Helen Yu & Finding the Right Sherpa to Take Your Startup to the Next Level

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Business strategist Helen Yu offers advice on how to build and grow the team that will finally take you to the summit.


Kim Folsom

This is part two of a three-part series based on a conversation with business strategist and author Helen Yu. 

Building a company is like climbing a mountain. It’s the central analogy of Helen Yu’s book, Ascend Your Start-up. You need help to reach the highest heights. You need someone who has skills you might not have. In fact, you need a lot of people who have skills you don’t have. You have to recognize what you don’t know and fill in the gaps with good hires and by surrounding yourself with people who can help you achieve your goals. 


Finding your Sherpa

“I had to hire a Sherpa because I had never climbed a mountain before heading out for Mount Everest Base Camp,” Helen said. “The purpose of hiring a Sherpa is to get someone who can guide you through the journey… I find that sometimes founders hire people but they may not listen to them because they don’t know what to listen to. You don’t just hire people, you also have to listen to them and know when to listen, and what to listen for.”


As companies grow, hiring becomes more difficult. You’re no longer the proverbial three guys in a garage. You need research and different skill sets. But how do you know who you can trust? Who has the right fit for your culture? And if they’ll be able to truly do the job you hire them for and meet your company goals?


Helen’s advice for this is to get back to basics and remember why you got on this path to begin with. What problem were you trying to solve? A startup is a journey. As you go through different stages, you have to evolve, and you’ll do so with different people by your side.


If you’re an early startup, you’re trying to go through the product market fit. You may need someone stronger with product marketing, for example. Or your Sherpa may be someone who can really help define a product in an undefined market. So, you need someone who knows how to do market research to understand where you’re at with the product and how you take it to the next level. 


But once you get into the middle stage, the voice of the customer stage, you need someone who is super strong with customer experience. So, you find a Sherpa with that expertise. 


Too often, founders hire people without the right expertise because they don’t know what they’re looking for, Helen said. “They don’t know what they don’t know and then they just hire someone because they’re really under the pressure of meeting a quota or meeting a revenue target, but they couldn’t figure out which disconnect they have along the way yet.”


The solution? Take your time as you’re building your company. Don’t just look at a candidate on a paper. Look at their track record. Look at what they’ve done in the past. Talk to their previous company. Put in your due diligence. Make sure you understand where you want to go as a company. Who’s on your team right now? What skillset is missing to achieve your goal? 


Culture fit is important too. If you have all type A personalities on your team because you were all founders, you need people with a complimentary skill set. 


There are four types of people you’ll need for any successful company.



The person who can see what does not exist today. A lot of founders have this skill. They are the idea people. 



The person who can inspire the rest of the team and then rally up the support to drive alignment cross functionally. 



The executor is the operator who can really get things done. If you can’t execute on your ideas, you don’t have a business. 



The person who can see things or uncover disconnects that other people may not see. Building a company of yes men is not a way to succeed. 


Those are the four types of people you need on your team to really gain traction toward your goals. You can’t have all visionaries. Then you wouldn’t get anything done. As a founder, you have to know what your own strengths are, what you’re good at, and then where you need other people to come in and fill in the blanks for the things you can’t do.  


“Founders have a tendency to hire people they grew up with or their friends sometimes,” Helen said. “And then as they go through a certain journey where it’s time to cut it off and bring in more experienced people to work with them, that’s where they struggle the most.”


Choosing a board of directors

Helen said she often sees founders add people to their boards based on investor recommendations. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, but you want to add people who can truly add value to your business. “If I were them,” said Helen, “I would add independent board members who can really add value to their business rather than just someone from investors because investors oftentimes don’t necessarily have the operating experience. They cannot give you advice on operating procedures.”


A more inclusive team with different backgrounds can also help accelerate your growth, especially when your target audience is more diverse. Having an inclusive board of directors is going to get you a lot more mileage than if you just bring in people with similar backgrounds or friends you’ve grown up with. While okay to start, these types of relationships can be an impediment to growth in the long run. 

In part three, we’ll talk about how to get contracts with larger companies and how to keep going, no matter what summits you ascend. 


Kim Folsom is the founder and CEO of Founders First Capital CDC, which has helped accelerate the success of hundreds of small, service-based, business-to-business companies since 2015.

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