Started From The Bottom: 6 Business Lessons I Learned From Working At 6 Startups
I'm a start-up junkie. I love the atmosphere of being able to freely throw ideas back and forth with my coworkers, having direct contact with the CEO and the added responsibility that comes with working at one.
Moreover, I love that the pace at which you learn is accelerated dramatically, and you're either on the verge of having a complete anxiety attack or finding greatness.
The start-up life is not for everyone, however. It's for people who love risk, believe in their ability to quickly learn and are willing to work hard enough for the dream.
Working at a startup is not just a job; it's a lifestyle. In order to be part of a successful team, you have to be constantly improving upon your abilities and remain incredibly focused.
When you get off of work, you won't be watching TV or doing any time-wasting activities; you'll be improving your skills and attitude. Whether this means reading how-to books and articles, coding or hitting the gym, you're constantly productive.
Start-up life is not for the faint of heart. I have met very few people able to thrive in a start-up environment, let alone help turn an idea into a thriving company. If you're looking to jump into a startup or are already there, check out the following six lessons I learned from working at six startups:
1. No free interns
Free interns don't help startups succeed. If employees don't have basic pay or any claim to part of the business, they have no incentive to work. Never bring people on board for free — at least be able to offer school credit.
Furthermore, dealing with unhappy interns will do nothing for a business and will allow for quick rollover, making the hiring process very difficult. If someone is willing to work for free, what does that say about the skills the person has to offer the company? Be careful.
2. Be honest
When working at a startup, it's easy to cut corners, and sometimes, you will find great corners worth cutting. However, never cut the ones that can hurt your reputation, especially if you're the boss. The company must be honest with the value it presents to the customers and employees.
A boss who is dishonest to his employees and defrauds his customers will ALWAYS face consequences.
When I started working for my second startup, everything sounded great. The small company was just moving into a new office, and the CEO put us through a week of training before we would start getting paid hourly, plus commission.
Then, it turned out that the pay was only commission and the place he found for the company's new office was being rented at an extreme discount because it was previously a dispensary.
I didn't stay there long, especially after a significant amount of time passed without me receiving pay. My boss lied to his employees and was overpromising his company's services, which destroyed his relationships with customers. Several months after I quit, I found his name on a fraud report after Googling the company to see what had happened to it.
If the CEO is not upfront and genuine, he or she will get caught and may never be able to get a job again.
3. Be a communicator and a mentor
When a CEO hires employees, he or she shouldn't just tell speak about the big idea, provide a room in which to work and then say, "Start." Even in a startup, an employee needs direction, but more importantly, he or she needs a leader and a mentor.
It's unacceptable if the CEO of a small startup doesn't respond to an employee's questions within the same day. Startups require constant communication because they thrive on feedback and fresh ideas. When a CEO fails to be available for employees, he or she shouldn't expect to receive the employees' help in the future.
4. Understand your employees' potential
When a CEO hires someone to board his or her startup, it's important to see what the employee can accomplish when put to the test. Very little can be learned from a résumé and a cover letter regarding someone's ability to learn on the job and be innovative.
If someone expresses the mentality of wanting to change the world, it's a good sign that the employee will do whatever it takes to succeed.
If employees are put in positions that force them to adjust, learn quickly and overcome obstacles, it'll be easier to evaluate whether they are a fit for the start-up life. If you give a rockstar employee basic work, you're not only undermining the employee's potential, but your company's potential, as well.
Companies must understand the potential that their new hires have to offer. The only way to discover whether or not they are gems is to treat them like gems. If a new hire wants more responsibility and input, then give it to him or her and see what happens; you might just be surprised.
5. Jump in the deep end
After trying to start my own company and eventually watching it crumble, I knew that trying was still the best decision I had ever made. I dropped out of school while chasing my third degree and embraced the 80-hour-plus workweek.
Sometimes, I would work from 6:30 am to 1 am for a couple of weeks straight, and to make matters more difficult, I was on a bootstrap budget. I knew I was learning so much about business that even if my company had failed, the experience was well worth it.
The pressure and anxiety that came from trying to keep something together was insane. We were working from the living room of a college house, and at the time, I had seven roommates who had to deal with my company's employees taking up a quarter of the house on a daily basis.
I ended up being so broke that I ate just oatmeal and spaghetti for months. I guess that's what happens when you're a 22-year-old who believes he can change the world. After seven months, it all came crashing down; the funding wasn't there, and our marketing tactics were taking too long to show results, especially given that we needed money to feed ourselves.
I have no regrets. It was the best experience of my life and provided me with the tools and qualities to work where I do now: in Silicon Valley at a startup with former Googlers.
6. Find a good team that can elevate your level of play
After trying to run my own company, I thought I knew a lot about business. However, working for a startup in which everyone has worked for some of the best companies in the world, I felt a little overwhelmed.
One of the reasons I got hired was because "I was scrappy," as they stated in the interview. Essentially, they believed I would do anything to overcome obstacles.
In the next two months of work, I proved them right by reading more than 20 business books during my free time. I turned my weak business knowledge into one of my strongest suits. I may not have had much of a social life, but it was worth it.
Sometimes, it takes a little crazy and a lot of ambition to realize your own potential.
Photo Courtesy: HBO/Silicon Valley