Dharmesh Shah

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Startup Tribes: Tips on Roles and Recruiting

By Dharmesh Shah on January 27, 2012

The following is a guest post from John Greathouse. John is an entrepreneur and investor.  He currently blogs at Infochachkie where he provides practical startup advice.

You may not realize it, but your adVenture's Core Team, the senior executives who make the key decisions which drive the company's strategic direction, is akin to a primitive tribe.

Primitive tribes and your startup both entail a small number of people banded together to battle an uncaring, hostile world. Like the tribe, your company's survival is always in question and never guaranteed. Success depends upon everyone pulling together for the common good and striving to accomplish common goals. Everyone's efforts must initially focus on survival

tribe ideabefore the tribe can prosper and eventually evolve into a thriving, self-sustaining community.

Tribes are effective societal structures, as evidenced by man's ascension to the top of the food chain. Understanding the tribal organizational structure is vital to gaining an appreciation of the various roles played by your Core Team.

In partnership with Docstoc, I created the following video, in which I discuss the various roles in a tribal startup. You can watch the embedded video below or at YouTube: http://youtu.be/o_nEUIPS60U

Tribes and startups thrive when labor is efficiently divided. Long before Meyers met Briggs, people in tribal communities migrated to those roles which best suited their personalities, proclivities and skills. The key roles in tribes and startups are identical: Hunter, Skinner, Shaman, Chief and Tribal Elder.


The Hunter provides for the tribe and literally brings home the bacon. These individuals are highly autonomous, independent and thrive on frequent recognition. When they have a successful hunt, they want everyone to know about it.

The Hunter is generally not a visionary. However, once they are pointed in the right direction, they are clever enough to improvise a tactical plan to achieve a strategic objective. They do not want to be told how to take the hill, just which hill needs to be taken.

At your adVenture, the hunter is the rainmaker, in the form of a Business Development Executive, VP of Sales or Corporate Development Officer. Once they are told the type of deal that is needed, they are capable of autonomously devising the appropriate tactics to get the deal done.

A typical Hunter's characteristics include:

  • Work hard
  • Driven to do right thing
  • Fast and furious
  • Under communicate - do not like to confer with or answer to the group
  • Excel under pressure
  • Emphasis on achieving goals - second guess their tactics at your peril
  • Deliver quantity over quality - close enough is okay
  • Work well outside the box


The Skinner makes the Hunter look good. When the Hunter brings back the kill, it is the Skinner who dresses the meat, tans the hides and preserves whatever is not initially eaten for the tribe to subsist upon during lean times.

The Skinner at your adVenture will likely take the form of the VP of Operations, VP of Professional Services or Chief Operating Officer. They ensure that your company delivers on the Hunters' promises by exceeding your partners' and customers' expectations.

A typical Skinner's characteristics include:

  • Work correctly
  • Driven to do things the right way
  • Slow and careful
  • Service oriented - want to meet stakeholders' needs within the organization
  • Over communicate - encourage meetings and agreement regarding goals
  • Quality over quantity - do things by the book
  • Work well inside the box


Shamans invent new tools and processes that improve the overall quality of life within the tribe. For instance, the Shaman will spend his days thinking of a better fishhook, a new tool for cleaning skins or searching for new medicinal plants to cure the tribe's ailments.

At your adVenture, the Shaman is often the Founder. They may also take the form of Chief Technical Officer, VP of Engineering or VP of Product. By whatever name, the Shaman is the person who devises and develops the innovations upon which your business is based.

A typical Shaman's characteristics include:

  • Work differently
  • Creative visionary
  • Communicate differently - requires careful listening
  • Seek a better way
  • Create quickly and freely
  • Tripped up by details
  • Prone to devise complicated solutions
  • Prize a solution's technical elegance over its functionality
  • Are unaware that a box exists


Every tribe needs a Chief, just like every adVenture needs a CEO. The Chief defines and communicates the tribe's strategic direction, such as a new valley to forage or a mountain retreat to escape the heat of summer. The Chief listens to the opinions of the other tribal members, makes decisions that impact everyone and ensures an adequate level of acceptance of such decisions to facilitate their ultimate success.

