Every startup needs a Michael Collins in their team.

On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the moon, a rock some 240,000 miles away from Earth. Meanwhile, Michael Collins, became the most solitary human being in the universe. As the third member of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, Collins was pilot to the command module, Columbia, as it kept orbit over the moon and waited for them to return. He was fated to wait anxiously as they took humanity’s first steps on the lunar surface.

Michael Collins died aged 90 last week, leaving Buzz Aldrin as the sole survivor of the remarkable trio. He is often called the forgotten astronaut of the first lunar mission, but the success of Apollo 11 is also due to him. As the command module pilot, Collins was, he later wrote half-jokingly, the navigator, the guidance and control expert, the base-camp operator, the owner of the leaky plumbing – all the things I was least interested in doing. But he was an integral part of the team.

When his crew mates were stepping onto the moon before the eyes of the world, Collins was already dipping behind the dark side of the moon and out of touch with ground control for forty-eight minutes on each orbit. From the moment of the separation of the lunar module, Collins was to see far less of the Apollo mission than anyone glued to a television screen on Earth.

As he went round the moon, he was able to be in radio contact with Armstrong and Aldrin for only fifteen minutes in each orbit, whereas they were able to be in constant contact with Earth, since the moon’s rotation period and its orbit time are identical. For hours in the Columbia, he was the loneliest person in history. I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life, he noted. He felt a sense of profound solitude as perhaps the most isolated human in history, though he did not, he insisted, feel lonely.

He was, moreover, haunted by a fear that the Apollo 11 lunar craft, Eagle, would malfunction and strand Armstrong and Aldrin. My secret terror has been leaving them on the moon and returning to Earth alone. He prepared a list of 18 possible contingency plans in the event of a problem. He called it his Solo Book, and it ran to 117 pages. In the event, everything went smoothly. Having spent more than twenty hours on the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin re-entered the lunar module and took-off to rendezvous and safely dock with Collins and Columbia. After an uneventful flight back and a problem-free re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific on July 24.

A few months after the moon landing, Collins left NASA, even though he was offered another glorious mission: to command Apollo 17 and walk on the moon. But this was out of the question for him: It’s over. We did it. Had he stayed he would have been the last man to walk on the moon in 1972, as no one has landed on the moon since. 

When selected for the Apollo 11 mission, Collins was the most experienced of the mission’s three astronauts. He had been the first man to have crossed from one vehicle to another in space, which demonstrated man’s ability to perform tasks outside a space vehicle: on the Gemini 10 mission from 18-21 July, 1966, Collins spent 89 minutes on spacewalks he poetically described as gliding across the world in total silence, with absolute smoothness; a motion of stately grace which makes me feel God-like as I stand erect in my sideways chariot, cruising the night sky.

His books about his NASA experiences contain sensual, poetic, and profound descriptions like this. His eloquent book, Carrying the Fire, which was first published in 1975, was a blow-by-blow account of the Apollo 11 mission. 

Still, he never lost a sense of wonder: I’ll be out at night and I’ll see a nice moon, and say, ‘Hey, that looks good.’ Then I’ll say, ‘Oh shit, I went up there one time!’ Kind of surprises me. It’s like there are two moons, you know – the one that’s usually around, and then that one I was close too. It was 10% shrewd planning and 90% blind luck: put LUCKY on my tombstone. Although he never walked on the moon, Michael Collins’ name will always be associated with it, as one of the craters is named in his honour.

Now I’m a borderline NASA junkie and moon worshipper, I followed the Apollo programme and I’ve been to a Space Shuttle launch. There’s a great book, Moon Dust, by Andrew Smith, in which he interviews nine of the twelve astronauts (three had died, and we lost Neil Armstrong in 2012) who landed on the moon between 1969 and 1972. It’s a great read and offers insights into the success of the Apollo programme.

It wasn’t just the science and technology, it was about the team. Just like a startup, Apollo 11’s success was down to the alignment, collaboration and shared values of the team. There is no room for slackers, know-it-alls, passengers, backstabbers or Machiavellian egos, as Collins showed, it’s all down to a great team collaboration.

So what are the lessons for your startup from Apollo 11? Let’s call this your ‘Minimum Viable Team’ (‘MVT’) for your venture. Most startup founders work on the basis that they will find the folks they need to scale their business either by word of mouth within the startup community, or within their own network. Alas experience tell us those serendipitous moments don’t always occur. The route of chance isn’t always successful, or even best in the longer term.

What are the key considerations in your MVT startup team building strategy, when seeking to create a key part of your business growth engine? Here are some thoughts.

1. Hiring Philosophy

What is the vision for your MVT in terms of its purpose, values and principles held as underlying attributes that will make a difference?

