PEEQ's Mark Gray on Growing Your Team
After the core players, who's next?
A great many of the startups that pass through the doors of Highway1 start out lean and scrappy. Rare, however, is the team that stays that way as it moves from prototype to shipping a product to consumers. How do they approach growth? We talked to Mark Gray, CEO of recent Highway1 grad PEEQ, to find out.
HWY1: What were the roles you had onboard when you started Highway1?
MG: We had a CEO/product lead, a hardware lead, and a software lead.
Was that enough? Is there an ideal team size or makeup when you’re starting out?
I’m not sure there’s a perfect answer there, so this is my own opinion: it depends on the problem you’re tackling and what you bring to the table. You need someone with a product and industry focus and someone with an understanding of how your solution’s going to be built, technically speaking, so that’s likely two people. Add to that somebody who’s a little more business-minded to do the fundraising and run the company, though that could be one of the existing two.
Was there a role you felt you were missing during Highway1?
We knew we didn’t have a creative person on board, which was also why we were attracted to coming to Highway1; part of the program pairs you up with a potential design partner. Hardware lead Sing Yiu Cheung was already working on the hardware, but he always has a lot of other things to do, like firmware. Having the additional mechanical engineering resource of Highway1’s Jon Carver and others was super helpful. We’ll be missing a dedicated mechanical engineer moving forward, but in the near term we can continue to work with quality folks on a part-time contract basis.
How are you vetting your incoming candidates?
We’re always looking for good people for PEEQ and right now we’re going through a burst of hiring. I’m trying to insulate the team so they can get work done, which makes me the primary filter. I spend a good 30-40% of my time reviewing resumés and doing phone screens. If I see someone promising, I pull the rest of my team in based on the skills represented. They’ll do a skill check before we bring any candidates into our process, which involves a technical interview and a fit interview with many interactions with me throughout.
Is there a particular area that you’re focused in hiring immediately after Highway1?
Currently, we’re adding to the software side. Ultimately, our product is about delivering great video highlights, so continuing to explore how to make a better video is a big part of what we’re doing; building out that team is our main focus. We’re looking for people with experience in mobile development, video processing, computer vision, and machine learning. We just hired a VP of business development, Jason McDevitt joining us from the LA Lakers, who covers a lot. In a broad sense business development is about sales and marketing, but the role’s responsibilities also include exploring critical partnerships, defining our customer segments, developing distribution channels, testing pricing, shaping our go-to-market strategy, gathering customer feedback, and building out our pipeline. There’s a fair bit of strategy happening.
As part of planning and fundraising, I’m working with outside resources on a forecasting model that includes P&L, revenue, customer acquisition, pricing, and costs; over time, those roles and their tasks will also be folded in. That’s the model I use: getting that work done by highly skilled resources so we can level up and make it to the next milestone without somebody doing it full time, but once that function becomes required moving forward, we bring them in-house. For example, we have mechanical engineering contained enough that until we get to the next level of development, we don’t need somebody full time. Sing isn’t just doing the hardware and design, he’s also doing the oversight operations of it; as we scale, that’d be a separate person’s job.
How do you decide when to bring someone in full time?
I think when it becomes critical for your business to get to the next milestone, depending on what that milestone is. You also have to ask yourself: is stuff breaking? If, for example, Sing is focused on speaking with vendors and no longer has bandwidth to focus on product development, we’d need additional resources. You start to see that people can’t get things done that are more strategically important, or a better use of their time. Of course, that’s part of being a startup: everybody wears different hats, but at a certain point you want to take some of the hats back and pass them off. I don’t wait for things to break, but there’s a point you can arrive at where you notice your team losing some effectiveness.
How many hats is too many?
It depends on the individual: their background, their skills. When we bring candidates in for a product manager role, for instance, I always tell them: I don’t want to bring someone in who’s only going to be a product manager. You need to have a secondary skill. Maybe you grew into becoming a product manager through a technical role, or maybe you were a designer and you were user research-focused. I want you to have a secondary skillset that you can leverage to help out elsewhere. I think that’s what’s interesting about startups: they skew towards people who can wear multiple hats and enjoy it. At bigger companies, people have the ability to specialize — they go deep on a particular area and don’t do anything else.
Do you have any general advice for someone trying to build their team right now?
It might be obvious to some folks, but working with your existing team and network is always the best path for a lot of reasons. It’s a good filter, because typically if you’re hiring good people, they also know good people who know what they’re doing. As a startup that most people haven’t heard of, you don’t have a high profile, so going through your network is extra valuable; there’s a certain amount of trust level when a personal recommendation is involved.