If you’ve ever watched a movie or TV show about the early days of a startup like Unroll Me, whether fictional or not, you’ll generally find a familiar story arc. First, someone has an idea. That idea is met by resistance from some and enthusiasm from others. After initial struggles, the idea is refined, improved, and whoever had the idea takes center stage as the star of the show.
His or her journey—their vision, struggles, and problems—becomes the central theme of the story arc, whether you’re watching Jobs, the film about Apple’s founding story, or Silicon Valley, a TV series that chronicles the story of a fictional start-up. Everyone else fades into the background as if their contributions were meaningless. In the translation from real-life to the screen, these stories lose their nuance and the success of the company seems to hinge solely on one or a few founders of the company.
Unroll Me and Jojo Hedaya’s All-Star Team
What this characterization of startups leaves out is the fact that success in the world of startups requires more than a single person’s skills and expertise. In reality, as you’ll see with the story of how Unroll Me’s co-founder, Jojo Hedaya, assembled an all-star team to help build his company, the success of a startup is as dependent on its early employees as it is on its founders.
One of the most difficult things for any startup, which you don’t see on the screen, is attracting the right kind of quality talent needed to make their vision a reality. After all, startups—especially in the early days—simply can’t afford to pay top dollar for their employees. Also, from the employee’s perspective, even if they’re okay with accepting a below-market salary, there’s also a fairly decent chance that the startup will fail, leaving them jobless. That means that startups often lose out to larger, established public companies who vacuum up all the best talent available.
Unroll Me, an app that scans email users’ inboxes for subscription emails, compiles those emails, and organizes them into a single, consolidated email to allow for easy, intuitive unsubscribing faced this exact talent problem in the very beginning. Fortunately, co-founder Jojo Hedaya quickly showed that he had a knack for assembling an all-star team out of candidates that the traditional job market had overlooked. Unroll Me has since been acquired by Slice Technologies, a subsidiary of Rakuten Intelligence, but it’s worth looking at Unroll Me’s founding story, particularly in terms of how Hedaya assembled a team of all-star contributors with a limited budget.
Finding Undervalued Talent
Like the legendary baseball general manager Billy Beane, Hedaya didn’t have the luxury of a large budget to assemble the talent he needed to turn the vision for Unroll Me into a reality. In a recent Medium post, Hedaya explains how he found “the attributes that make for a good team/skill fit but may be overlooked in the job market.” One of the early hires of Unroll Me was a software engineer who had previously worked for a restaurant group, Hedaya explained.
This person didn’t have a traditional background in software engineering, but he was taking classes and learning how to do the work. Hedaya saw this person’s motivation and willingness to learn and hired him even though he was still in the middle of his learning curve. As time went on, this person became, as Hedaya put it, “one of the star members of the team.”
Managing the Team
In addition to the importance of finding strong, undervalued candidates, one of the things most media portrayals leave out about startups is how critical it is for startups to have a well-managed team. It’s simply not enough to have the right people, because if those people aren’t all cooperating and working for the same goal, time and resources will inevitably get wasted. And, since startups need to make maximum use of their time and resources before they run out, knowing how to manage and get the most out of employees becomes equally as important as the quality of the business idea itself.
Unroll Me, thanks to Hedaya’s expertise managing people, had the benefit of a well-managed team and it paid off well for them. Even though the team was small, because they functioned so efficiently, they were able to execute well on their marketing initiatives, roll out critical new updates, and consistently improve upon the product.
Just as importantly, because the Unroll Me team had strong, intentional leadership, even when times were tough—as they often are for startups—they were able to stick together. In fact, after co-founders Hedaya and Josh Rosenwald had met with several investors, none of which were interested in Unroll Me at the time, the team simply got back to work. Before long, they’d fixed many of the issues that those early investors had expressed concerns about and soon Unroll Me was fielding multiple offers from investors.
Giving Credit Where Credit is Due
To be sure, founders who start tech companies like Unroll Me are worth admiring. These are the people that create products that change our personal and business lives. To be successful, founders like Jojo Hedaya have to be extremely dedicated, talented, and tough.
But that doesn’t mean we should forget about the many hands that—behind the scenes—are just as integral to the success of startups as their founders. Fortunately for the early employees at Unroll Me, their leader recognized this. When Hedaya and Rosenwald were in talks with other companies about a potential acquisition, one of their top requirements was that the entire Unroll Me team be retained by whatever company acquiring them.
As evidence of their commitment to this requirement, their first deal actually fell through because the acquirer wasn’t willing to take on Hedaya’s team. Perhaps if more founders showed that sort of dedication to their employees, both when times get tough and when things are going well, we’d see more movies and shows about the brilliant minds that come on early and help turn innovative visions into useful realities.