Monday, August 31, 2020

To Succeed as an Employee in a Startup Company...

I'm nearing two years at this little startup company, and we've changed a number of times since I got here. I'm on my fourth organizational structure and third boss. In the last org shake up my boss and I headed the same direction and I'm actually the only person from his old reports that still report to him. Funny enough, I'm actually the only person in my group, my box of the org chart. We're hiring!

We've had a few people leave recently, two nearing 10 years total experience in their 30s and two in their younger 20s, like 23-24. When you break down each person's reasons for leaving they all make sense. Yet, in such a small and young company there is a big sense of loss with each departure. So I've been thinking about why they left and what we might have done differently to either keep them longer, or give them a better picture of the work they were going to do here. And I had a realization...

In a big established company people who are professionally successful are good at going through the existing processes and producing work in accordance with those norms, and people who are comfortable navigating the bureaucracy of a large complicated organization. In a really small company, like less than 20 people, maybe up to 35 people, the ones who are successful get things done. Pure and simple they just produce results. However, to thrive in a startup as it grows you can't just be a person that gets things done, or a person that follow the processes. This has taken me a long time to articulate... Success for a person in a startup comes from being able to just get things done, and then articulate and communicate the process you used to get things done, so that it can be replicated and scaled up. 

Realizing that was a game changer for me in the last few days. Of course as the company grows the quality expectations grow too so processes necessarily get more complicated with more checks to poor work. We had a person leave a few months ago who was good at getting things done, but she was pretty terrible about articulating all of the things she did or communicating those things to people. She had previously worked at a startup where there were three engineers for the whole five years she was there, so all of the engineers knew everything about the product. At our company the product is too complex for any one person to know all of the details. However, the flip side of that is that we don't have the formal processes that a 50 year old company has, so on boarding new people can be a little chaotic and I think we struggle to articulate the expectations. For example, a person with 10 years at established companies might be exasperated at the pace of product change and in particular at the lack of rigor that sometimes happens when we make a change to our product. On the other hand the new graduate has no frame of reference for what it's like to work at a company with established processes so she is free to change things that would never be permitted for such an inexperienced person at a larger company.

Honestly, my company has had a lot of failures when it comes to articulating (which is something you can do in your own head) and communicating how we do things. In particular, we bring people in, we don't give them all the information about how someone else used to do that job, and we expect them to do the job even as we double in size and the requirements from that position change. When I read entrepreneurs writing about how hard it is to build a company, I get it now. Let me put that another way, people crave a process. That's a good article linked there by the way. So I haven't actually been promoted in two years, so take my advice with a grain of salt. However, I have quantified, clarified, and attempted to communicate the processes that I work most closely with and as a result people often default to my processes for things that really might be better suited to a different process. While this may not have resulted in my being promoted, it definitely has affected my peers who seem to enjoy this small amount of structure that we have to document our work. 

Taking the next leap, I've been thinking quite a bit more this summer about a company I'd like to start. The core technology isn't ready yet, but it could be in the next year or two. So all of the hurdles that I am going through with my current company are excellent examples of what to do and what not to do. I think that I've learned enough that I could seriously cut a year of development time from company founding to product launch, maybe even in only four years. Of course, I'm waiting for a certain technology item to be somewhat proven before I launch, and right now it is clearly not proven, so I'm still learning.