9 Tips on How to Survive a Startup
Throughout my career, I’ve worked for a few startups and small businesses. And I’ve learned a lot on my journey thus far. With a significant rise in entrepreneurship over the past decade, the opportunities to work for a lean operation has spiked, and has even become somewhat of a norm.
Here are nine tips on how to survive a startup from someone who has been there, done that — and has come out alive every time.
How to Survive a Startup
- Know your input/output expectations from the beginning. There are many different types of “startups,” a term I’ll use loosely. Some are funded, some are not. Some have perks and/or benefits, some do not. If you’re thinking about accepting a position with a startup, it’s important to ask a lot of questions about the job, but especially these three: What is expected from me in this role in terms of performance and output? What benefits does my employment include (i.e. medical coverage, vacation time, sick days, travel, options for an annual bonus, etc.)? And, perhaps most important: Will I be classified as an employee or a contractor? Realistically, most startups don’t pay the big bucks, so knowing what other value this opportunity will bring can be a game changer.
- Don’t fear the word “no.” Oftentimes, bosses will reward the star player(s) of a startup with—nope, not a vacation day or bonus—but a heftier workload. This has been the case at every startup I’ve ever worked for, and can be the beginning of the end for many A-players. Not only does this create more negative sentiment toward the boss, but it’s also a starting point for burning out employees—and great ones at that. As an employee, understand that saying “no” is not always a bad thing. If your plate is too full and you know you won’t hit a deadline or give a project the quality or time it needs, saying “no” could actually benefit the company. And if your boss is reasonable, he or she will respect your directness. After all, in many cases, no one but you knows how much time it takes to do your job, day in and day out. Stop fooling yourself into thinking you can create more hours in a day/week/month/year. Most employees aren't aware they're burning out until it's too late. Check out the 13 early signs of burnout.
- Don’t fear the word “yes.” When working for a startup, you must understand that you will be expected to wear more hats than Bruno Mars. This includes being available beyond the once traditional nine-to-five window. Inevitably, there will be assignments or roles that you must take on in which you have no experience or, in my case, are deathly afraid. While working as the managing editor at a digital media startup that specializes in WebTV shows, my behind-the-scenes comfortability came to a glaring halt when a host was needed for a new show we were producing. It’s important to explore the depths of your skill set and beyond. Learning leads to growth, which leads to a better team, and, therefore, a better company. Take risks, and if you decide it’s not for you, fine. (Note: I decided I still hated being in front of the camera, but was damn proud of myself for having tried.)
- Manage up. Those leading a small company of any kind are orchestrating a full band with a fraction of the instruments. These people are low on time and tend to easily forget details. This is where managers are expected to step up. As a manager in a startup operation, managing up—sending your boss consistent reminders and following up on things he or she must do (and when to do them) in order to help your department succeed—is vital. Make this as easy for him or her as possible. Send calendar invites, reach out through an easy communication tool like Slack, and, when appropriate, bring it up in a meeting. Every person absorbs things differently—some remember better by visualizing, others learn better by being told. Figure out what works and be proactive, but don’t be a stalker.
- Over-communicate—especially if you’re remote. I once signed onto a company as an employee and wound up getting a 1099. I was misclassified, uninformed, and ended up paying thousands of dollars in unnecessary costs that I was not prepared for—on a startup salary with no benefits. Needless to say, this could have been prevented with one email. Communication is key to the success of a company’s culture. This goes for both the employer and employees, especially as remote work continues to accelerate.
- Take advantage of small perks when you can. Even if it’s just taking a lunch break three times out of the week (read: not eating lunch at your desk, but an actual break), it’s important to find a way to unplug each day. If the company you work for offers any perks, take advantage of them. Work-from-home Fridays? Why not take a long weekend trip and work from a completely different location? Squeeze as much as you can out of what’s given to you because, really, work/life balance is a matter of infusing some life and enjoyment into your work (see No. 9).
- Contribute to creating a better culture. At half of the companies I’ve worked for, I stayed as long as I did because of the culture. As for the other half, the lack of culture is what ultimately led me to leave. Having a good company culture is necessary for personal growth and adds excitement to the job. The biggest mistake I see leaders making is trying to force a culture by laying out rules of what should and should not be. If a culture does not feel natural, it most likely will not be effective.
- Avoid gossip. There’s gossip in every office which, in turn, breeds negative energy. Try to avoid this at all costs. Many people bond over gossip, but that bond is fleeting because it’s not based on substantially productive things. Put your energy to better use by discussing ideas and not other peoples’ business. Many times, assumptions about others aren’t even correct.
- Understand that there really is no 50:50 work/life balance. This stresses the importance of enjoying your work. You don’t have to love your work every single day—there will be hurdles and pitfalls you’ll undoubtedly face—but dreading Monday mornings and celebrating Friday afternoons puts you on the hamster wheel with the majority of society. Don’t be a hamster. Figure out how to better enjoy your work if you don’t already do so. Sometimes, that involves making a career change.
As Steve Jobs said in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, “You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for work as it is for your lovers. Your work is gonna fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking—and don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And like any great relationship, it gets better and better as the years roll on.”
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