Things I Wish I Knew Before Joining a Startup
As of today, it’s been one month since I joined FullContact. Shortly after I started, I explained my thought process that led me to work with the company, but nothing could have prepared me for what I’ve experienced in the 30 days that followed. With that in mind, I thought that it would be fitting to tell you about the things that I wish that I had known before I started.
You’re likely already familiar with the fact that working for a startup means that you’ll wear a number of hats. As FullContact’s Content Director I do produce a lot of content, but I’m also one of the press contacts, the corporate communications guy, the resident copy editor and handler of other duties as needs arise.
Nothing here came as a surprise to me, as Bart, Ben and I had discussed the various roles prior to my joining. But what absolutely did come as a surprise was just how much “stuff” I would need to touch. What appears to be a simple list when you’re discussing it or even looking at the various roles on paper, quickly becomes an all-encompassing deluge of responsibilities. If your'e not flexible enough to put what you’re doing on hold and fight fires when they flare, you’re going to lose your mind rather quickly.
Get REALLY Good at Forecasting
If you think that a task or project is going to take you 30 minutes, you’re going to be shocked when 3 hours rolls around and you’ve only just gotten started. Nothing is as simple as it seems.
For example, we use Buffer to queue up retweets and Facebook posts of the amazing stuff that we’re reading. We also collect stories for the Weekly Playbook. I thought that I could spend a couple of minutes, perhaps over lunch, and knock out a day’s worth of social sharing. I was really dumb. Most days don’t even include time for lunch, or if they do it’s me taking bites in between typing. To rectify this, I’ve started including my reading list in my pre-work routine. Since I have a carefully-curated selection of amazing content sources, it’s not an unpleasant experience, but my estimate of timing was flat out wrong.
I thought that I understood what it meant to be busy. I was pretty certain that I couldn’t be overwhelmed because I’m exceptionally good at pushing forward and not drowning.
Nope. I had no idea.
Whatever you’ve done in life before, I can almost pointedly assure you that you’ll have more responsibilities and more people relying on you to complete them inside of a startup. It goes along with the many hats factor above - You’ll do more, you’ll have fewer people and expectations will be higher.
Learn to Relax
There’s a good reason why many startups have amazing vacation policies - You’re going to need them. When I was in Denver a few weeks ago, I was working 16-18 hour days, sleeping for 4 hours and then doing it all over again. At the end of the week, I relished the weekend ahead. Then on Monday I was exhausted because I didn’t take time to unplug.
It’s ridiculously easy to get excited about what I do, and to spend all of my personal time doing it. I look forward to emails from people on the team, I love being able to solve problems. I’m terrible at unplugging.
But you have to. It’s imperative. Whether it’s at 7pm every day, or from Friday night until Monday morning or whatever works best for you, you absolutely must find time to unwind.
Understand the Numbers
No, not the Apple software (though that wouldn’t hurt either). I’m talking about numbers like CAC, CLTV, bounce rates, CPM and all of the minutia that will add up to be the metrics by which your performance will be graded.
I thought that I knew. I had dealt with these factors before when working for TNW and when helping to mentor early-stage startups. But when it’s your own company things take on a whole different light. If you can’t figure out why one or more of them is out of balance, you’re going to have a bad time.
Secrets = Death
I’m not talking about malicious secrets. I’m referring what my co-worker Kipp calls “campfire knowledge” – It’s that knowledge that only one or two people have. While it’s common in other jobs to keep information to yourself in order to improve your value to the company, in the world of startups that can be your unraveling.
If you’re the only person who knows how do to a certain aspect of your job, you’re screwing over your team. What happens if you’re sick? What about if you are incapacitated for a length of time? Don’t keep secrets. Be loud about your processes so that others can step in when needed.
I used to sell cars. One of the best pieces of advice that I got was from our Finance and Insurance guy - don’t get smart.
When you’re smart, you know all of the answers. Even if they’re wrong. You’re going to screw up, and you’re going to be the only one to blame.
When you’re dumb, you’re curious. And you’re inculpable. You’re willing to learn because the only thing that you know is that you don’t know. Being ignorant is great. It’s the only way to learn.
There’s probably no single thing within the walls of a company that is more important than communication. I tend to compartmentalize as a rule, and I would rather deal with my own problems than bring someone else in.
I’m also stupid.
Your co-workers and executive team are there, in part, to provide you with a support system for your own job. But if you don’t talk to them and let them know your needs, frustrations, joys and the like, then no help can be offered. At FullContact we use a system called 15five. It forces us to take a few minutes each week to reflect, to point out concerns and to address them individually. It’s invaluable.
So there you have it. One month in the life. I’ll probably revisit this topic at the six month and one year marks, but I wanted to make sure to get it into black and white so I can look back and chuckle at my naivety at some later point. For now, I have a reading list to conquer.