By Tristan Kromer

Building a Complete Team is not easy. Talent is in short supply.

In Silicon Valley, the common sense wisdom used to be that engineers were the most critical team members. The good ones were rare and hard to come by. Sometimes we called them ninjas or 10Xers.

More recently, the proliferation of consumer web apps made design a key differentiator. Designers became the scarce resource and salaries skyrocketed. Everyone who knew photoshop was suddenly rebranding themselves as a UX designer. No one really knew the difference between UX and UI, but we called them unicorns anyway and started the hunt.

The ideal team is often described as Hacker, Hustler & Hipster. Articles have made it into Forbes and Steve Blank posted his version back in 2011.

Even corporate teams have bought into the dogma to the degree that every innovation team must have a designer, hacker, and business person. No more than that and definitely no more than two pizzas worth of people!

The idea that there is an ideal team size and composition is...well... absurd. Share on X

(Except the pizza part. That’s true from Dunbar’s number.)

The Balanced Team

The Balanced Team Paradigm doesn't mean it's a complete teamSome of this perfect team concept comes from the Balanced Team paradigm and perhaps IDEO, who even gives a nice Venn diagram showing the origin of it on their about page. (We don’t know who came up with it.)

The Balanced Team works great in many situations. We love how Janice Fraser explained it:

  • In the Balaced Team paradigm - The Product owner represents the scales of justiceThe designer is responsible for desirability of the product. Talking with customers, understanding their needs, making sure the experience doesn’t suck.
  • The engineer is responsible for the feasibility. S/he must determine if the product can actually be built, how, and for how much.
  • The business person is responsible for the viability of the business model. S/he acts as the scales of justice when feasibility conflicts with desirability. The business person also takes care of the profit & loss statement and often manages the personalities involved.

Incomplete Teams

The thing about abstract concepts is that they are abstract. Reality often disagrees. Share on X

The balanced team paradigm falls short when it is directly translated from concept to person. The important thing is the role.

Tech folks assume that feasibility belongs to the engineer. Not always.

The Four Parts of an MVP - A Complete Team must be able to go around the loop

Remember, there are four parts to any MVP: Customer, Value Proposition, Channel, and Relationship. Share on X

(If this sounds weird, read our post of the Four Parts of a Minimum Viable Product)

The MVP is not just about building the product.  What about the feasibility of the channel?

If we’re selling an enterprise CRM, the feasibility of building that channel belongs to our enterprise B2B sales person. The person with the big rolodex and crazy hustling skills.

Don’t have one? Then we have an incomplete team.

Tristan’s Incompleteness Theorem

An incomplete team's iteration velocity is limited by its missing pieces and its budget. Share on X
Incomplete Zebra

Incomplete Zebra

That is to say, if we’re missing a key skill or role, we’re stuck. We will be unable to learn or make any progress in experimenting until members of our team are able to acquire that skill.

OR…you can hire someone to fill in a gap. That gap might be a team that is:

  • Selling an enterprise CRM with no sales person.
  • In Ukraine selling to the German market with no one who speaks fluent German.
  • From Vietnam creating an eCommerce site for American consumers where the designer has no experience with U.S.

(Note: Truthfully, this happens. We’ve changed the countries to protect the innocent/guilty.)

The Complete Team

The complete team is able to complete the Build-Measure-Learn loop, including all Four Parts of the Minimum Viable Product. They will have to build the sales channel and measure product progress via the customer relationship.

The Complete Team often has someone with many hats

Often the Hustler (a.k.a., Guy Who Can’t Code) takes on these other responsibilities and wears many hats. Sometimes, others can perform more than one role, playing designer half the time and managing to get some sales calls in on the side.

A complete team is not about the number of people, but if whether there is a skill gap. Share on X

No Constant

One of the most infuriating things about a complete team is that the definition changes over time. Share on X

There is no constant for the complete team

At the beginning of a project, we might not need an engineer. We just need to go talk to customers.

We might not need a designer for a backend B2B application.

We may need an outbound marketer to run a Google AdWords campaign, but we only need a few hundred visits to run our landing page test, so it’s hardly a full time job!

Temporary Completeness

Often the solution to these gaps is part time staff. It’s often a dissatisfying level of quality, but better than nothing!

Mediocre part time help is often better than trying to multitask. Share on X

Complete Teams are often only temporarily completeOne of the great advantages that large corporations have over startups is a vast reserve of human capital. Which is what makes it even funnier when they fail to utilize it.

Many corporations are underfunding their startups by insisting they “be scrappy” instead of just giving them the budget to hire someone to run a Google AdWords campaign.

There are certain skills that every team member in every startup should learn. Everyone should be able to talk to customers and have an insightful customer discovery conversation.

But does everyone in a startup need to learn AdWords from scratch? Is that a critical skill?


This is where more advanced accelerator programs like 500 Startups (who, unlike most accelerators, have an actual business model) have a massive advantage. With a specialized “Distribution” growth hacking team available to help their portfolio companies, they are able to complete teams, filling in notable skill gaps in marketing, user acquisition, and channel strategy.

In addition, their “Distro” growth hacking team gets to hone their craft at a radically accelerated rate with the experience of working with literally hundreds of startups. So, sorry Y-Combinator, you’re awesome in many ways, but we know where we’d bet our money.

Key Takeaways

  • The team needs complete skill sets to go around the Build-Measure-Learn loop quickly
  • A complete team composition will change over time
  • Geographic boundaries affect team needs in terms of sales, marketing, design, and language ability
  • Startups: Consider outsourcing for completeness
  • Corporations & Accelerators: Consider shared services for completeness

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