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How to Build a Perfect Startup Team (My Real Story)

Vira Kostohlad

Vira Kostohlad

Head of Recruting

5 min

I am going to share with you how I created a team of 5 PhD graduates in the field of artificial intelligence and 2 students with academic awards, in only three months.

My budget for the team was 5,000 USD per month, where did I start?

A Long and Hard Road

Why So Cheap?

I imagine some people will stop reading at this point, since the fair price for a specialist in the field of artificial intelligence with a PhD starts from 5,000 USD per month.

This is a fair point and I personally received an answer from one candidate that they wanted 50 USD per hour and that was in Kharkiv, where an apartment in the city only costs 500 USD per month to rent. 

However, the reason I got my dream team for this rate was due to my ability to inspire them with my idea and not give up however many knockbacks I received.

The Wrong Way to Search

If someone from Ukraine reads my article, I hope you will not be offended, since I am only sharing the truth, although I won’t mention names, you will see there are blocks here that limit development. And to those readers from Europe and the USA please don’t get the impression things are that bad in Ukraine, it’s just some industries are really difficult to get started here.

Firstly it is very difficult to find specialists here and they are simply not freely available, so I began searching for talented students in local high schools. My first try, was with the largest university in Ukraine, placed at number one in the league table. That meeting lasted only 3 minutes, since I was asked to pay in advance, before even talking about possible cooperation.

At this stage I realized I wouldn’t have any luck going through the management channels and would need to find another strategy.

The Correct Way to Search

My second visit was to the various departments and it was already more interesting. During the course of one evening I sent around 60 e-mails, probably covering all the departments at Kharkiv University, surely the statistics alone would ensure I got a positive response! The response rate was quite high, people really wanted to help, but ultimately there was no one willing to jump on board. The e-mail looked like this.

Good afternoon, Dear *name of scientist*. My name is Maxym, I am the founder of a technology startup. We utilise AI to clean up noise and want to offer this as an alternative to the expensive LIDAR (Light Identification Detection and Ranging) that you are currently using. We need employees with strong mathematics skills in order to create a prototype and have people ready to finance us once this is achieved.

My honesty and bluntness contributed to the high response rate but when I pointed out that there was no significant funding at this point the respondents lost interest. The next day I started meetings in the departments and to my surprise the very first meeting was a success!

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Firstfruits

I met with a PhD in Mathematics who brought another PHD graduate along with him. This graduate was a  specialist with 15 years of professional programming experience. To my complete surprise he immediately offered to put a team of talented students together, also offering to mentor them and give them the math to help them code. Tempting, right?

The only problem being I only had them for one year and they would only be working on the research not the actual prototype but still, I was satisfied with this as a first result.

What Did I Get?

I often write about the meetings I had in the various departments, since I had so many and the results were all completely different but the main conclusion was the need to jump over the department heads, as they can be greedy. Also, a word of advice, do not be afraid at this stage in getting rejections, be more afraid that you can’t get started till you have the team you desire!

The main result of all the meetings, both remote and physical, became a network of 12 scientists in the field of artificial intelligence. Almost everyone wanted more than I expected, but still less than the current going rate for such professionals, which indicated a tendency that many accomplished scientists had not yet realized the potential of IT and were still working in the laboratories. However, out of these 12 potentials, I found only one who agreed to start working for me for free.

This, of course, was not enough for Napoleonic purposes.

Steps to find high-class team

Play For the Team

Researching Leads to an Outcome

I found an easy way to significantly increase coverage and that was publications. I googled scientific publications on the subject and wrote to the authors. I found about 300 authors from various cities and countries of the CIS. One of those 300 was an ex-employee of the rocket bureau and lived in Kharkiv. He became our second employee.

With two high-level specialists, my search became easier. I now had the materials to show and as I began presenting my idea, I became more and more inspired by it, in turn inspiring those around me that I was pitching to.

Try Everything That’s Relevant

Next, I wanted to approach military enterprises but with no addresses or names, I was struggling. Then I realized I could use social networks to search for potential employees. Thankfully I found people had filled out their profiles with all their information and it was through this channel that I found another employee.  My next employee also had a scientific degree, as well as experienced in the military. Within 2 months I had 3 black-belts with 50 years of experience between them from only a few sketches of my product. 

The cost of maintaining the team remained at a critically low-level for the market I was working with. And you know what I realized? – don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

I wrote to everyone who could potentially be involved in my project and despite many rejections or people saying I had contacted the wrong person, I eventually managed to put together a high-level team within my budget.  I found the best technique was to go directly to the scientists and try to motivate and inspire them with my product. 

Youngblood is a Good Option Too

The involvement of students in my dream team was not a problem at all. They were willing to work without pay, since the opportunity for them to learn from someone with so much experience didn’t come along often. It was easy to get them interested in working on the project by just introducing myself and saying “guys – we have a cool startup and an even cooler team, want to come and see?”

I spent all my time searching for potential candidates to help speed up the process. Despite a limited budget, I not only formed my dream team but by staying in regular communication with scientists I also expanded my knowledge base as well as my network. Many of the scientists didn’t understand the current trends with AI and tech and were still working in the laboratories.

You need to try every channel. I`ve tried the following: university, social network, direct emails

Leadership Matters

People who cannot admit that they are wrong and who don’t recognize the value of youth in leadership will ultimately fail. It should be clarified that my youngest employee, not counting the students was 9 years older than me. One of the main takeaways from this article is to learn to filter. 

Not all founders have a technical education ( I didn’t have) and because of this, I frittered away a lot of time and money. I suggest finding a partner who has technical experience and can help you filter out the best employees.

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