At e27, we talk a lot about founders and investors.
Our readers are made up of people who are starting a company, thinking about starting a company and investors looking for new startups for potential deals. Another significant part of our readership are people who work for startups, whether because they need to keep up with news or because they are surrounded by the culture and find it interesting.
Yet we rarely write about employees. We talk about mental health, gender diversity, work-life balance and tips for taking the startup to the next level. These topics are typically aimed at founders, but they equally apply to employees.
However, while employees may deal with specific issues, they have a different relationship to the situation. They are not the owners, they have bosses and while they may provide input they are not in control of a company’s destiny.
I have been working in startups for about 7-8 years (and I am only 30-years-old). Most of my adult life has been spent working in this universe but I have never been a founder. In some senses, I am an expert at being a startup employee.
So, I figured, why not pass along 12 pieces of advice that I think will help people improve their job performance.
Find the fun
This is different from ‘have fun’ because the brutal reality is there will be long stretches that will be tiring, painful and demanding. But if you cannot find the fun, it will be impossible to last for more than a year or two. This usually involves being passionate about either the industry, the core job or the company culture.
There HAVE to be moments where you take a look around and think, “Oh yeah, this is why I do this.” If those do not happen fairly regularly (maybe once per quarter at a minimum) then it’s time to look for another job.
If ‘find the fun’ is the most important advice, then this is a close second. This industry can make people extremely jaded (and it seems when people start to get cynical it snowballs and gets worse). Make it your life mission to avoid pessimism.
It is perfectly acceptable to approach a decision with cynicism, but once you approach life with pessimism you run the risk of becoming bitter.
Once pessimism transform into bitterness then it is time for an intervention. It becomes impossible to do a job well (because nobody wants to be around you) and it’s horrible for personal health.
Trust me, you WILL find yourself becoming cynical about startups. It will happen more than once. Just recognise it and tell yourself, “I am going to try to be more positive this week.” You may not turn into Jolly Jane but you’ll pull yourself out of a negative cycle.
Give everything you can but not everything you have
The reality of the job is that overtime is both inevitable and frequent. If you are about to ink a big deal with an American partner and they request a call at 1am SGT, well then, you have to take that call. What you do not have to do is show up to work at 9am in the office the next day.
Tell the boss that because you worked 1.5 days on Tuesday you will be coming in at noon on Wednesday.
Remember, this is not your company. The firm’s positive growth will help you grow, learn and hopefully make a little bit of money but it will not make you a multi-millionaire. Don’t kill yourself for a working-class salary.
Work hard, but don’t destroy yourself.
This is not your company
As hinted above, keep in mind that you do not own this company.
Unless you are Sheryl Sandberg and are an early employee sitting on Facebook, company shares will not make you rich. Yes, it can be a nice injection of cash, but only in the most rare of circumstances will it be enough to change your life.
Employees can get so emotionally involved in the day-to-day tasks that they forget that people we never see (investors) will get a lot wealthier because of our hard work.
I am not saying this is a bad thing, it’s just the way the world works (and it is their money).
What I am saying is to keep this in mind. If you find yourself pulling 70-hour weeks, take a step back and assess if your salary is high enough to justify that time spent away from family and friends. Oftentimes no salary is high enough.
Enjoy the wins, but not too much. Mourn the losses, but not too much
I have not played a single minute of competitive baseball since I was 10-years-old. And yet the lessons that game teaches are the most important values in my life.
One of them is that baseball teams play the game every single day. While other sports build up to a singular event, baseball players work like we do. They show up every day.
This means that if you hit a walk-off home run to win the game today, you may very easily make a huge error to cost a loss tomorrow. The result of this schedule means it is crucial to not get too high and not get too low.
If you win at your job and carry the celebration for a full week, then you are going to make gigantic mistakes and crash hard. As the saying goes, “pride cometh before the fall.”
Equally as important is not getting too low if you lose at your job. It can create a tailspin effect that can be disastrous.
It’s like a shooter video game, if you get killed once or twice it’s crucial to not get frustrated and lose focus because then suddenly the death numbers become 5-6-7 and suddenly you are realising you were the reason the team lost.
It’s important to enjoy the wins and acknowledge the failures, but don’t let it consume you.
Don’t burn bridges
I also have a fairly unique experience whereby my work experience is split between three places have become micro-ecosystems (Bay Area, Hong Kong and Singapore). Maybe it is possible to be a jerk and not feel backlash in a gigantic city like Jakarta or Beijing, but in Singapore it doesn’t take long to start to know everybody.
