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Diary of a Social Venture Start-up: Building Your Team

If you've been reading this column over the last few weeks, you've learned what makes a strong business plan and how to take one for a test drive. This time around, we're going to talk a bit about something more concrete-an element that is absolutely vital to getting your business off the ground: People.

Once you've got your idea, you have to find the right folks to make it happen. Putting a team together might be the hardest part of starting a business. You'll need to find the perfect blend of skill sets and dispositions; people with complementary (but not redundant) expertise; people who can argue passionately without reaching for the nearest sharp object.

There's an old Aaron Sorkin line I go back to any time I need to put a team together: "If you're dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you're smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you." Which is to say, the team you assemble shouldn't simply execute your vision; they should build and improve upon it.

To get started, you should assess your own limitations. Not great at something? Either learn quickly, hire someone who is, or outsource. Understand the difference between hobby and expertise. If someone has done some freelance design work, they can probably be trusted to dummy up a few business cards on the cheap, but you should still use a pro to design a website. Likewise, a few accounting courses might help with initial bookkeeping, but it's not the same as a good CFO.

In this Entrepreneur article, Stever Robbins gives a fantastic outline of what to look for when crafting an executive team. If your idea deals at all with the web, I highly recommend Micah Elliott's take. And while salary and stock certainly play a role in acquiring top talent, remember that you have one key advantage-you're doing good. If your idea is inspiring, you're going to find people who want to help. Don't get me wrong: Talent always comes at a cost. But that cost might be significantly less than expected if you can get someone to believe in your mission.

So where do you find these amazing, like-minded, change-driven individuals? I, for one, hate networking, but I draw a distinction between networking and meeting people. Meeting people, I love. Find a room of fun, interesting people and you could end up with a friend, a business partner, even a date. Over the last handful of years, I've been fortunate enough to meet a wonderful group of brilliant people. And despite the fact that these people were friends long before they were "contacts," they've come to provide invaluable insight on issues ranging from finance to technology to the mindset of the philanthropist.

Conferences are great places to meet people. One of my favorites is The Feast, hosted by New York-based innovators alldaybuffet. "We wanted to create something that was more than just the social entrepreneurship community talking to itself," offers co-founder Jerri Chou. "We've gathered a diverse, interdisciplinary community of creatives, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and business leaders in order to create a new dialogue surrounding how to do good better."

For this year's conference, they've also devised an inventive microsponsorship system, offering applications for a limited number of $99 tickets, subsidized by attendees who have chosen to contribute additional funds. "As social entrepreneurs ourselves, we know how hard it is to afford a conference," says Chou. "The people on the ground launching companies don't always have hundreds of dollars to spend toward making the meaningful connections they need. Besides, we need the doers most of all. For us, this is a movement; we're trying to make it as inclusive and empowering as possible."

If you're on the West coast, Opportunity Green is an amazing chance to learn about how leading brands like Whole Foods, Patagonia, and Toyota are eschewing business as usual in order to serve as catalysts for positive change. Also be sure to check out SoCap09 for two days of interesting discussion from a social capital perspective, plus a novel third day, the topics for which will be determined by attendees.

Of course, if you're looking for something a little more low-key (and a little more low-cost), you could always Jelly. Jellies are casual coworking sessions available in more than 20 cities. You just show up with a laptop, sit down in a room with a bunch of strangers, and get down to business. Granted, Jellies aren't social venture-specific, but who knows? You just might meet that programmer/designer/writer/collaborator you've been missing.

The takeaway: Get out there. Meet people, make friends, and see what happens. Putting together a successful team might be the most difficult part of launching a venture, but it's just about the most important. Examine any successful organization and you'll quickly realize that the kind of company you create has a whole lot to do with the kind of company you keep.

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