A typical Chief's characteristics include:

  • Work together
  • Shepherd the team toward its strategic goals
  • Slow and connected
  • Communicates clearly and supportively
  • Driven to maintain cohesion within the team
  • Indecisive
  • Prone to being railroaded
  • Defines the box

One of the best CEOs I worked with exhibited nearly all of the above characteristics. As a Hunter, I was frequently frustrated, as he was often slow to act. In his effort to keep harmony within the Core Team, he seemingly agreed with everyone, even people who held diametrically opposed opinions.

In retrospect, I now realize that his ability to sincerely empathize with everyone's respective positions, especially on difficult issues, was imperative in keeping our Core Team together during the numerous challenges we encountered on our road to a successful exit.

One of his favorite sayings infuriated me at the time, but I now appreciate its underlying wisdom, Some of the best decisions I ever made were the decisions I never made. Despite my Hunter-driven frustration at his hesitancy, more often than not, his resistance to making a snap decision proved to be prudent.

Tribal Elders

Tribal Elders spend their time sitting by the fire dozing and recounting the tribe's history. They cannot be counted on to do any heavy lifting nor are they in a position to execute the day-to-day tasks necessary for the tribe to thrive. However, they occasionally offer bits of sage advice that allow the tribe to avoid hardships and reap windfalls. As such, the wise Chief knows when to solicit their counsel and when to allow sleeping Elders to lie, as described more fully in Free Advice.

At your adVenture, the Tribal Elders are represented by your Board of Directors and Advisors. The Board Members likely have a varied and broad business history upon which to draw. They may be able to provide general guidance at certain pivotal points during your adVenture's journey. However, as noted in Your VC Is Not John Lennon, do not heed their advice blindly, as it is impossible for them to have your level of insight into the operational details of your adVenture.

Pop Quiz

Question: Which Tribal member is the most important?

Answer: All of them.

Without the Hunter, the Shaman's ideas would never be put into practice. Likewise, without the Skinner, much of the Hunter's efforts would be wasted. He might be able to feed himself, but he would not be able to sustain the tribe on his own.

Without the Shaman, neither the Hunter nor the Skinner would have the tools necessary to carry out their respective roles within the tribe. Without the Chief, the tribe would wander aimlessly, fighting among itself until the group eventually dispersed and the individual members were melded with other tribes with healthier cultures and a more focused sense of direction.

Balance is the key to a successful team. Thus, every member of your adVenture's Core Team is the most important member. Your Core Team is your startup's most important asset. Respect man's evolution and heed the tribal lessons of old. If you do, you may just end up on top of your industry's food chain.

So, what kind of tribal member are you? What types are you looking to hire and add to your tribe next?
Topics: guest teams
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Startup Branding: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs

By Dharmesh Shah on January 20, 2012

The following is a guest post by Mike Troiano. Mike is a former New York ad man turned venture-funded entrepreneur, now a Principal at Boston-based Holland-Mark. You can follow him on Twitter at @miketrap, and connect with him elsewhere through About Me.

1. What does startup branding really mean for an early-stage company? Is it just picking a name and a logo?

"Brand" is one of those words everybody uses and nobody really understands, so I'll start with a definition.

It's important for entrepreneurs to understand that their "Brand" is the collective emotional response to their product or service. A brand is not a logo, and it's certainly not a URL. Those things are the stimulus, while the brand is the response. It's something out there, in the hearts and minds of the people you hope to sell to.brand

So... Do I think it's important for startups to be thoughtful about the nature of the emotional response that might serve their interests, and try to build a graphic identity designed to elicit that response? Abso-freaking-lutely.

2. Any favorite startup examples that they think are particularly clueful about brand and drawing out the right emotional response?

Sure, a few come time mind right away:

Zipcar a brand we've played a role in since the beginning - isn't about urban lifetstyle, or being green, or collective commerce, really. From day one it's been about Freedom, from both the hassles of car ownership and car rental (Wheels when you want them.) Focus on that emotional value proposition has guided everything from brand identity to vehicle selection at the company, and Zipsters around the world have responded with not just loyalty, but advocacy.

Path 1.0 was a decent execution of an interesting idea, that you could derive more value from a smaller social graph of actual friends than you could from Facebook's comparatively industrial-sized cohort. Problem was, there wasn't anything in the original UI to inspire an emotional response, and the service foundered. While much has been made of the radical turnaround in user experience for v 2.0, for me the result of those improvements is a kind of easy intimacy on the mobile device, something that distinguishes Path from other networks, and is the root of user's newfound enthusiasm for the product.

