Gene pool engineering for entrepreneurs: Engineering the gene pool (4/11)

The goal of gene pool engineering is first to create a culture where multiple people engage in problem solving, and team members share best practices from previous organizations and a diverse set of backgrounds for the specific problems being addressed. More than this, the hires must not only add strengths, but also help minimize risks through their diverse previous experiences. It is easy to hire to boost a team’s strengths without addressing a team’s weaknesses. The key goal is to understand all the nuances of an industry and have a full map of all the issues before one starts to disrupt them: what has been done before, what has been tried before, did it work or fail and why. Having a gene pool engineered team for all this past history (both the key requirements and the opportunities as well as failed strategies to meet the requirements) allows one to mix all the industry knowledge with the new ideas the founders usually bring. The resulting diverse “soup of experiences” creates a larger pool of problem-solving ideas beyond better understanding of the industry one wants to disrupt and increases the likelihood that an organization will make superior decisions with respect to the specific innovation it wants to encourage and the risks it wants to manage without “group think or naïve think,” both important failure modes. Given, within start-up companies, big technology challenges require multiple iterations and a bit of luck, an agile and diverse organization is critical to problem-solving. The same concept holds for evolving business models that require constant adjustment and new ideas. In essence, we believe management of change, be it innovation, risk management or rapid business conditions change require a new style of recruiting that goes beyond the functional skills of the individual to consideration of team diversity, experience diversity and dynamics. Fundamentally we believe that a team can be “precisely engineered” through this “gene pool engineering” process to manage the risks AND to take advantage of opportunities to create disruption without running afoul of key requirements of the industry.

The goal of gene pool engineering is first to create a culture where multiple people engage in problem solving, and team members share best practices from previous organizations and a diverse set of backgrounds for the specific problems being addressed.

The process for gene pool engineering is as follows:


  1. Identify the five largest risks in a project, environment or innovation.
  2. Define the skill-set and experiences necessary to address those risks
  3. For each risk, locate the five Centers of Excellence both inside and outside the industry for that specific risk. A center of excellence could be a company but often one wants people who have solved similar problems in different industries. Which company has solved this kind of problem before independent of whether they are in your industry or not? Try and identify 3-5 companies that addressed each risk.
  4. List the top three or four experts at each Center of Excellence. Who worked on the problem in the companies you identified in #3? Try and find 3-5 names at each of 3-5 companies you have identified above. The list then results in a list of up to twenty interesting candidates qualified to address each risk but come from different companies and hopefully different industries.
  5. Contact candidates within that “gene pool” for recruiting and hire 2-3 people who have diverse backgrounds and are qualified to address each of the risks they are targeted at. In the end, you should have a diverse team TUNED or ENGINEERED to the specific risks your company faces. In addition, hopefully you have engineered in enough diversity to both understand all the solutions to that problem that have already been tried in and outside your industry. Here, it is important to not only get the right skills, but also to get them from different companies, industries, experiences, and ages – along our suggested dimensions of diversity.
  6. Repeat the process above for the five largest “opportunities” for upside in the project. Running a startup is not only about combating risks. This is why, either in parallel or after this risk-tuned hiring process, the team leaders should also engage in an opportunity-tuned one. The process remains exactly the same, but the target (opportunity instead of risk) changes. These opportunities could be emerging from inside or outside the team. Internally, the merging of experiences, solutions, and insights could trigger opportunity areas that become apparent only with new hires. Externally, the industry could provide certain vulnerabilities or states that the startup could take advantage of. What could very well happen is that the risk-tuned hiring process gives rise to a team that provides (through the knowledge of industry rules and experiences with products in that industry) opportunities that then become the focus of the next round of recruitment.
  7. Keep in mind that ideally, any hire should not only do their “functional job” but should bring enough experiences to know “the kinds of problems others have encountered with this technology” (and those that you might run into), the kinds of solutions that have been tried before and worked or did not work, and additionally, they learn to ask enough questions to make other people in the team better thinkers about their own areas of specialization. In this way, each hire stretches the functional expertise of a team (by adding a skill set that was not present before), but also stretches all of the team members outside of their present comfort zone. If hiring is timed right, this ensures that the ‘stretching’ happens just as the team was getting settled down, perhaps becoming too comfortable.


To illustrate the concept, we present the team structuring approach applied by ePowersoft – a Khosla Ventures portfolio company in the power semiconductor space.

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