The 1 thing new grads need to know before joining a startup

Posted by Steli Efti on Mon, Feb 29, 2016

We recently took on an intern fresh out of college—an overachiever who knows how to take care of business. She’s ambitious, hard-working, and smart as hell. At school, she didn’t just meet her goals—she blew them out of the water. She came into the company with one goal: to kill it like the rockstar she is.

But a few months into the job, she wasn’t making any headway. She felt like she was floating without an anchor. Why was she struggling so much?

Her talent wasn’t the problem. She just didn’t understand the core reality of working at a startup. Most people think of success as a game—play by the rules and you win. At a startup, you don’t play the game, you build it.


School is a straightforward game. There are set goals, and a clear trajectory for success. Study hard, suck up to professors, test well, and you win. A big company is no different—there are set rules for moving up the corporate ladder.

Startups don’t have an existing framework for success—they create it from scratch. People always focus on the sexy parts of startup life: innovation, the freedom to work on cool shit, and huge growth potential.

But all that comes with a heavy dose of uncertainty. Startups have to constantly redefine themselves, and answer tough questions: “Are we building the right product? Are we in the right market?”

One of the toughest questions is about finding the right people to work at a startup:

Who thrives in startups? People that are cool with risk and adapting. People that have little regard to job descriptions and are focused on executing any which way they can. They can fix the jet engines while the plane heads for a crash landing. These are the types of people that thrive on chaos and have a can-do spirit about them.—Mark Birch, early stage technology investor and entrepreneur, The Truth About Working At Startups

As a founder, you need to both find people who are committed to “building the game,” and infuse that attitude as a fundamental part of your company's DNA.

Reshape the definition of success

Startups face a laundry list of challenges most people never encounter. There’s no one way to achieve product-market fit or build your business to scale. You need to solve these issues together—no one should just waltz in with the superstar mindset, no matter who they are.

Sure, some Fortune 500 company's VP of Sales may have just had the best quarter in BigCo’s history, but if you tried sticking him in your startup, he’d be lost. He’s forgotten how to get his hands dirty.

Neil Patel, the cofounder of KISSmetrics, Crazy Egg, and Quick Sprout, warns of the same issue in 11 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting My First Startup:

Experienced employees aren’t better than hungry ones ... [because] what they lack is the ability to move fast and do so without relying on others. Those corporate executives are used to farming out the work instead of figuring out how to do things on their own. When a startup is young, these are the people who I recommend you stay away from.

However, you can’t afford for new hires to bang their heads against the wall asking themselves how they can rise to the top of the team. It's a waste of time that could be spent working toward the real goal—establishing the framework for a successful company. It’s up to you to show your new hires that the startup grind is all about building brick-by-brick from the ground up.

Consider implementing these strategies to get everyone on the right track.

Teach your people that change is the only certainty

From day one, tell new hires that a startup's master plan isn’t set in stone until it’s successful. What you think will work today might not hold up tomorrow. After all, think of all the companies that have pivoted and become massively successful: Instagram, Slack, and even each began as totally different ideas.

Get the point across that by constantly evaluating their vision, startups create the opportunity to become the strongest company they possibly can.

As Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, reveals, "You can never tell what will work. You just have to do whatever seems best at each point. We do this with YC itself. We still don't know if it will work, but it seems like a decent hypothesis."

Encourage bold thinking

Let your team members work on their own ideas. For example, LinkedIn allows anyone at the company to pitch a project to management. If the idea is approved, the originator gets the resources to make it happen.

In an interview, the founder and CEO of Flow, Andrew Wilkinson, reveals how his company took the idea of hack days further by creating Delight Day. It's a single day where people could improve Flow, an online task management and team collaboration software, in whichever small way they wanted. Andrew credits Delight Day for both a bunch of ready-to-implement improvements and a sense of satisfaction and motivation for his team.

It’s one thing to wax poetic about how you want your team to build the company with you—help them actually do it.

Compensate accordingly

Money talks louder than anything else, so get people financially invested in the company's future. Don’t be afraid to give new hires equity, even if they’re inexperienced. You could also consider ideas like profit sharing or other bonuses related to company growth.  

You need to show your team that startup success looks a lot different from what they're used to, and get them motivated to roll up their sleeves and build a great company.  

Break down barriers between teams

Okay, let’s say everyone on the team gets it: they need to “build the game.” The next part is even harder. You need to make sure that attitude translates into how the whole company operates day-to-day. Your teams can’t be silos, separated by function and working toward their own goals. They have to work together just like your individual people.

Why? For one thing, when you only have 12 employees, it’s more efficient for everyone to wear a few different hats. Your Chief Marketing Officer might double as your customer service department, while your co-founders might be your first salespeople.

But what begins as a necessity becomes a startup’s most valuable advantage. Think about it: big companies fear chaos, so they design their business like an assembly line—each team has a rigidly defined role.

A startup, on the other hand, is willing to throw all the talent it's got at one huge problem. That’s why they come up with more innovative solutions. Eric Ries of Lean Startup fame has written a lot about the outsized results cross-functional teams achieve for early-stage startups.

Consider these three strategies:

  • Get everyone involved in customer success. Everybody—product managers, engineers, salespeople, whoever—can learn from seeing where your product fails to deliver value to customers. Plus, a young company might not be able to afford full-time customer success hires, so rotating people from different teams is practical. (And if you're an amazing Customer Success Executive, please get in touch, we're looking for someone like you!)
  • Let interconnected teams tackle problems together. Marketing and sales are great examples of two teams that can’t be walled off from each other. Marketing generates leads, and salespeople try and convert them into customers. They both need to understand what a strong potential customer looks like. On a recent episode of our podcast, The Startup Chat, Hiten Shah said that at Kissmetrics, he often pairs up a marketer and a salesperson to experiment with new lead sources and evaluate their viability together.
  • Share problems and solutions. Make sure your people know what everyone else is working on. Once a month, have each team share the biggest issue they’re facing and discuss solutions with people on different teams. It’s a great way to get new perspectives on tough problems. wouldn’t exist without collaboration between sales and engineering. To make a sales CRM that salespeople would actually want to use, we knew that salespeople had to be involved in its development. So we sat our engineers down next to our sales team and had them build it together.

The feedback loop was incredible—as engineers built it, salespeople used it and told them what worked and what didn't. A lot of our key features came from conversations that started with a salesperson turning to the engineers and saying, “You know what would be really cool ...”

No one should fall into the trap of thinking, “My function is X, therefore I only do X.” A job title shouldn’t limit what someone can do for your company. Take advantage of your company’s diversity of talent.

Learn to love the unknown

“Trial and error is freedom.”—Nicholas Nassim Taleb, Antifragile

The one constant with startups is uncertainty. Your markets constantly shift, and at any time, a new competitor could pop up, or your basic assumptions could be proven wrong.

By getting everyone focused on building the game rather than playing the game, you build a company that's not just resilient to uncertainty—but can actually thrive from it. You empower everyone in your company to think boldly, take risks, and seize upon opportunities as they come. They won't just weather the inevitable storms that come, but turn them into a huge upside.

Recommended reading:

From founder with million dollar exit to junior sales intern
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My startup hiring interview hack: Why? Why? Why?
A simple strategy to x-ray through the bullshit answers applicants give you and get real insights into what makes them tick.

What I learned from Jack Welch about sales recruitment
Most of the talk about "company culture" is just BS, but here's why you need to hire for culture, and how specifically to do it...

Topics: startup culture

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