On Building a Team by Atlas AI CTO

George Azzari

There is something thrilling about the task of growing a company’s culture from phase one… especially at a small startup, like Atlas AI, where our founding employees have been responsible for carving out the company’s guiding values.

Every startup quickly becomes aware that the ethics and principles forged in the earliest days of the company’s growth will continue to have an imprint on the employees in the months and years to come. With this important knowledge — that the value-setting work we do early on can have repercussions and long lasting ripple effects — the objective of helping to establish our team culture, undoubtedly the backbone of our identity as a company, is no minor undertaking.

When I started at Atlas in July 2018, every member of the team had known each other from time spent together at Stanford in the years leading up to the company’s inception. Naturally, because of this, I thought that our experiences together, combined with shared academic interests and areas of expertise, would minimize the work required to build a new team from scratch.

I soon realized, however, that this new, corporate-style environment meant seeing one another in a new light. We weren’t just researchers invested in ideas. We were colleagues working together to advance profitable goals.

The truth is that finding a company’s synergy and “secret sauce” requires work. It means trial and error, experimentation with new ways of thinking, rethinking through old ways of working… and ultimately finding what works successfully.

And tossing what doesn’t.

Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

The Nitty Gritty

In these initial stages of Atlas, one of the biggest challenges I faced was navigating the inevitable uncertainty of an early-stage startup. In this environment, everyone is an arbiter of the company’s success. This means pulling up your sleeves. Getting your hands dirty in the nitty gritty of the day-to-day. It means getting comfortable with the task of wearing multiple hats — most of which you’ve never worn before.

(In the first two years of the company, I did anything that was needed, from writing multi-million dollar grant proposals to ordering pizza, from coding product to cleaning the fridge regularly from moldy lunches.)

Wearing multiple hats means getting out of your comfort zone. Getting comfortable with operational jobs, like wiring money to contractors and handling IT, so you can help build the foundations upon which to eventually manage the engineering team, present the demo of our prototype product at conferences and events, and build fruitful, long-lasting relationships with prospective clients.

Evolving and Emerging

As we worked to grow the company from seed to series A, some clarity started to emerge on the critical roles that would take us to the next level… two new engineers, a director of partnerships, a head of product, and a director of global sales.

Through this process, I watched before my eyes our “scrappy” team of academics begin to morph into a “real” company. I observed the vision behind the company, that had been established through academic research, begin to grow into an important entity devoted to cultivating knowledge and enabling leaders in emerging markets. Of course, there’s much work to still be done… but we are well on our way.

Even though it’s only been a few months, I can already see the difference. As these experienced folks take ownership of their roles, the entire team’s focus has started to sharpen. Through all of it, the team’s culture has begun to take shape, forming its own identity.

As our team has expanded, I’ve been able to zero-in on the skills I can best contribute. My focus has become less fragmented, spread among a host of different tasks. I’ve started really leaning on my newer colleagues, more skilled in their own respective fields and the skill sets for which they were hired. Naturally, there’s a bit of internal tug-of-war, learning how to hand off the tasks that were one yours to the new specialists who are coming in…. But, it’s well worth it. For the success of the company. For Atlas.

As a Day 1er, I’ve witnessed incredible growth, and I’m confident that as long as my colleagues toss their lunches before they get moldy… we’re only headed forward.

Interested in learning more about Atlas AI’s work and our company en route to Series B? Check us out at atlasai.co

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