Six Tips How to Play Nicely When Working at a Startup

There’s been a lot of articles written  about this, but there are a lot of people who ignore some very important details.

I’ve worked at enough startups to know the drill: get something out the door quickly, get feedback, repeat. But great startups only succeed when they have great teams.

They work when people are dedicated to an end goal: a great idea executed well. So many things can go wrong because startups are supposed to be risky. How well your team works together is only one part of the equation. If they don’t work together well, they’re bound to fail. That means you have to be part of the team.

No one person in a startup is more important any other; if someone acts this way, they stand out like a sore thumb.

If you want to be a startup junkie, here’s a few tips I’ll hand out for free.

Work like it’s your own money.

I used to work for a consultancy, and  the owner once said, “When I see everyone walking around,  I see dollar signs over their head of how much they are costing me.” After that moment, I had a spreadsheet where I could see everyone’s salary; and I knew exactly what day of the month they went profitable. That made him very, very happy.

If you’re working at a startup, look at the people around you. Figure out how much they are probably costing.

Ask yourself, “Who’s paying for all of this?”  It’s probably not you.

Investment dollars were made off the hard work of someone else.  You’re depending on Angel investors or a VC firm. Everything takes away from that — the $5,000 coffee machine, the free cokes, the team outings to Great America. Morale is great, but that all costs money. Every decision contributes to the bottom line (or lack there of). Every dollar saved contributes to a longer runway.

Figure out how you contribute to the bottom line and act accordingly.  Look at the process and see how you can improve it instead of increasing headcount. No company needs a team of designers or front end engineers if there’s a solid foundation for doing work. Work together to make it work smoother.

Every decision counts. Don’t do them alone.

The cool thing about startups is that everyone generally gets to either work together, or has close communication channels. You can get co-workers to come over to your desk or on Skype and ask them, “What do you think of this?” before executing the idea.

Any party in a startup that goes off and builds a feature alone doesn’t understand that most great products come from great teams. Apple might have one Steve Jobs, but they also have people like Jonathan Ive and other designers that tirelessly re-hash ideas to make sure they haven’t missed anything in designing a product.

Show your work to everyone and collect feedback. That’s why startups have open environments — to encourage communication and collaboration.

Don’t be a gatekeeper.

I’ve worked at a few places where there was one person that controlled access to too many things. One place, I couldn’t so much as install an instant messenger without a blood sample, note from my mom, and a notarized form. In good situations, gatekeepers provide checks and balances. In bad situations, they are dictators that can kill a startup with their self-righteous ways.

Gatekeepers take all forms: system administrators that hold you hostage, developers that won’t develop features without spec’ing them out in triplicate, designers that move things “just because.” All can be  detrimental  to an environment.

Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean you are the only opinion. If you are the sole person blocking something, not only do you have too much power, you are blocking a collaborative environment and could potentially kill a startup.

Don’t be an idiot.

The No Asshole rule goes like this: don’t hire assholes.

Weak links stand out like sore thumbs in startup environments. They’re the ones that don’t want to collaborate, that think they’re ideas are vastly superior, that are roadblocks to getting things done. They insist on doing things their own way when they actually cost the company time and money. They don’t act like they’re part of the team.

Don’t be an asshole — a team should work toward a common goal. Treat someone like you want to be treated.

You don’t own the work. Remember, it’s not your money (see above). It’s not for your portfolio. It’s for the livelihood of the other 10 to 50 people with whom you are working. They have rents, mortgages and car payments.  If you’re an asshole, there’s a good chance someone’s going to miss a car payment because of your selfish actions.

When the culture isn’t a fit and you can’t commit to working with people, go somewhere else. It’s a much better situation for everyone involved.

Make mistakes for the right reasons.

Startups make all kinds of mistakes: bad platform decisions, wrong markets to target, wrong people to hire. The best one’s succeed, in spite of themselves.

We’ll take MySpace, for example. The original version of MySpace was built on the Cold Fusion platform in ten days  and survived well. The original mistake was building it on Cold Fusion. It’s a platform that doesn’t scale, but they made the decision for the right reasons: it’s a platform that’s easy to learn and great for elaborate proof of concepts.

The second mistake was bad. Someone should have said, “Ya know, we really have to plan for the future.”

No one ever did.

The initial mistake didn’t harm MySpace early on; and in the end, it was able to scale the platform to a point where NewsCorp bought it for $580 million. The fatal mistake was planning for a migration when traffic spiked or to allow them more flexibility in product design. While .NET and Cold Fusion were initially blamed, it’s really management’s fault for not planning ahead.

Mistakes are okay, if you have contingency plans. Strategize accordingly and plan to correct them as soon as possible.

Take ownership.

When you’re working for a startup, the organization is fairly flat: there’s a good chance that the CEO is going to be emptying the trashcan and vacuuming the place. That said, you have to realize that you are building something really cool; and that means having an impact now and for years to come.

That means it’s not a McJob.

Take ownership and pride in everything you do. Spend an extra hour cleaning up some HTML and making the user  experience  that much better. Proofread the marketing copy. Clean up your desk. Learn another job so you can help someone else.

It also means owning up to your mistakes. If there’s something that didn’t work out the way that you want, or something was rushed out, it’s okay to say, “My Fault.” Taking ownership means preventing the same issue from happening again.

People should take personal responsibility in the greater goal. While it may not be your money, you are so much more of a part of the company than working at somewhere larger like eBay. Act accordingly.

Don’t forget to download the Startup Drinking Game iPhone app.

It’s free. Click here to download.



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