Part 2: What Does It Take To Build A Team?
Once I had decided to pour my life into solving the “use of cash” problem, I started mapping out how to go about it. Top of the list of questions I noted down was related to the team —
Who would be great to bring on to the team?
What roles needed to be filled immediately?
and most importantly: how the hell was I going to pay this team?
Sure, I had saved up some money and I was prepared to invest it in the business but I knew it wouldn’t take me too far. Paga was an idea that I knew from the get-go would require venture financing — but before raising money, before being able to offer an attractive salary, how would I attract the caliber of talent I was looking for?
During my time at Deloitte as a consultant and at Cisco’s venture capital and acquisition team, I had come to appreciate the potential of small teams achieving great outsized results. At Cisco, I had also come to appreciate the power of focus at startups, and why Cisco respected small companies who were focused on solving one or two problems.
I knew that key to achieving the vision of Paga would be to bring together a brilliant team of people who are highly motivated and energized about the vision, and for us to stay focused on solving a few problems.
And so, as I tapped into my network, I narrowed down my criteria for team selection:
- Was this an incredibly smart person whose intellect I respected?
- Was this someone I would enjoy having a beer with, knowing we’d have to spend lots of hours together?
- Were they excited about the vision?
This formula worked for me.
I worked on “Project Paga” as I called it at the time, for six months full time before our first full-time hire, Aisha Bashir. I had met Aisha after returning to Lagos and we became friends. She had graduated Stanford undergrad and spent her youth service at Accenture. I shared with Aisha the vision I had for Paga and in our various conversations, her interest and passion for the idea was clear. She checked off the other boxes very clearly for me, so it was a no brainer to ask her to join Paga post her youth service as a Strategy Associate.
The other person that kept coming to mind for me as I pondered candidates was Jay Alabraba. I had met Jay at Stanford Business School and we’d hung out socially afterward. Jay had recently moved back to Nigeria and in that process, we had reconnected. He was certainly someone I had come to respect his intellect and I could tell he was very strong at building relationships. It dawned on me that he would be excellent at Business Development so I decided to reach out to him. In those early days, I was quite secretive about Paga, so I invited Jay to one of the dingiest spots in Victoria Island in Lagos just so we would have privacy to talk. The depth of questions that came from him showed me he was intrigued, and I offered him a role as Director of Business Development. He asked me to give him time to consider.
How the hell was I going to pay this team?
My focus in the first set of discussions with Aisha and Jay about joining was on the vision and idea. I wanted to be absolutely sure they had bought into the idea. Was there a spark? Were they excited to embark on an unknown adventure? However, I had to make it clear to them that I didn’t have the money to pay them a market salary yet and at some point, they would get equity in the business, although I could not tell them what that would be.
In other words, I was asking them to put a lot of faith in this, and in me.
When both Aisha and Jay said yes I was thrilled! I had our lawyers draw up a formal contract with them — we agreed and signed employment contracts for what would be their normal salary levels, and then a side agreement that we will actually pay a reduced salary and owe them the difference payable upon raising our Series A, a timeframe which was also unclear at this point.
I asked each person to give some thought to what they could live on and come back to me with a perspective on the minimum they could earn monthly. They did so and we locked in the agreements. Aisha joined in November 2009 and Jay agreed to start engaging with us but needed time to wrap up at his current place of work. He joined full time in January 2010.
For the sake of simplicity and transparency, I ended up using the same structure for my own employment contract and took exactly the same pay as Jay. I figured there was no need to argue with future investors on how I determined my pay. I also used the same structure for our next two hires at Paga.
I was so happy people were willing to sacrifice to come on the journey with me. It was very exciting and I committed myself to never let them down.
During the initial 7 month period before Aisha joined and for a few months after, I also had two other people who worked with me on various aspects of ‘Project Paga’ but for varying reasons chose not to come on full-time.
Looking back, I think the approach I took for hiring the early team generally worked and there are a few nuggets to take away:
- Be careful about giving job titles — In the early days, you just don’t know what roles people will grow into. Focus less on the titles and more on getting the job done and establishing a great team rapport. Over time the roles will become clear. Though I brought Jay in for Business Development, we quickly realized we needed someone to be 100% on the agent business. It was not something he had done before but he took it on and did excellently setting up our agent business.
- Be transparent — From the first conversations, I was always clear on our ability to pay. Moving on from there I have always been transparent on our funding process. Not to alarm people about getting their salaries but so we all know our cash runway. As the business has grown I continue to be transparent — at every company meeting, I share our summary numbers — revenue, gross profit, OPEX, EBITDA — so people know how we are doing as a business and can see how their job ties into the results.
- Get creative on salary costs and sign contracts — Knowing I could not afford people yet, I got creative on structuring a win-win. Also, I kept my word of granting future shares in the business. By enshrining these conditions down on paper, by the time we were raising our Series A, there were no questions raised by our investors — we had documented agreements and they approved the loan repayments.
- Have fun along the way — The startup journey is long and can be tiring. Take time to bond with the team outside of work. You do not need to be best friends but being able to loosen up socially helps with rapport. Celebrate birthdays, have some TGIF drinks and celebrate your victories together as a team.
Ten years on and two of the first four on Paga are still on the journey.
Each day I am grateful for Jay — for his partnership, leadership, candor even with difficult conversations, faith in me, and commitment to the vision. It is truly a pleasure working with him and I’ll always be glad he took the leap.
As a company, we continue to grow and bring on more people. Today we have over 460 staff and are much more structured than those early days. However, the tenets we look for are still similar. Rather than looking for someone you can “have a beer” with, we look for culture fit (although we have plenty of beers together as a team!). Culture is “how you do things” and over time, we have defined the “Paga way” and the ideal values of our team members, and if you don’t fit, it doesn’t mean you won’t do great work elsewhere, it simply means Paga isn’t the right place for you.
The rest still stands — you most certainly need to be incredibly smart, and passionately keyed into our vision to work at Paga!