruiter.

These are specific activities and organizations, but the general take away is: figure out where the people are that you want a chance to connect to, generally approach with a “what can I offer or share” rather than exclusively “what can I get”, be comfortable that people probably want to be helpful but if the timing or situation isn’t right for them that is also fine.

Then part of it is a numbers game — there isn’t just one single right co-founder or early employee — there is a large set of people where it could work out great: so going wide and not being overly focused on finding that one person from one education or one organization can be effective. In order to manage the volume of people I am identifying and reaching out to, and because I think it is important to run a tight process and not lose track of contacts or go dark, I have actually set up a custom workflow in a customer relationship management (CRM) tool — hubspot has a free tier that is working well for me for this.

Conclusions

Intended takeaways for startups generally:

  • For early teammates and co-founders consider adding “capable of contributing to high level direction” and “has skills to be energy giving” to your other criteria.
  • This is on top of other direct criteria you might have (such as hands on synbio in my case), and other cultural criteria (such as the diversity of thought, experience, approach, and background)
  • Be active in reaching out, starting from where people are, starting from a primarily giving attitude, and be comfortable reaching out broadly.
  • Because you are probably reaching out broadly consider tooling (a free tier CRM feels useful to me — even pre-seed)

Intended takeaways for eggs-and-algae startup

  • Some connections forming in iGEM for future conversations
  • Some connections forming to industry folks for future conversations
  • Conversations happening with candidate academic partners

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Craig Dunk

Tech leader, speculative fiction fan, parent to adult children, and a big fan of camp fires.