I have bad news for anyone looking to get into the startup game for the first time: not everybody can make it. Still, the only way to find out if it's for you is to try. And that takes hard work, dedication, and at least a little strategic foresight.
More than working at a traditional organization, the level of success you reach at a startup is mainly up to you. Whether you're joining a startup after a career at a big company or taking your first job at one, here's what you need to do during your first year in order to succeed.
Your earliest experience working at a startup might not be a full-time affair at first. There might not be any open positions at startups you like that exactly fit your skill set, so look for any way you can contribute. Offer to work part-time or on a freelance basis. A certain startup might not have the budget to hire a full-time social media manager, for instance, but if that's your passion, you could still offer to help build the company’s presence on different platforms on nights and weekends, and show how valuable you'd be down the line. The first employee my cofounder and I hired at our own startup was an intern who did just that. Six months later, he was running all of our marketing campaigns.
When you prove you want to be part of the team and can add real value, a space for you will develop organically. But you have to get in on the ground floor and show what you've got.
Startups may have an entrepreneurial mystique about them, but you can’t go into this world asking what’s in it for you. A new startup doesn’t owe you anything.
It’s part of the typical startup culture to put the company's needs first—before individual careers and personal ambitions. In fact, in a 2015 survey by the Startup Institute, entrepreneurial leaders listed the top qualities they look for in employees, and willingness to put the company before oneself was one of the most desired traits.
That means working as a team of equals where no task is below anyone’s pay grade. At my startup, The Bouqs Company, one example is trash duty: All of us, from the CEO down to the newest intern, take turns taking out the trash. Another is customer service: Every single employee, from the COO to the CMO to creatives to coders, pitches in on customer service during our busiest holidays. Eighty-four percent of respondents in a 2014 study by Millennial Branding and Beyond.com said the top attribute they look for in employees is a positive attitude.
No matter how impressive your resume, you need to be willing to do what it takes to make the startup—not you—successful, all without complaining. That definitely isn't always easy. But as the company succeeds, so will you.
Startups are often cash-strapped and need to get the biggest bang for their buck. That means you need to prove you have something extra to bring to the table. And that something is almost always worth way more than what they actually pay you.
So think of it as a career investment that will pay off later on, and start by being great at your immediate job. In that first year, take on every task that's thrown at you, do it well, and then ask for another. As you get the hang of that, look for ways to add value, no matter how small, beyond your core role. Organize an event, set up the company’s social media page, bake a tray of mac and cheese for coworkers during that late-night sprint. Any skill or knowledge you bring to the table means one less employee the startup needs to find.
By proving there’s a great return on the investment in you, a bigger role will develop naturally as the company scales up.
A 2015 Virgin Pulse survey found that the main reason 38% of employees love their company is its mission. To be part of the startup culture, you have to be deeply committed to what your startup is trying to do.
If you don't, you’re unlikely to succeed. What's more, your lack of conviction might hinder the organization’s overall success. Constantly remind yourself of whatever got you interested in the startup in the first place. There will be moments where you’re tired, overworked, underpaid, and you feel underappreciated. That's when your commitment will be tested, and to really make it in a startup, you have to be ready to pass that test. After all, the core values and goals of the company are what’s going to make all the hard work worth it—as will that equity check!
But if you find your enthusiasm flagging over the course of the first year, even after giving it your damnedest, don't beat yourself up—but know when it's time to bow out.