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What Startups Can Learn From Content Teams About Smarter Hiring

Are you building your team with a clear outcome in mind? Or are you filling spots in an org chart, hoping bad days never come?

When I joined my first tech startup after leaving the media world, a few things sent my head spinning.

First were the acronyms—OKR, KPI, ROI, CRM, MBO, LTV. It was like being dropped into a group chat that spoke in a code I wasn’t cool enough to understand.

The second was the hiring. At the scrappy news site I’d run, every hire was made out of necessity. But as soon as our Series A round closed at the tech startup, a parade of new characters started emerging from the elevator: the BDR manager, the UX guru, the chief of staff, the scrum master. Our headcount increased 5x overnight. We were knocking down walls. We were growing! Awed, I asked one of our top execs about the hiring strategy; he shrugged—it was pretty simple. These were the roles our board said we should have.

A few years and hundreds of employees later, the layoffs came. We were bloated, so it was time to “right-size” the ship. Secretly, another top exec told me he wasn’t sure why we hired half these people in the first place.

I’d soon learn that in tech, this is a tale as old as time—or at least as old as the internet. Companies raise money, hire aggressively against an org model that fits all the best practices, and then make cuts when growth slows or economic conditions change. This happens when economic conditions are good, and even more so during downturns like the one we're in right now: 17,000 tech workers were laid off last month amidst economic fears and a tightening market for VC cash.

In my mid-20s, I assumed our execs had all the answers. But a decade later, I’ve come to believe there’s an opportunity to rethink the way we build companies. And we should start by learning how the best content teams work.

Starting with a mission-driven outcome

Whether someone is building a content program as a standalone business or as a division inside a brand, I always give them the same piece of advice: Have a strong mission.

While company missions too often float in the clouds (“we’re elevating the world’s consciousness!”) a content program’s mission statement is rooted in the ground. It should answer a simple question: How are you going to help your audience like no one else can?

If you’re targeting a business audience, how are you going to make them smarter and help them have a more successful career? If you’re targeting consumers, how are you going to help them enjoy their passions to the fullest—whether that’s sports or wellness or dressing their pets in stylish wigs. (Don’t judge.)

The mission of Hubspot’s content program is to teach marketers how to master inbound marketing; Bank of the West’s is to educate consumers on how where they put their money impacts the environment. That mission-driven outcome is where you begin—not with a project scope or headcount. In turn, that determines what talent you need for your team.

Building a minimum viable team

Some content leaders start with a scope in mind—I want to publish 10 times a day!—and immediately start hiring. But the truth is, even the best content leaders have no freaking idea what’s going to work at the beginning.

They do upfront audience and SEO research, but they know that content is a never-ending experiment. Audience and SEO research can help, but you’ll still have to go through a constant cycle of creating content, engaging your audience on the channels where they spend time, and optimizing—doubling down on what works and ditching what doesn’t.

Because the talent and resources you'll need is likely to change over time, you want to keep your core team as small as possible. My colleagues on the product team at A.Team call this a Minimum Viable Team, a term I’m going to steal. Usually, a minimum viable content team starts with a full-time editor or two, who you supplement with freelance writers, videographers, and designers based on the content you’re creating in a given moment.

If you discover your audience wants a podcast, that calls for a much different team than if you’re launching a digital publication or a video series. Maintaining a minimum viable team gives you maximum agility as you figure out the best way to reach your audience for each cycle through the flywheel.

Think of it like hosting a dinner party for an important group of people. You’re only getting the ingredients you need to make a particular dish, based on what you know they like. In contrast, the hiring strategy at my first VC-backed startup was more like buying a ton of groceries and then deciding what to cook. You come home with a bunch of tomato paste and pasta, so you decide to make bolognese; we hired a bunch of data scientists, so we decided to build an analytics product. (Even if we were directly competing with Google Freaking Analytics).

Did our audience want bolognese? Or analytics? That seemed like a secondary consideration. We didn’t want to waste the resources.

Reimagining the way we build companies

In the few months I’ve been at A.Team, I’ve noticed a trend: our most successful customers are operating like content teams.

Take Blank Street—the tech-enabled coffee shop that’s growing like crazy thanks to a delightful ordering and pickup experience through its app (and crazy good coffee). Two years ago, it started with a Minimum Viable Team of a PM and developer to prototype the app, optimized based on user feedback, and then added additional developers and designers over time as they learned which features they needed to build.

Maintaining a minimum viable team gives you maximum agility.

I've seen everyone from startups like Blank Street and IRL to growth stage companies like Apprentice to enterprise companies like McGraw Hill—which is using the MVT model to build like a startup and reimagine the future of education on mobile—reimagine how they build their teams using this approach. It's become so in-demand amongst the product leaders we work with at A.Team that we just shipped a new feature, called Team Extensions, to empower them to scale up-and-down their teams instantly.

The benefits of this model are clear: Your company stays financially nimble and can map every dollar you spend on talent to a major outcome.

As the tech world grapples with more layoffs, this model is a fundamental shift worth considering. Are you building your team with a clear outcome in mind? Or are you filling spots in an org chart, hoping bad days never come?

I'm the co-author of a best-selling book called The Storytelling Edge and the Head of Content & Comms at A.Team. If you liked this story, subscribe to this newsletter to get awesome articles about communication, content strategy, storytelling, and the future of work.

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