How to Engineer the Right Team for Your Startup

In a startup it’s hard to find the right mix of people. Everyone says that first 20 hires will define the tenor of your entire company, so it’s essential that you get the right people early on. But who are the right people? How can you evaluate someone’s hustle before you’ve had a chance to work with them?

We at AttorneyFee have been extremely fortunate with our most recent round of engineering hires. We brought on four amazing engineers, each of whom brought unique talents to the table. In the first two weeks on the job, they managed to gut a significant amount of the inefficiency out of our web app, migrate our entire project to AWS, develop new telephony apps to support business goals, design beautiful interfaces for internal tools, build out an RIA dashboard for our legal advertisers and engineer an environment that will enable us to comb through millions of legal documents to extract useful information.

All of this had me thinking about engineering a great team, and the secret behind it. Here it is: Great teams are not built with money. It sounds simple, but there is actually a great deal of profundity packed into that little adage.

Venture capitalist and entrepreneur Tony Hsieh famously offers $2,000 to each potential new hire to incentivize them not to take the job. The idea is that if they take the money and run, they weren’t right for the position in the first place. When I first heard that story, I thought it’s cute and smart, and only viable for a well-funded company. I’ve now come to realize that Tony’s recruiting approach is necessary for any organization.

This relates back to an idea I first encountered in "Predictably Irrational," by Dan Ariely. Ariely said there are two realms of interactions: market interactions and social interactions. Market interactions are driven by market mechanics, while social interactions are driven by social mechanics. Ariely showed off some amazing research which demonstrates that when you take an interaction from the social realm and then apply to it the patina of market interactions, the participants to that transaction immediately switch gears and approach the interaction through a market lens.

For example, lots of people are willing to volunteer 10 hours per week for a soup kitchen, but if you offered to pay them $7 per hour for their service, they would insist their time is worth more money. While this may be true, the fact remains that if they were willing to provide services for zero dollars, they should certainly be willing to provide services for $7 (7>0). But they aren’t. The reason is that they switch mentalities to market mechanics, and expect compensation commensurate with market standards.

What this means for startups (and employers generally) is they have to resonate within the social realm if they want to build a winning team. I’m not saying you shouldn’t pay your employees -- the AttorneyFee engineering team is compensated quite well, even by Silicon Valley standards. Rather, I’m saying if the only thing your team gets from working at your company is money, they will engage with the company on a purely market level. When the clock hits five, they’re out. When sacrifices must be made, they’re gone.

If you want to truly motivate your team, you have to give them something to believe in. At AttorneyFee, we believe in access to justice. It started out as a convenient banner to make us sound eleemosynary, but over time it really seeped into the marrow of our organization. Major decisions at AttorneyFee are now guided by the touchstone of access to justice, which is made manifest to everyone who gets involved.

Looking back at the new hires in the engineering department, each of them has their own cause that they believe in. The tremendous productivity that they have demonstrated in such short time can only be explained by conviction. They are not working for money – they are working for a cause.

So my advice to fellow startup entrepreneurs is to pursue a mission. Don’t just read this as a business strategy -- really dig deep and ask yourself what cause you’re passionate about. Anyone can build a business -- it takes a real leader to build a movement. Once you understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, great talent will follow.

Richard Komaiko is the co-founder of, an angel funded startup seeking to promote transparency around the cost of legal services. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Illinois, and has studied Chinese language and culture at the University of Chicago. and the Beijing Institute of Education. He is proficient in English, Mandarin, Spanish and Hebrew.

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