How To Be Successful at a Startup

For the purposes of this post I will define a startup as a company having these characteristics:

  • The services which make up its “core products” are still changing
  • Processes around human resources and the work itself are still evolving
  • Teams frequently change in size / composition to adapt to new challenges

What I love most about this environment is that everything is negotiable. Titles mean little and a good idea can change the course of a ship bearing hundreds of people.

1. Take Initiative
Everything is your job. Dishes need washing? Support site has a typo? Interviewee looks lost? Step up. Training docs are poor? Finish your commitments and help the team.

2. Engage with the Business
Learn how the company earns money today and how is it hoping to tomorrow. Which products have high margins, which are loss-leaders? Learn about the customers and what they care about. How do the teams fit together and why were they created?

3. Have Positive Relationships
Be friends with your coworkers, care about them, know about their lives. Do this during work, after work and outside of work.

4. Attention is a finite resource
Whether it’s speaking in a 4 person meeting, asking for a code-review or blasting out an email – be aware of the time you’re asking others to spend on you. Make it worth their while and make it easy for them.

5. Plan for change and failure
Invest in making mistakes cheap to correct. When building new products/models specify its end-of-life. Creatively minimize upfront investment for unproven ideas.

6. Be time efficient and self-aware
Identify opportunities with disproportionate work-to-value ratios to make the most of your time. Catch yourself when you are spinning your wheels and ask for help.

7. Identify the movers and shakers
How do truly transformative ideas – like top-level strategic pivots – happen at your company? Find the thought-leaders within the company. These are the people with big ideas and the charisma to build consensus around them. These people are rarely on the exec board and are often more accessible than you may think.

Bonus material – helpful books

  • The Charisma Myth – intro to leadership charisma and how to positively influence others
  • Getting More – practical guide to negotiation skills and creating positive-sum situations
  • The Lean Startup – de facto intro to agile startups and ideas around practical MVPs

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