People, Culture, Talent & Teams: A crash course for startups
People, Culture, Talent & Teams:
A crash course for startups
Deep Tech School
What I’m going to talk to you about today
1. Hiring philosophy
2. Screening and selection
3. Motivation and management
The role of the CEO
3. People & Culture
• Do not delegate final decision on teams !
Everything works if you take care of those pillars.
How tech entrepreneurship works
Þ “We’ll have one job description in future:
creative, adaptive problem solver.”
Startups challenges and leverages
Challenge: Hiring and motivating highly talented people with but
without the same financial leverage, stability and structured career
progression of a large company / organization.
• Impact and big challenges
• Intellectual stimulation + selected people & environment
• Flexible time and office conditions + freedom / self organization
• Quick growth
• Stock options
Key selection criteria:
1. Motivation + Background:
• Demonstrable passion for the specific area of activity
• Potential > Experience!
2. Behavioural Traits:
• Fluid intelligence and flexibility
3. Character / Personality:
• “High ambition with low ego”
• You will develop new technologies, products and strategies to
disrupt frontier markets …. ... and perform data-entry, lift
packages, clean up rooms, etc.
General selection – Senior staff
Key selection criteria (in addition to the previous ones):
• People look at him/her for advice and mentoring
• Professional network to be leveraged
2) Skills and experience
• Worked at challenging projects
• Built something from scratch
• Growth mindset
3) Autonomy and independence
• Good at self selecting objectives and prioritize
• Good at self management
• Good at managing other people
Tips for sourcing scarce skills in a
• Failed startups could have great teams and fail for other reasons
(inexperienced founders, bad investors, market timing, etc.)
• People with startup experience often have the right mindset
and are ok with uncertainty & ambiguity
• Great minds think alike
• Good to offer perks or cash bonuses if an employee recommend
someone than pass the selection criteria
• Sometimes non-professional and non trivial topics (gaming,
niche programming languages, etc.)
Diversity is key: Why
Pros of diversity
• Ethically desirable (no need to explain)
• Increase performance: resource in complex problem solving
• Increasingly needed for fundraising and ESG regulation
• Reputation and communication
Cons of diversity:
• Hard to manage in terms of habits and communication patterns
• Could reduce speed and “camaraderie” (needs to be engineered)
Pros > Cons !
Diversity is key: How - 1
• Diversify yourself: Explicitly avoid to hire copycats of the
founders (very common!);
• Psychological ecology: Team members compensate each other
in terms of strengths / weaknesses;
• 360° diversity: Differences in professional background, gender,
nationality and ethnic background, lifestyle, beliefs, family,
socioeconomic status, age, communication style, career
objectives, personal interests.
• Please note: Diversity is an indirect by-product of selection
philosophy, not of direct interview questions ! (which could be
disrespectful / illegal / inadequate)
Diversity is key: How - 2
• Internal communication: (example) Gender neutral terminology,
be carefool about jokes (religion, ethnicity, geographical origin,
• External communication: Extra attention, very easy to generate
indignation on social media;
• Participation in diversity initiatives: (examples) SheTech, Girls in
• Recruiting from non-traditional channels: (examples) Non-
traditional colleges and degrees;
• Training for the team: (example) Internal workshops on diversity;
• Take inspiration from ESG frameworks and standards
• Collect and report diversity metrics: At least internally. 12
Hiring requires time!
1. Definition of the job requirements
2. At least 2-4 weeks for collecting applications
3. At least 2-4 weeks (months for complex selections) for selection
processes and interviews
4. Communications to selected and non-selected candidates
• Reply to them all. More detailed / personalized feedback for
candidates in the final stage of selections.
5. Time for resigning from other positions, typically 1-2 months at
=> Safe to plan at least 3 months before 1st day on the job
• Proactive search, referral, job posting, self-application.
• Examples: website, LinkedIn, event and conference presentations, posting with
academic career services, alumni networks, etc.
• Filter weak and untargeted applications
• Typically 3 macro phases are optimal
1. Take home exam: testing skills, judgment and motivation
2. Interviews with peers + technical interview (if pertinent)
3. Interview with manager
• You are selling yourself as an employer
• Strong predictor of future motivation and performance 14
Examples of Interview Questions
• What is XXX (our company)? Why XXXX ? Why now ?
• What did (and didn’t) you enjoy in your academic and professional career ? (be specific about
tasks, courses, people, etc.)
• Open questions: (example) What is an NPV in corporate finance ?
• Open questions: (example) Why Tik Tok is successful ?
• You are the Country Manger at (well known startup) Italy. What are your priorities ?
• You are the CEO of our company. What will you do in the next 2 years ?
• How did you behave in (difficult or conflictual situation) in the past ?
• Tell me about someone you admire: you would like to be like him/her in 20 years. Could be non-
famous or an imaginary character. Avoid common answers (Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, etc.).
• The Zombie Apocalypse is starting in Milan. What would you do ?
• Always leave space for candidate’s questions 16
• Physical space in the office
• Welcome pack: presentation about the company, clients, org chart,
policies, industry research reports, etc.
