A lot has been written on the process of joining a startup, and I’ve written a bit on the topic. Less is written about what to do once you join. Truth is, that’s when the fun starts, and it’s important to optimize your experience from day one. There are a few things I wish someone had told me before I started, so hopefully the tips below will help you get up the learning curve faster during the initial phase of your startup job:
1. Find new projects - This was one of the biggest differences I observed moving from finance to a startup. In finance, you are a good employee if you execute flawlessly what your manager tells you. My friends tell me stories about how they’ll do nothing from 10 am to 7 pm, until their boss drops something in their laps on his way out the door, and they work on it until 3 am so that it’s on their boss’ desk the next morning. In a startup, people won’t always tell you exactly what to do. You have to identify the need and keep yourself busy. There may be weeks where nobody tells you what to do, but that doesn’t mean you can just sit there and wait for something to fall into your lap.
2. Take ownership - A good attitude to take is that nothing will get done unless you do it yourself. This may not be the case, but better to lean toward this extreme than the other. New employees are often eager to think about ways they can improve a product. This is a good thing, but be ready for the following exchange:
New employee: "Hey, have you guys ever thought about adding rainbows to the confirmation page? I really think this is the key to sending revenue through the roof."
Generally the next part of this conversation involves the manager turning it back on the employee:
Manager: "That’s an interesting idea. Make it happen."
Most startups give their employees a lot of power to trust their instincts and quickly take action to test something out, so take advantage of this luxury from the beginning. And don’t assume that “there’s someone else who’ll take care of that,” because that someone else should probably be you.
3. Be optimistic - The quickest way to tell someone that they shouldn’t have hired you is to tell them why something won’t work before you’ve spent any time working it. This is especially true in the beginning. Good entrepreneurs spend their days trying to figure out ways to make seemingly impossible things happen. It’s way too easy to think of reasons why something won’t work, and much harder to envision a way that it will. It’s a common trap to want to debate all day the problems with a solution rather than test the solutions to a problem. At least initially, train yourself to focus on the latter.
4. Don’t get stuck on the theoretical - This can be difficult for new startup employees. When getting acclimated to the startup landscape and before actually joining a startup, people often live in a world of theory, strategy and evaluation. You may look at other startups and debate with friends for days on end what will and won’t work. Most of the blogs you read live in the world of the theoretical. The world of implementation / operations can be much different. Now things actually need to get prioritized and built, not just discussed. Be sure to understand the line between when another hour of theoretical evaluation will be less effective than running an A/B test.
5. Find out what hasn’t worked - What you see in the current product suffers from survivorship bias. You know what’s succeeded, but you likely don’t know what features or processes haven’t panned out. Both are incredibly important to understand. Try to sit with as many people as possible and ask, “What are some of the things we pushed live that fell flat?” And don’t just stop there, try to get their opinions on *why they think it didn’t work* and *why they thought it would work*. Earlier this year Eric Ries visited Hunch HQ and said something that stuck with me:
"The main unit of progress at a startup is learning."
Take advantage of that progress. At a startup, a lot of knowledge is trapped in people’s heads. It is your responsibility to be proactive and ask questions, not someone else’s. By learning from past trial and error you’ll save yourself a lot of time in the long run.
6. Write down your opinions - The more time you spend within the organization, the less objectively you can evaluate the company and the product. Interestingly, this makes new employees the most important beta testers because they aren’t yet biased.
After your first week, take the time to write down your initial thoughts on the direction of the company, the product, and your role within the organization. What would you do as the CEO? What product features would you add or take away? Where do you see yourself making the biggest impact? Observation is so often the foundation for learning, and asking these questions will force you to observe.
As your experience at the company continues, and you begin to loose your objective lens, these early notes will help bring you back down to the perception of someone who isn’t in the weeds of it. This perspective is an edge no matter what your role. Also, see if your initial instincts turned out to be correct or not. This can be a great learning experience in showing that your gut instincts are great, or not. It’s the same reason that new investors write down literally every thought they have on a company they evaluate - it’s a tremendous learning experience to revisit these notes years later to see where you guessed right, and where your blind spots were.
Final Note: Working in a startup environment can be a bit startling. It may take some time to understand that there is a method to the madness. These represent a few things I wish I’d taken to practice from day one. If you’ve recently joined a startup and have some thoughts, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.