Rockstars gives leverage You’re looking for rockstar starters who cancreate 10x more leverage – ‘moonshot thinking’ – how apt for Michael Collins. The effectiveness gap between employees can be multiple orders of magnitude. In startup hiring there are few shades of grey, go for those that can fuel momentum.

Culture-contributors are better than culture-fitters A startupculture is part of the business model and customer experience. Just like we want people to contribute new skills and ideas, we want people to contribute new culture. Hiring culture-fitters does not make your culture better. The founding team will soon be outnumbered by new hires. They will decide your future culture, not you.

Hire for potential & learning Potential and experience are not mutually exclusive, but potential is far more valuable. Everyone usually hires for experience, but for a startup my view is to hire those whose potential will push you along. Interviewing for experience is easy because you are discovering what someone has done. Interviewing for potential is hard because you are predicting what they will do. Look for people who get excited talking about what they could do rather than what they have done.

Hire for difference not similarity There is a natural bias to hire people ‘like us’. Fight this bias. Hiring similar means repeatability and efficiency over creativity and leverage. Hiring different brings new skills, paradigms, and ideas, which are the sparks and catalyst of leverage. You will naturally want to hire people you connect with. Fight your instincts. Don’t default to ‘she’s like one of us’.

2. Focus on Personality

Simply, what sort of people did we want in our team on our startup journey? Seek a combination of attitudes, character and behaviours, to check for ‘togetherness’:

  • Openness: Look for free spirits, open-minded folk who will enjoy the startup adventure and new experiences, the highs and the lows.
  • Conscientiousness: A startup can be a bit chaotic and disruptive, so look for people who are organised and dependable.
  • Extraversion: Look for energisers, live-wires who tend to be more sociable and keep noise and energy levels up – not office jesters, but people who can keep the lights burning.
  • Emotional stability: People with this trait are confident and don’t tend to worry often.
  • Action oriented Generally, startup business plans have expired before the plan shoots out of the printer, things have already changed. Stuff happens, so you need people who roll their sleeves up.
  • They get out of the building Great start up people obsess over the customer. Fretting over trivial things doesn’t help anyone. Looks for people who are eager to get in front of customers.
  • Intrinsic motivations The best startup employees are motivated by the challenge, where autonomy, mastery and purpose are their drivers.

3. The concept of ‘Tour of Duty’

Start-ups succeed in large part because their MVT is highly adaptable, motivated to create something different. However, entrepreneurial employees can be restless, searching for new, high-learning opportunities, and other startups are always looking to poach them.

Sooner or later, most employees will pivot into a new opportunity. When Reid Hoffman founded LinkedIn, he set the initial employee engagement as a four-year ‘tour of duty’, with a discussion at two years. If an employee moved the needle on the business, the company would help advance her career. Ideally this would entail another tour of duty at the company. 

A tour-of-duty is established, either two or four years. That time period seems to have universal appeal. In a tech start-up, it syncs with a typical product development cycle, allowing an employee to see a major project through. At the end of this ‘tour’, the business could pivot to a new direction, and thus the MVT needs to pivot too.

Properly implemented, the tour-of-duty approach can boost both recruiting and retention for a startup. The key is that it gives both sides a clear basis for working together. Both sides agree in advance on the purpose of the relationship, the expected benefits for each, and potentially a planned end. One successful tour is likely to lead to another. Each strengthens the bonds of trust and mutual benefit. This is a more effective retention strategy than appealing to vague notions of loyalty and establishes a real zone of trust.

Nobody who’s ever scaled a business from the ground up did it alone, and if you look at research on why startups don’t make it, the wrong team is among the top reasons. It is imperative that you are strategic about your team. Nothing will kill your startup faster than having to put out fires every step of the way if your hiring is flawed.

No startup succeeds based on an idea, it is execution that transforms an idea into a revenue-generating business. You need to build a team that’s capable of accomplishing things instead of just spouting off ideas, so don’t build a team for a startup – the startup phase is temporary – that’s not what you want your trajectory to be, it’s important that you build a team for the long term, so hire people who understand the importance of customers and growth, not just those enthused about the fuzzy startup mode.

Michael Collins was an intrepid explorer. He orbited the moon thirty times alone. That’s a man of character, spirit and determination. No one was more responsible for the Apollo 11 success, taking the mission out and bringing it home safely. I guess many people can name Armstrong and Aldrin but not Collins from the Apollo 11 mission, but he made it happen too.

The Apollo 11 moon landing was more than a step in history, it was a step in evolution of mankind, and for me, the greatest entrepreneurial endeavour we’ve ever seen. They succeeded because of a great team. In a sense, Collins was the engine, the one who ‘carried the fire’ to the moon and back. Every startup needs a Michael Collins in their team.

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