You’ve taken the plunge and left your traditional 9 to 5 for a new job at a startup. After countless nerve-wracking interviews, you’ve signed on the dotted line and met up with the rest of your new team. Their drive and passion is contagious. You’re bubbling with newfound energy and looking forward to making a dent in the universe — nothing’s going to stop you, and it’s going to be great.
Despite the promises of an exciting, fulfilling career ahead, throughout my career I’ve met a lot of people who have had a rough time with their first few months at a startup. In private conversations, there’s a common theme around shame of feeling unsettled and confused — especially from those who already have years and years of experience under their belt.
While some of these people have manage to find their footing and get through this transition from corporate to startup, others don’t. In this article I’ll share my thoughts around what you can do to ensure a smooth transition from a larger corporation to startup.
My personal experience
On paper (this was before LinkedIn), my résumé should not have gotten me an interview with Apple. My educational background was a bachelor of arts in psychology and a master of business administration in marketing. I had not taken a computer class — not that there were many computer classes back then.
My work experience was also seemingly irrelevant. After earning my MBA, I went to work for a fine jewelry manufacturer. I started out by counting diamonds and left five years later as vice president of sales and marketing. My only exposure to computers was using an IBM System to enter and access data.
How did I get a job in the tech industry? The simple answer was nepotism! My roommate from college hired me into the division. But then how did I succeed, without a computer science background or any significant work experience in tech?
The answer is “a lot of determination and the willingness to learn along the way.” While on the firing line (there was no evangelism training program), I had to learn enough about programming to talk to techies and enough about marketing computers to talk to CXOs at software companies.
As you can see it was a far cry from counting diamonds. So ultimately I had to embrace a set of character traits that is required to thrive in a startup — aka “the startup mindset”.
The startup mindset
It all boils down to this.
The startup mindset is very, very different from the mindset you’ll see at most companies. It’s a mindset where the glass is half full. It’s a mindset of meritocracy. It’s not about hierarchy — it’s about whether you’re good or not and where you’re going, not where you’ve been.
The startup mindset is one where you’re not so concerned about procedures and established roles, you’re going to do whatever it takes to get things done.
The startup mindset means that you’re creative, you ask for forgiveness not permission, and you’re on a mission, you’re not simply trying to make a buck. You’re trying to dent the universe. If you do all that, you’ll be fine.
This is the exact kind of mindset that separates a good startup culture from a bad one. Let me explain further.
Thinking like an owner
Most companies rely upon educational background and work experience to determine the acceptability of job candidates. The logic is that employees need a foundation of relevant knowledge and skills to succeed—or at least not make the hiring manager look bad. So why do some not perform at their peak when placed in this new startup environment?
From my experience in Silicon Valley, what separates a good startup from a bad one boils down to a team that is dedicated to constantly improving everything — products, service, customer support, onboarding and everything in between.
There has to be a mentality within the company that isn’t siloed. For example, one’s job is not just about engineering or sales or marketing — everybody has a role to play in all these functions, and everyone needs to contribute to get the job done.
One of the qualities of an employee who does well at a startup is that you think like an owner, in the sense that when you see something that’s wrong, you speak up and you correct it. When you see something being wasted, you speak up. If you see an opportunity, you seize it.
In other words, you’re not saying, “I’m just an employee. My job is to do X, not Y and Z.” That’s not a startup, and that’s not an ownership mentality. Everyone needs to be in this together, and it starts with you.
Being the master of your own fate
It’s important that you recognise that despite all the years of experience you bring to the company, there’s still a lot to learn.
Despite that, you can’t spend weeks and weeks on onboarding and training — that’s not the nature of a startup. Although this can be challenging, a high-performance team in a startup consists of persistent go-getters raring to solve the problems ahead. At a startup you’re expected to move fast and experiment and iterate, again and again — and that’s okay. The nature of experiments means that oftentimes things will fail — that’s just how it is.
So don’t be proud. The day after you start a job, nobody cares about your connections, history, and credentials — or lack thereof. You either deliver results, or you don’t.
If you’ve worked for a large company in the past, it’s a very different world at a startup. But I think you might be delighted that you have the freedom to make things happen like you could never do before. You have freedom to move, to change, and to innovate. In a sense you’re the master of your own fate. When the dust settles, you’ll be glad you’re in a startup.
Adapting to change
When you work for a startup, things change fast.
It’s not like there’s a three-year strategic plan, and that’s all you have to focus on. You have to be opportunistic: when a potential customer comes in, when potential new technology emerges, or a potential partnership with a large company arises, you have to grab it.
Theoretically there might be a danger of changing too fast, but if you had to pick between changing too fast and not changing, you’ll need to take the first option every time. That’s what’s called a high-quality problem. Changing too fast is much better than having management, tradition or another department standing in the way of every change you’re trying to make.
Whilst you have to change quickly, you don’t have to do it alone. In a startup, a valuable lesson is that giving stuff away, turning things down, and having other people help you is a good thing. There’s a really good blog post here about giving away your legos at work — a startup commandment that everyone should learn and adopt.
It’s not about a territorial grab, it’s about a rising tide floating all boats. So don’t get territorial, and don’t try to possess things—set it free, and it’ll work out. This is not a Fortune 500 company where you have to protect your piece of turf and your little fiefdom. That attitude will not work at a startup.
In the example of Canva, we don’t call it a day without setting some ambitious goals, and hustling to execute—so there is always something different to keep things fresh and challenging. That might mean that we rarely get our ducks perfectly in a row, but that’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make.
Roles will be redefined.
Teams will be reshuffled.
Processes will be broken.
Timelines will be moved.
What keeps the team going is the understanding that with high growth comes frequent change. We don’t concern ourselves with ideals. Instead, we adapt with a flexible mindset, and work to identify pragmatic solutions together.
We live and play in a very dynamic space, and there are always plenty of opportunity to work on different parts and priorities of the business. The world is yours to shape.
Resilience is a necessary skill at any startup. We’re in a fast-paced market, and there are a lot of challenges. But I dare say you’ll look back and say, “Wow, that was some of the hardest work I ever did, but also some of the best work I ever did. It was also some of the most enjoyable.”
It’s a great feeling.
So, congratulations again on landing a job in a startup. It’s time to strap yourself into your seat. We’re on a rocket. We will dent the universe.
Guy Kawasaki is former chief evangelist at Apple. In 2014, he resurrected the title “chief evangelist” and joined Canva, an online design and publishing tool. Today, Canva has over 15 million users across 190 countries who have created over one billion designs.
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