⇐ Previous | Next ⇒

5 important things I have learned in a startup

Post created 2013-12-31 11:05 by Gabe Koss.

In 2010 I began working with a fledgling startup called Pwnie Express. Since that time we have established a strong presence in the Infosec industry. We recently raised a bit of money which is allowing us to start to expand our operation and development efforts. As the company starts to move into the second phase of its life I have been reflecting on some of the things I learned in the earliest days.

1. Activate communication

As a way to protect our own ability to maintain focus and avoid context switching programmers generally prefer passive communication methods such as chat, email or other messaging solutions. These tools allow us to conveniently place messages or requests into someone elses queue. We are also able to process our own queue of messages as we have time or cognitive cycles.

Programmers like passive, but passive doesn't always cut it. Passive comunication may be perfect for 90% of communications that occur in a tech startup. However, it is critical to recognize when it is time to talk in person or at least pick up the phone.

Active communication guarantees what someone knows something as quickly as you can get in touch with thim and helps to minimize any slippage of communication when the pressure is on.

2. Compartmentalize strategy and tactics

You end up hearing a lot of jargon about tactical (often a synonym for "short-term") versus strategic ("long-term") thinking and planning.

The real key here is to be able to mentally seperate the two. All too often an idea comes up which may or may not fit into the established strategic plan. Our minds often help us rationalize this new idea as a "tactical" action on our current strategic objective, even if it has nothing to do with it.

We temporize adressing the things that we need to get done immediately in favor of day dreaming about what we could do.

Another way of saying this is that tactics tends to change a lot more frequently than strategy. If you are finding that what you are working on is a constantly moving target you may need to step back and reevaluate just what it is you are trying to accomplish.

3. Perfection is unattainable

This one hurts.

I feel like this is something everyone has to learn over and over in various parts of their life. Recognizing this as reality within the context of a startup is crucial to success.

Again, returning to the programmer mentality, it is easy to imagine a perfect program with no flaws that does exactly what you want. Every input is accounted for and every variance in the logic of the program works as expected.

This utopian ideal is nearly unattainable on large software projects which have new and changing requirements. If that wasn't bad enough, the challenges facing a startup are generally several orders of magnitude more complex than the software being developed.

When learning all the highly adaptive skills one picks up in a young company it is important to let go of many of our preconceptions of what "success" or "perfection" might mean for certain endeavors.

Often moving quickly is paramount and so is the abilty to mentally move on when minimum requirements have been met.

4. Balance prevents burnout

This one was huge for me. I was a contract programmer and web developer for years before getting involved with my first real startup. I had experienced work stress and burnout but never like I have during crunch-time at a startup.

Finding work taking over my life was exhilirating at first but I quickly started to come up against walls in my personal life. Make sure you make the time take care of yourself and your life.

I particularly like this quote from Brian Dyson (source)

"Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them - work, family, health, friends and spirit - and you're keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls - family, health, friends and spirit - are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life."

The bottom line for me was that if I work a bit less and take better care of myself I work better and am overall more effective. It is hard to force yourself to detach when things are moving so fast but you will benefit from it enormously.

5. Keep having fun

No matter how intense or stressful being in a startup may be, just remember it is important to recognize how awesome it is too.

You are doing something few people ever do: you are building something from nothing in the real world. If that isn't fun, you are in the wrong line of work.

Remember, you can always go "get a job". Finding ways to maximize the craziness of the startup will make your experience one of the funnest things you ever get to do.

comments powered by Disqus