Acting like a decent human being is particularly important when do not anybody (oftentimes when first trying to break into the industry). That lunch conversation may seem like a random encounter today, but in two years you will probably see that person all over the place.
I did not realise this as a green-foreigner in Singapore. In hindsight I am very grateful I did not make mistakes I would not have even realised I was making.
If you really screw someone over, it may not manifest itself immediately but the long-term consequences can be extreme.
When networking, arrive early
And leave early if you would like. The point of arriving early is not to be a try-hard. Being early is the best time to actually learn useful nuggets at a networking event.
Most of the people who are early are just milling around and tend to be a bit bored. Any conversation is a welcome break from the drudgery. Plus, once the event starts, people will put on their “professional face” and may be more cagey with their words.
Yes, the 3-4 drinks conversation can also be revealing, but sometimes people want to network without drinking. In this case, the conversations while the staff is making the final preparations can be the best connections of the night.
Speaking of networking, try something besides drinking
The best connections I have made have come from three sources — basketball, jogging and poker.
The reason is because it brings people around a central activity that everyone enjoys (except maybe jogging but at least the group sees its value). That means people can talk about something besides work; whether it is poker stories, NBA basketball chatter or tips about how to get in better shape.
Eventually, a camaraderie (and, dare I say, friendship) will develop. Later, when it is actually time to talk business, there is a positive relationship and both sides are willing to engage.
Plus, if someone is a bad person it will show itself before its too late and documents have been signed.
Go down with the company
This may seem counter-intuitive, but once a company stars crashing people usually trip over themselves bolting for the exits. If you can hold on for a few months, there are some nice benefits (and a paycheque is always good).
The first startup I worked for failed after about a year. At one point, my boss told me that I no longer had a job and I did not need to show up to the office anymore. I stayed for the final month for no pay and am very grateful I did so.
The first reason is I can still call on my boss for help because going down together was a bit of a bonding experience. She is quite successful in her post-startup career. Since we crashed together, the relationship has a bit less of the boss-subordinate dynamic and I am closer to her equal (in her eyes) than I would have been without that experience.
Second, it kept me active. I was still engaging in the working-person lifestyle which helped give me energy to apply for jobs. Sometimes people get into a rut when they are unemployed and showing up to the office every day helped prevent that.
I was unemployed for about a week after the startup failed because I was mixing desperation with societal participation which allowed for a fairly smooth job hunt.
It’s a weird moment witnessing the internal process of a company going out of business. I am not saying it is a positive experience, but I definitely learned from it.
Participate, participate, participate
There are a lot of people who work in the startup world who show up to work, put in their hours and go home. This is a good way to burn out.
Circling back to the first piece of advice, participating in the ecosystem is the only way to build the friendships that make this thing fun. It is going to be very hard to find motivation to come to work every day.
Go to Demo Days, work out of co-working spaces, go to launch parties. You can’t win if you don’t play the game.
Plus, at least a few times you will walk into a talk that is intellectually stimulating. That is always nice.
Remember your place
This one can be hard. In small companies there is often a flat hierarchical structure designed to help people express themselves. The goal is to build a culture where people feel comfortable enough to ‘say no’ if the company is about to make a terrible decision.
It also can create a comfort level that can become a trap. You may say something that you would never utter in a corporate setting.
We often treat corporate bosses with a level of deference that can be overboard while treating startup bosses like family members. Remember, at the end of the day, the boss is the boss. When they pull their CEO-card it’s time to back away and keep on keepin’ on.
Don’t ask for an inch and take a foot
One of the best things about the startup ecosystem is that it follows the rule, “it takes a village to raise a child”. Everyone is aware how difficult the business can be so they are very willing to go out of their way to support one another.
This can be taken advantage of.
If a deal is signed, stick to the deal. Both parties agreed to the terms, not the terms + future requests. If halfway through a project, you realise you need more help, then pay them for it. Renegotiate the deal so they do more work and you give them more money, it’s really that simple.
Don’t take advantage of people’s good will to try and steal, beg and borrow your way to success.
This was a bit of a weird tip to end on, but I tried to order them so that the more important advice was at the top (because statistically only 10 per cent of you will read this sentence).
I think the first six tips are essential to survive in this game and the second six are more, “this will make your life a little better”.
I hope this helps you move forward in your startup job!