Unlocking the unicorn within: 6 attributes every startup’s workforce should have

We have entered the era of startup unicorns that are redefining how industries operate – but, like any business, these ventures are built by strong, high-performing teams.

It won't be an overstatement to say that 2021 was the year of startups. There were more entries to India’s unicorn club than had existed until that point; the number of Indian startups with a valuation of $1 billion or more increased from 33 in 2020 to 77 by 2021.

These startups succeeded when, presumably, thousands of similar ventures offering practically the same services and solutions at comparable price points failed. Why? Once the most obvious answers - more funding, better industry connections, higher user adoption - are exhausted, we are left with, perhaps, the most accurate reason: the team.

This is a truism that any entrepreneur worth their salt knows: building great teams is essential to building a great venture. However, what does it take to be a unicorn and contribute towards creating a billion-dollar business?

Here are six key attributes that a startup's workforce must have to drive long-term success:

1. Execution obsession

The startup trajectory comprises three key components: idea, strategy, and execution. Although having the right idea and strategy in place is essential to get a new business venture off the ground, it is the execution that can take a startup from one level to the next and set it apart from its competitors.

The most successful Indian unicorns such as Paytm, OYO, and Ola are prime examples of this approach. The business models and value propositions of these unicorns were hardly unique in the market. What differentiated them from the also-rans, however, was the pace, scale, and efficiency with which they executed their ideas and strategies.

This is why startups looking for hypergrowth need employees obsessed with execution. By tapping into their drive to get results, startups can test ideas, business models, and strategies in the market, enabling them to find the perfect growth formula faster than it otherwise would.

2. Specialism over generalism

When starting out, startups need multifunctional people who can do a bit of everything. However, as the business grows, the need evolves from all-weather generalists to specialists who bring expertise, precision, and industry knowledge to the table.

Having these specialists on board can help startups in two main ways. To begin with, they can identify gaps within existing processes and workflows, as well as recommend best practices that can help startups streamline and optimise execution capabilities. Their proven domain track record also motivates teams to perform better and smarter. All of these factors are essential to achieving the kind of growth that aspiring unicorns target.

3. Resourcefulness

One of the non-negotiable attributes of a potential unicorn's workforce is the ability to find creative solutions to business challenges by assessing the situation, recognising possible interventions, and selecting the most optimal course of action. This resourcefulness comes in handy when a startup faces an unforeseen or disadvantageous situation into an opportunity.

Zoho has done it regularly at Salesforce's Dreamforce conventions, targeting the captive business audience at the event with guerilla marketing techniques.

Peanut butter brand Justin's founder, Justin Gold, assembled his own apparatus to manufacture the peanut butter recipe that multiple factories said couldn't be done. It is no coincidence that such resourcefulness has paid dividends for these startups; after all, where there is a will, there will be a way.

4. Internal locus of control

When does a startup succeed in the market and deliver better results? When it is aware of its strengths and capabilities and knows, in detail, what it can do better and what it cannot do. This ability, as an organisation, only develops when its employees possess an internal locus of control.

People who have this trait often don't have to depend on instructions from their seniors; they know their responsibilities, make their decisions confidently, and value time.

In a 2018 report, it was observed that employees ranking high on internal locus also tend to exhibit high levels of innovativeness - a crucial trait for any startup to excel in today's ever-changing marketplace. This sense of ownership in the workforce also creates an environment where new ideas are explored, evaluated, and implemented all the time.

5. Optimalist > Perfectionist

Businesses aspire to the idea of perfection: the “perfect” product, the “perfect” marketing strategy, and the “perfect” workforce. This pursuit of perfection, while useful to define aspirational goals, is also illusory. No one thing or employee is perfect all of the time; there usually is something or someone better in the market.

This is why, to achieve its dreams of becoming a unicorn, a start-up must build a team of optimalists. Clear-eyed and focused, optimalists accept reality as it is, not how they would like it to be, before working on the most optimal way of achieving the closest approximation of their perfect dreamscape.

This allows them an edge over perfectionists - who can often spend an inordinate amount of time, energy, and resources for marginal gains - by knowing when to move on from a project or idea. Startups with optimalists in their ranks also learn better and faster from their mistakes to hypercharge their growth trajectory.

6. Resilience

Startups dabble with risks that can deliver exponential returns, but these risks don’t always end in triumph - clients are lost; growth plans backfire; products and business models fail to find market traction; investors shy away from making financial commitments; or unforeseeable crises, such as the pandemic, can make established plans and strategies redundant. The ability to bounce back from such setbacks, adapt to them, and learn how to do better is what differentiates a successful startup from those that fail.

This resilience is also essential in the startup’s workforce – from the founding team down to the junior-most employee. It should come as a surprise that some of the most successful startups were born of failure.

Odeo’s failure led to the founding of Twitter while lessons from SocialNet’s inability to cut it in the market powered the rise of LinkedIn – all because their workforce refused to give up on creating something valuable.

If the data from the last few years are anything to go by, we have entered the era of startup unicorns that are redefining how industries operate – but, like any business, these ventures are built by strong, high-performing teams. The attributes mentioned above are integral to such teams, as they set about differentiating themselves in the market and achieving stellar growth.

Edited by Kanishk Singh

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)