4 Ways To Prepare Yourself For Your First Startup Job

“I want to work at a startup because it’s cool”

– me, circa 2016

It was the beginning of 2016. I was a sales executive for a steel trading company. It is exactly what you’d imagine: a typical 9 to 5 job with half-cubicles, formal business attires, and repetitive day-to-day tasks. My work life was a stock photo.

This is quite accurate barring the fact that I’m not white.
PC: Google Images

From an outsider’s perspective, everything seems to be in place for me. I was one of the top performing salesperson, I have great coworkers, was on my way up on the corporate ladders, and had opportunities to go on overseas business trips every now and then. All sounds amazing except for one thing: I was extremely bored and madly uninspired.

And then one day, I’ve heard about “startups”. I had no idea what is it exactly. In my mind, startups are “cool companies that do apps”. I was intrigued by the prospect of being able to wear t-shirts to work, have a trendy office with ping-pong table and cozy sofas, and free flow snacks.

I wasn’t exactly sure why startups are different, other than the fact that they are “cooler”. Yes, I am easily amused like that, like Jimmy Fallon when his guest tells a mildly funny anecdote.

Long story short, I joined Codementor. I was the first non-technical employee slash business development guy for the new product CodementorX, where you can Hire World-Class Developers On-demand™ #ads #shamelessplug.

We don’t have a ping-pong table (for now), but my earlier hypothesis that startups = cool companies, was correct, but in different sense. It is cool because compared to traditional companies, startups provide you a platform to make mistakes, learn from it, and apply the lessons you learned on your next move.

So after I joined, I realized that there are more to startups other than being able to wear shorts in the summer (surprise). Startups is a different animal from traditional SMBs. Getting your mindset right is almost as important as getting the job itself. Here are things I wish I could tell myself when I first joined.

Disclaimer: Mind you, if you’re joining a more mature startup, let’s say a company with 100+ employees, then these advices might not apply as much to you compared to if you joined a smaller startup, but I’m sure the mental model would still help ease the transition.

Learn How To Be Data-Driven

In general, small to midstage level startups have a relatively flatter hierarchy. You’ll have more opportunities for your opinions to be heard. Coworkers are more willing to listen to your ideas, and that’s exactly why you should make sure it’s worth their time.

Backing your hypothesis with qualitative or quantitative data is a critical skill to have, and will have positive impact in your career too. The best ideas are based on truth, and numbers (usually) don’t lie.

Coming from a traditional sales background, I was not familiar with the notion of “making hypothesis based on data”, and majoring in English obviously didn’t help. Hell, I didn’t even know what “A/B test” means. When I was assigned the task to launch a cold email campaign with subject line A/B testing, I had to Google it “cold email A/B test”.

Me at my job 70% of the time.
(PC: Google Images)

In those early days, a lot of my opinions and idea fell flat because my arguments are backed merely by what I observe and “feel”. My statements started with “I feel like…”

Your intuition can be correct, but you have to convince other team members that it’s potentially impactful. Most startups have limited resources while at the same time, need to move fast, so backing up your hypothesis with numbers contributes to faster decision making.

“Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.”

W.Deming Edwards

Now speaking of decision making…

Be More Decisive

After you get more comfortable with data, what’s next? You’ll need to learn how to interpret data and decide what to do with it. Honestly, this is always a learning process, and it’s something that I’m trying to better at day by day, even until now.

In startups, velocity of execution is always a priority, and decreasing the time spent on making decisions is essential to maintain the agility and nimbleness of the company. Tomasz Tunguz from Redpoint Ventures wrote a great post about decisiveness. He said:

“Improving our decision-making process is probably the single highest leverage investment we can make. And step one is deciding more quickly when possible, because speed is a sustainable and critical competitive advantage.”

Tomasz Tunguz

If you are a decisive person by nature, good. If you are not, try to prevent yourself from getting into analysis paralysis. According to the wealthiest man in the world, most decisions are reversible, so decide first, and worry later. I’d advise you to trust him. This guy seems to know what he’s doing.

Prepare For A Rough Start

Just to drill this to your head again, the nature of startups is that they are “fast”. Decisions are made faster, things are expected to be done quicker, and unexpected changes are part of your daily menu.

On your first week, you’re most likely spend your time learning how to use a myriad of new tools, understand the usual workflow, and of course, get to know your coworkers better. If the process is poorly designed, this change of gear can be quite overwhelming and energy depleting.

New employee onboarding is still a challenge to this day. In fact, more than 60% of companies execs in America are not satisfied with their onboarding process. There’s literally an array of companies and startups trying to solve this specific problem.

This happens more often than you think
(Credit: sayingimages.com)

If you’re joining a less mature startups, there’s a huge possibility that they haven’t figured out the best onboarding practice that works for them, and you’ll have to work extra hard in the beginning to get up to speed. HR expert Carly Guthrie from Heath Ceramics wrote on First Round Review about how most early-stage startups only put employee onboarding as an afterthought.

I’m a strong proponent of work-life balance, and a big fan of what DHH and Jason Fried is doing in Basecamp (If you’re not familiar with them, check out their philosophy on work-life balance), and I firmly believe no one should burn themselves out working. However, the fact still remains that adapting to a fast-paced environment can be quite daunting, and not every startups has this part figured out.

You might need to spend extra hours everyday to finish your tasks for a couple of weeks until you’re settling down. If things don’t get better, you should voice your concern.

Stay On Top Of Startup News, Trends, and Thought Leaders’ Ideas

If you’re not that familiar with the startup scene, take some time to read more about startup stories, trends in the tech world, or find potential role models. It will open up a brand new horizon of new information and inspiration.

I discover new tools, unique marketing ideas, and fresh knowledge by:

Seek sources of innovations and expand your knowledge to trigger your creativity. If you keep your eyes open, good things will happen.

Joining a startup is one of the best life decisions I’ve made. It allows me to meet and work with amazing people, gain and apply new skills and knowledge, and most importantly, it’s never boring.

Not gonna lie, there’ll be ups and downs. Working at a startup is like riding a roller coaster on steroids, that goes on and on for years, but the view is amazing.