The four essential skills that you need in a fast-paced and intense startup environment.
5 min read
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The idea of joining a startup is an appealing option to employees imagining trendy Silicon Valley style offices with endless employee perks. But what does it really mean to work at a startup, and what kind of person excels in that environment?
I’ve worked at three startups in my career and did a stint as an HR consultant for hyper growth companies. I was even the very first employee at two of these companies. I have experienced everything, from the scrappiness of a company kicking off in the founders’ kitchen, to the extravagant perks of a Silicon Valley unicorn.
The truth is, it takes a certain kind of employee to join a brand new company in those very early days. Startups are exciting adventures, but they’re also unpredictable and challenging. One thing is for certain, startups are jam-packed with learning opportunities and career growth. If you’re thinking about joining a startup, here are just a few of the many relevant skills and strategies you’ll need.
1. Tolerance to ambiguity
Most jobs come with a description of the tasks and duties you’ll perform and a job title that will likely persist for many months (or years). In startups, you can throw all of that out of the window. I often tell people that the needs of the business dictate what you’ll be doing and what your job title is. The likelihood that will change day-to-day is exceptionally high.
While working at my first startup, the founders had a venture capitalist pitch that was a make or break situation for our fledgling business. The morning of the meeting, their nanny canceled, and there was no other option than for me to step in and take care of their two year old daughter. Would I have ever imagined that would be a part of my job? No — but it was exactly what I needed to do in that moment to help the company succeed. Luckily for me, their little one was a very cooperative and entertaining coworker for the day!
These all hands on deck experiences are common for early stage teams, and you’re guaranteed to wear a bunch of different hats or perform tasks that are outside of your comfort zone or area of expertise. Employees who join an early startup will see their role change dozens of times as the company grows and finds its way.
2. Context shifting
Virtually every employee in today’s workforce is accustomed to rapid context shifting, frequently switching between tasks or high interruption environments. Technology and open office spaces has made this unavoidable.
Startups take this to a whole new level. The small team size makes it necessary for everyone to work on just about everything, and each teammate takes on a variety of roles and responsibilities. Many employees find this stage of the business exciting and empowering, with a broad sphere of control and authority. Freed from the red tape and bureaucracy of traditional settings, work and tasks are accomplished at lightning speed.
I love this part of working at a startup. At one moment, I’m operating as an executive determining company strategy, and the next moment I’m an individual contributor directly working on different projects and initiatives. Most jobs ask us to be one or the other — startups ask for it all.
It might surprise you to find out that the popular instant messaging tool Slack started as a video game. When the founders realized it wasn’t going to work out, they pivoted and started a company based off of the internal instant messaging tool they had created for their employees. There are plenty of stories of successful startups that made it big after a pivot and even more that failed because they couldn’t make the leap.
A startup often begins with a big idea, but your imagination is really needed a little later down the road. Bumps are inevitable and challenges are a guarantee. To face these tough times, you’ll need creativity and the ability to invent new approaches and discover different solutions. You’ll need to be willing to toss out your original assumptions or maybe even your original product. It’s a difficult balance for a startup employee — you need to believe in the idea and product but then also be willing to give it up to survive.
4. Entrepreneurial spirit
I started my career as a high school teacher, and I still remember the first few shocking days on the job. I was handed a piece of paper with my class schedule, a key that opened the classroom door, and that was it. Everything else was up to me. Looking back, I am so grateful for having that experience, because it taught me how to have an entrepreneurial spirit.
Startups aren’t all that different. You may have a vague idea of what you’re supposed to do, but no one is going to tell you how to do it. There won’t be guidelines or processes built out, and there certainly won’t be many people to ask for help. You’ll have to figure it all out and decide what to do, how to do it and when.
Let’s be real — startups aren’t for everyone, but they will give you some of the richest learning experiences of your career. Either you walk in the door with these essential startup skills, or you’ll pick them up along the way.