Startups are undeniably cool. Ideas are flowing. Growth is fast. Everyone wears sneakers (okay, maybe not everyone—but still). If you’ve ever considered joining one, you’ve probably wondered, “What will it really be like to work there?” and “Will I like it?” Harvard Business School lecturer and successful entrepreneur Jeffrey Bussgang wants to help you answer those questions.
Two attributes—pushing the limits and thinking like an owner—are critical for all startup employees. If you can program your mind to internalize those two attributes, you can fit into every startup out there.
The culture of a startup is that you’re on a mission, not just doing a job. The founding team is passionate about pursuing that mission and wants their passion to translate to the entire company. A lot of startups care about “best place to work” awards and about people loving the environment. All that language is about getting people to care and think like an owner.
When you work at a startup, your efforts are clearly and directly linked to the overall success of the enterprise. When you work for a big company—say AT&T, the canonical, big, bureaucratic telephone company—you don’t have this kind of impact and transparency. You don’t typically have a mission to believe in so deeply. What you do each day doesn’t really impact the AT&T stock price. It’s simply a job. You punch the clock. You show up at 9 a.m., you leave at 5 p.m., and instead of living to work, you work to live. In a startup, you become emotionally invested. There’s a greater sense of adventure. There’s a greater sense of mission and purpose. There’s a sense that you’re all banded together against all odds to try to achieve something no one has ever achieved before. And your work actually matters: every day, you’re doing something that materially impacts the value and success of the company. That creates, for some people, an allure that is very special. Maybe it’s adrenaline. Maybe it’s a sense of community. The actual work—the tasks and day-to-day activities—may be many of the same things you might do at a big company, but it will feel very different. You’re inventing. You’re creating. There are no rules. No one is giving you the playbook.
That’s why I love StartUpLand—because in it, nothing is “just the way it is.”
Defining a “startup”
So what is a startup, exactly? There’s no easy answer to that question.
Purely with regard to a startup’s size, I would say it’s a company as small as one employee, but it can go up to maybe 1,000, or even 5,000, employees. At the stage when you are under 10 people, everybody does everything. It’s mayhem. Once you exceed 10 employees, it gets clearer—you’re doing this, I’m doing this and someone else is doing that.
The full definition is more complicated, though, than this single metric can address. Because startups are breaking new ground, they represent giant experiments. Every initiative and action in a startup is new, and so much needs to be figured out. One hypothesis after another is being tested as the company tries to answer important questions like: Which type of customer do we target? What precise product will we create? and How do we organize ourselves most effectively to make it happen?
In general, I like to think of the various stages of a startup in the context of the following road-building metaphor.
In the jungle stage, you have no idea where the paths are. There’s a tangled mess all around you; you grab a machete and hack away. That’s what a startup is in the very early stages. Many use the term pre-product/market fit to characterize this nascent stage of a startup, which means the product is not yet being embraced by customers and there is more work to do to figure out how to fit with what the particular market requires.
In the dirt-road stage, the path is more laid out. It’s bumpy and it’s winding, but there is a path, and the goal is to try to go down it as quickly as possible. When you’re on the dirt road, you are typically post-product/market fit and you are starting to find a repeatable business model and address the early challenges of scale.
In the highway stage, everything is smooth. There are four lanes, and you are flying down the road at 70 or 80 miles an hour. It’s “all systems go”: no starts and stops, no twists and turns. It’s just straight open road. This period is when you’ve passed the figuring-it-out stage with respect to the business model and are focused on incrementally improving all aspects of the operation. You’re just executing. You’re scaling more, building more and iterating on the machine.
Is startup life for you?
To help you imagine how you might fit into a startup, Erin Warren, chief marketing officer of Cartera, compiled the following two lists to articulate the kinds of qualities in employees who work well in startups as compared with those who are likely to work in larger companies.
- Jazzed about doing something new
- Ability to be both strategic and execution-oriented
- Comfortable with uncertainty and flexible enough to take on a series of undefined roles and tasks
- Biased toward action
- Analytical toward optimizing your own time/resources
- An aptitude and interest in playing a broad role and evolving your career as the business morphs
- Willing to hustle and go beyond the call of duty, even if it means sacrificing personal time
- Comfortable with rapid decision making in uncertain situations
- An interest in going deep into a particular functional area or subarea
- Strong EQ (emotional intelligence) and negotiation skills (you are dealing with a lot of people, so this really helps)
- Strong ability to advocate for your strategies and ideas in the face of opposition
- Patience (things can move slowly)
- Hesitant to put in the extra effort, particularly if it’s “not my job”
- Comfortable with clear and distinct lines of responsibility, control and communication
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Entering StartUpLand. Copyright 2017 Jeffrey Bussgang. All rights reserved.