Instagram is interesting because they got it so right in the product, and so wrong in the messaging. Does anybody really love Instagram because it offers Fast, beautiful photo sharing on the iPhone? Really? I think Instagram helps us notice and share more of what we find beautiful in the world. And I know that promoting it that way would help them grow faster.

3. Speaking of names, how do I pick a great name for my startup? Does it really matter all that much?

I've always thought it matters less than people think.

10% of names are great and that helps a business at the margin, and 10% of names are crap and that hurts a business at the margin. The implication is that 80% of names are not a material driver of brand impact or business success, so sometimes it's just best to get on with it.

For proof of this, there's a great story George Lois once told me, about the first time he heard about a client called "Xerox," in the 60's.

"It sounds like a Chinese laxative," he said. I bet it did to most people, and they did OK.

The point is you can make just about any name mean something to people with great product execution over time. Spend some time getting the tactical fundamentals right - url-friendly, sticky, distinctive, that kind of thing then pick something 3 of your cooler friends think is decent, and move on.

4. What about logos? Can I just hack something together? Use a crowdsourcing service like 99Designs? Or is that a waste of time?

I think logos and the graphical identities of which they are a part matter a lot. They're something the West coast and NY-based guys seem to care about and do way better than Boston-based startups, and that's always bugged me.

Look... in the early going perception is reality for a startup. So is it worth investing a little dough to encourage the perception that you're professionals; that this is a serious and professional undertaking; that you care about design and brand response? I guess there are a few businesses where it isn't. But for the vast majority I'd say it absolutely is, that it's worth investing in a professional identity.

If you're among this vast majority, you want to work toward something smart, not just something pretty. What I mean by that is you want to start by being thoughtful about your brand meaning the emotional response you want your product to elicit as well as any practical ideas or metaphors that will help people understand what you do. Armed with that you should sit down with a reasonably-priced freelance designer to brainstorm some treatments, and keep at it until you hit on something you and others seem to like.

In my experience great design comes from the collaboration between someone with a clear vision for a problem (a thoughtful entrepreneur,) and a professional with the talent and craft to create something great (a real designer.) You just don't get that interaction using the crowdsourcing guys, which is why I think you get what you pay for there.

5. Any tips on where to find a great freelance designer for a startup logo? And, what would you consider reasonably priced?

Try checking the portfolio sites, like Carbonmade. Find someone whose work you admire, then call them to talk about your project. Look for someone with whom you have chemistry, who can bring ideas to the table and not just pictures. And take theiry're advice when they offer it they do this for a living.

Expect to pay $50-75/hour, and to be glad you did.

6. How do I decide what category my startup falls into? Is it better to find an existing category, or blaze the trail of a new one?

The short answer is, it depends, but on balance it's better to pick a category that already exists.

From a marketing communications standpoint, a category is a frame of reference for the buyer. If you think of it that way the value of one becomes clear, as does the time, hassle, and expense of creating your own.

That's not to say that sometimes it doesn't make sense to create a new category, and I've used HubSpot as an example of a company for which it was necessary. For entrepreneurs enamored of that idea, I often follow my HubSpot observation with the question, "So how's your book coming?" That question is usually met by a blank stare, but the truth is that level of commitment to IP is what it's going to take to create a category.

If the opportunity cost of doing that is too much for you, just hold your nose, pick a category, and focus on communicating your distinction within that category in a way that resonates with your target.

7. How much does good branding matter when trying to raise capital? Is smart money really fooled by that kind of this? Will I look foolish for having invested in brandinged in one?

I'll say it again: Perception is reality for an early-stage startup. One can argue  that the world would be a better place if this were not so, if Excel drove more decisions than PowerPoint. But that argument is a waste of time, my friends.

VCs invest in the companies that win over their hearts and their minds, usually in that order. If you're trying to raise money it's important to remember this, and to invest the time and energy you need to court a little loving, and not just a good first look scorecard.

And the same is certainly true for customers, so sooner or later you're going to need to spruce up a bit and look like a brand they want to be a part of. Why not start now?

Topics: guest marketing
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