Will You Survive A Startup

I have had phenomenal luck in getting to work with some world class people for most of my career. But the good run ended last year, when a majority of my bets on the people front failed. In hindsight I think it was about expectation setting and lack of shared understanding in what it means to work in a startup like environment, specifically within the context of the new people who came on board.

I have attempted to provide my view of what factors are involved in working for a startup or startup-like environment. Obviously I have not covered everything and the factors listed below are relevant to resources I have worked with, or attempted to work with, in Bangalore, India. So some of these factors might not be relevant to your environment.

Technical Skills

This is the foundation upon which all others take their place. Not necessarily all technical but means skills relevant to the function one performs.

If you are an architect, lead or developer then to have skills commensurate with your experience. To think through a problem with rigor and completeness. To bring the same attention to naming a function or class as you would in drawing a grand architectural overview. Not just the syntax but to know the why and the how. Because real-world problems don’t come advertising the solution. You got to investigate, probe and analyze. You need to build a hypothesis and test it. You need an arsenal of techniques to understand and solve the problem.

To think broad during problem analysis and to think deep during execution. To balance form and function. To think of various costs(development, testing, maintaining, supporting etc.) when evaluating possible solutions.

Ability to learn a new tool quickly to solve a problem. To understand that an architecture evolves over a period of time, that nothing worth its salt is ever simple.

Ownership

To own something. Be it a feature, a module or the whole product. To own it in its entirety, from definition to rollout. Own it enough to shepherd it through the challenges of surviving reality. To feel every criticism of your creation as a barb in your being. To cherish every small win as your own.

An attitude and state that is the very antithesis of product efforts at most large organizations and especially service organizations, where one owns a small sliver and spends a life-time becoming an expert in it. An attitude that does not play by the rule book, that demands realization today. An attitude that takes pride in crafting something to be remembered by.

Multi-tasking/Context Shifting

The ability to juggle multiple work-streams, in sequence most of the times and sometimes in parallel. And yet not lose productivity or rigor in execution. One needs to be in the zone to hit the high mode of super productivity, but a startup environment has demands that will not wait or cannot be delegated because there are no people to delegate to.

Being annoyed or saying you cannot deal with context shifts is not an option. You deal with it and survive to battle another day.

Commercial Savviness

Developers usually have little sense of commercial considerations. Sales folks are slightly better at it, though their preferences are colored by the commission they can potentially make. In a startup environment where one person can play product manager, quality assurance/tester, sales and marketing roles, sometimes all in the same day, it is essential every person in the organization brings this commercial savviness to the table. Every decision has a cost and influences what options are available in the future.

Perseverance

When bringing out a product your first set of customers would, almost as a rule, gift you with a barrage of criticism. Especially if your product challenges any of the traditional mindsets adopted in performing a specific function.

A demo to a key large customer would fail because someone updated a piece code a couple of hours back. You would spend months coming close to sign off and the customer would walk away without explaining why. Or a client would be willing to sign only if you had features X, Y and Z, and give them a significant discount because they are willing to go with you.

Or, your new hire does not get the urgency of what you need, does not believe in what you do and spreads bad blood within the team, does not turn out to be the rock star you expected them to be, only provides arm-chair criticism of your strategy without providing a credible alternative. A developer you depend on to deliver a key feature leaves the firm.

You get the drift. Challenges on a daily basis is the norm. Yield and there will be no end until your vision is flattened. Trick is to persevere until the last man standing gets the job done.

Vision

This is the ability to look beyond the obvious. To consider approaches that are unconventional. Articulate needs the customer does not know about yet.

Not everyone in a startup needs this ability, most need to just execute well. But without this ability to see what is not there yet one lacks the key to understand a startup environment. Without the ability to be irrationally passionate about a vision, one does not get the rush of being in a startup. One just sees a bunch of people running about, has no clue what is so special about this effort and leaves disappointed.

Empathy

Finally empathy. It is hard to run a marathon every waking day. It just burns out people. Work-life balance, workplace diversity all come in once there is revenue and a org structure to support the product. Until then you push yourself and your team to the brink of their abilities.

But for those who attempt it, treat them with empathy. It does not matter who. From the junior most team member to the guy driving the show, each is a human with all the strengths and insecurities that make up many of us. Lend each other a hand. Each have their highs and lows. Take a balanced perspective.

Summary

In summary, some people are not just cut out for a startup environment. They might not be skilled enough, might be suited to lesser efforts, cannot offer the dedication required or just have different goals. And that is okay. They should be humble enough to accept it and move on, and you should be understanding enough to let them go amicably.

Because the Buddha did not ordain everyone who crossed his path, nor did Christ pick every passerby as a disciple, it is just the way it is. Some are destined and some are not πŸ™‚

And for those who join the ride, reward dedication. Be fiercely loyal to the team that has trusted you. Believe in your vision. Craft beautiful things. Cherish every victory. Fight a good fight. And become the story a handful share with each other in the future.

[Note: Apologies for the lack of structure. I just had to get this out. Comments/Feedback appreciated.]

Comments

  1. Abhishek Shivkumar says:

    This is a brilliant write-up that is so practical Mahesh. If there is one quality that truly stands out in the list for me, it is Empathy.

    I have seen so many people (including managers) who give lot of importance to all other qualities, but fail to show empathy towards their team members when it is truly required. I feel that is a real test of patience and leadership to be able to put your self in the other person’s shoe and understand how it feels to be on the other side of the river. Wishing a simple “good morning / bye” after a day long fight over some technical discussion goes a long way. Introducing the junior team member when he/she all of a sudden joins a discussion over lunch in the pantry really builds the trust and shows that we really care.

    In short, I feel being able to connect with the other person by being empathetic is the tuffest among all skills above because it really tests one’s ego and character. It takes nothing to say ‘Thank you’ or to just smile when you see the junior in the corridor, but not everyone can do that even though it costs nothing. I feel being emphathetic and able to judge what is really important at a particular moment is very important specially in a startup where there is a lot of expections.

    • Ah..first comment! Glad you liked it Abhishek πŸ™‚

      Completely agree around the empathy point and you have highlighted few behavioral traits that can immediately matter. As you point out character is the hardest to build. We have stereotypes, wannabes and lurkers. And character demands being thoughtful, humble and truly wanting to drive something meaningful externally and internally. Unfortunately the drug called mediocrity and pay cheque conspires against most..

      Let us hope at least a few of us escape that pit.

Trackbacks

  1. Abishek Goda says:

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