As the first year of joining a startup passes, I thought it’d be interesting to look back and see what I’ve learned so far. I put my formal education second to the startup I joined, so I should be learning something… right? My generation seems to have this fascination of the startup world and the life that comes with it (look at the rise of HBO’s Silicon Valley).
Most view the startup world as a world of extremes, in the sense that there are huge successes and the epic crashes. In reality, the majority of startups fall in the silent majority of businesses still slowly figuring it out. With that said, here are some of the insights that I’ve learned after my first year of joining a startup that is still figuring it out.
Make a plan, but more importantly, act on your plan.
Whether you’re looking to start a new venture or just complete a project, spend the time upfront to make a simple plan. The startup world has moved more and more away from setting concrete plans such as 50 page business plans and has begun to focus on having a nimble options that allow for adjustments to be made along the way. Know what you want to achieve, and lay out the critical components that you need to have. Lookup what a business canvas is for an example of these nimble plans.
After you’ve got that done, it’s time to get to work. This might come off as extreme, but I 100% believe that this next part is how you accomplish your goals. Set your to-do’s on a daily basis. Planning is great and all but execution is what is going to make those plans come to fruition. I view it as a filtering system; start at a very high level view of what you want to achieve at your quarterly meeting. Break down your goals even further in your weekly meetings where you measure your progress and identify issues blocking your path. And finally and most importantly, get boots on the ground using daily to-do’s. Without daily progress on what will move the needle for your company, your goals remain exactly that, goals.
I myself only write down 3 things that I need to accomplish on a daily basis. 3 things doesn’t sound like much but I have a mentality of quality over quantity. Every morning when I get in, I pull out my daily notebook and write down what the most important things I can do to move the needle. Limiting yourself to only 3 to-dos may seem trivial, but doing so allows you to weed through all your meaningless tasks, and do the tasks that are essential to the plans you set in your weekly and quarterly meaning.
A couple of notes on my list of 3: You might even find out that 3 items may be too many. Often, the 3 most important things are the 3 things you least want to do. Consistency is key with this mentality, it’s easy to stop doing your list but hard to pick up the habit again.
Like relationships, half of the battle is maintaining expectations:
By their very nature, startups are supposed to be driven by passion. If the founder and leadership team aren’t noticeably passionate about the vision of the company, then the rest of the team won’t be buying in any time soon. However, there’s a caveat when you are showing your passion for the vision, and that is the balancing act of managing expectations. There’s a very dangerous thing that happens when the founders or leaders are speaking about the amount of amazing success that the startup will have, while in reality, there is still a lot of mayhem occurring. The reason why this is so dangerous is a result of setting expectations. The individuals listening to the vision have this grandiose idea and expectation of what is to come, but the reality they face could be frustrating and difficult. Setting and managing your expectations about the bumpy ride to success is key to your team’s retention and culture.
Here’s what my expectations toward the startup life look like: If it were easy to do, a lot more people would be doing it. It’s not going to be easy, but if you and your team buy into the vision, you’ll be more than happy to deal with the up and downs to get there.
Blind trust, it’s hard but necessary:
When startups are still in their budding periods, you’re shoulder to shoulder to the person next to you. You can see, hear, and witness that they are doing what they need to be doing. When Kickfurther was at this budding stage, we were huddled around our founders’ dining table, Pied Pipper style. Developers, sales, and marketing were all arms reach away from each other. I didn’t register the impact this had on team culture until later.
As we grew, more people joined and we had people start working on the sofa. And when more people joined, we had them start working on the patio. Eventually, we outgrew the founders’ house and moved into a larger space. The first day that we moved into our new space is when trust in each other became something material.
Although it was an open concept space, the distance between co-workers felt like a physical wall. Without stopping your work and getting up, you wouldn’t know what the people around you are doing. This is where blind trust comes in. Trusting that the people around you are busting their asses just as hard as you are is a lot harder when you can’t see them doing exactly that. But, if you plan on getting anything accomplished that day, you can’t bounce around from person to person for a status update.
I named this insight blind trust because that’s what it needs to be, blind. In the same manner that you would close your eyes and trust that your team is doing their work, you need to be able to just focus on your work without worrying that others are doing theirs.
Continuing to Learn:
While of course, I’ve learned a lot more than just those three lessons in my first year of startup life, those three have had the most impact to not only me, but our team. Startup life is interesting to say the least and there are certain parts of it that you just don’t experience in a corporate culture. That includes not only the pros but also the cons. It’s up to you whether or not you’re up for it.