• Email and access to IT platforms
• Welcome email to whole team
• First day of introduction + tentative work plan + lunch with the new
team members + (optional) announcement on social media
• First week: 1-1 with key people and training
• First month: 1-1 outside the core team and assessment
Culture & Values
• Company DNA, relatively stable in the long run
• Evolves with challenges, failures, growth, internationalization
Not corporate vaporware but something material
• Values as a tool for decision making in ambiguous situations
• Ambiguity force hard choices with no 100% right decisions and
multiple conflictual priorities
• Values and culture make “the wave function collapse”
• At startups typically below market standards, in particular in comparison
with consulting / finance / big tech
• Exceptions for scarce profiles (developers), senior managers, scale-up phase
• Good for retention and performance
• But be careful about impact on team collaboration!
• Typically for sales and business development positions
• At least for early employees and key people
• 4-year vesting
• Option pool: typically 10-20%
• Work environment, perks, food, unlimited vacation, training, budget for
conferences and books, retreats, field trips, sabbaticals, etc.
Retreats (annual, semestral or quarterly)
• Not in the office environment
• Opportunity for socialization and informal exchanges
• Great chance for discussion what is “relevant but not urgent”
Lunches and dinners
• Good also for periodically gather remote workers
• Escape rooms, games, etc.
Community work day
• Once per year, 1 full day of team work donated to a charity
• Environmental work, helping fragile communities, etc.
• Sense of purpose, great for teambuilding
• If you have resources 20
Ordinary decision processes:
• Iterative discussion and feedback loops
---> Easier to spot hidden errors and wrong habits
---> Diversity as an explicit enabler of high performance
• Consensus whenever possible
---> Of course achievable only with small teams
• Ownership of results
---> Key process need to have a single point of reference
• Everyone included in discussions about office strategy, evolution
• Everyone allowed to access budget information
• Everyone included in hiring processes 21
• 1-1 With manager: motivation, objectives, team dynamics, necessities, training
and special needs, etc.
• 1-1s With team members
• Managers should always ask for feedback about themselves and P2P feedback,
non only top down
Yearly career conversation
• At least once per year a safe space to ask questions and discuss career evolution,
performance, job title and pay upgrades
• Performance is collective for most of the tasks, often collaboration > individual
• Feedback should be transparent (no taboo topics) and constructive, with
actionable improvement plans
• Negative feedback always to be delivered in private 22
Provide growth opportunities
• Careers in startup cannot be linear and clear like
banking/consulting but there are some tools
• Examples: More responsibilities, provide A-Z responsibility for
projects or processes, job title evolution, compensation
The more you approach the scale up phase, the more you need
• Note: If employees leave to start their own startup, consider to
invest in them
Underperformance and firings
• Early detection is key
• Assess root causes and potential external drivers (processes, managerial
failure, team dynamics, etc.)
• Provide clear feedback
• If underperformance endures, improvement plan with clear timeline and /
or relocation to another internal team
Firing (for underperformance, not failure of the company or illegal behaviour)
• If underperformance endures, firing is undelayable
• Try to depart in a good way
1. Do not personalize, a great employee in organization A could not be not
perfect for organization B
2. Help the person to find another job
3. Allow enough time + If needed, severance package
• Industry specific regulation (example: fintech, etc.)
• Virtual and online external classes
• Internal training
• Participation to industry events
• Individual budget for books, conferences, courses, etc.
Peer to peer training
• Let the people teach each other any kind of skill or passion, even
if not work-related
• Great for teambuilding 25
Examples of great team
selection and management
Italian tech companies
• Bending spoons
Italian historical cases
US historical cases
• Bell labs
• Apollo program
• Bridgewater associates / macro hedge fund
• Navy Seals – Team 6
• Israel Unit 8200 for cyber intelligence / cyberwar 26
Raffaele Mauro is passionate about technology, policy and global finance.
He is General Partner at Primo Space, a venture capital fund focused on the new space economy.
Previously he was Managing Director at Endeavor Italy, a global organization that provides access
to smart capital, talent and markets to scale-up companies, Head of Finance for Innovation &
Entrepreneurship at Intesa Sanpaolo and worked at venture capital funds such as United Ventures
(formerly Annapurna Ventures), P101 and OltreVenture.
Raffaele holds an MPA from Harvard University, a Ph.D. from Bocconi and attended the Singularity
University Graduate Studies Program at NASA Ames. Raffaele is a member of the Kauffman Society
of Fellows, the “Young European Leaders – 40 under 40” network, the Aspen Junior Fellows group
and the Young Leaders group of the US-Italy Council. He is also mentor at TechStars and
Mentors4U, member of the executive committee at the Global Shapers Hub - Milano, a World
Economic Forum community, and invested in high growth companies such as Multiply Labs (YC
2016) and Strive School (YC 2020) and Serenis Health.
Raffaele is a publishd author at Harvard Business Review Italy and wrote the books “Hacking
Finance” and “Quantum Computing”. @rafr
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