The Startup Groupie

It’s tough to grow a startup. Talent is limited and not readily available, often because those who are capable are already busy doing great things in other ventures.

And the right talent to not only survive but thrive in a startup environment is hard to pin down and classify. Often times I know with more certainty what doesn’t work instead of what does work, if that makes sense.

I liken it to the eternal question that you’ve asked (and been asked):

So, what/where do you want to eat?

Typically I know what I do not want to eat instead of what I really want to eat. I can systematically list all the places that I don’t want to go to but it can be a challenge to actually land on a place to go, especially if there are others involved and this is a somewhat “group decision.”

I have attempted, previously in a few posts, to enumerate the qualities that I look for in a new hire for a startup (here, here, and here and here) and those still work but I’ll admit that I am ultimately looking for the magic “spark” that gets me excited about working with the person.

This is impossible to qualify and/or quantify (although something worth noting is the ability to see oneself working for this person) but it’s one of those “you know it when you see it” type deals (e.g. passion via my dad).

But we all can be too easily fooled.

The Startup Groupie

This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently as I’ve attempted to scale my startup and I’ve never been able to concretely capture the thought until recently when I came upon the term and idea of the startup groupie.

These are people who love the idea of being part of a startup and are completely enchanted by the possibility but who really do not have what it takes to work in that very different environment.

There is a part of this growing phenomenon that is not entirely their fault as there is a growing trend of heralding and highlighting the so-called “obvious” benefits of working for a startup. Freedom and autonomy, cool “perks” and a lifestyle that is flexible and fluid and the chance to work on something that “matters” instead of just another widget.

Culture and the startup economy has blanketed our world with these ideas and ideals and have not equally balanced it with the stark reality of not just starting a new venture but also working for a new venture.

The reality is that working for a high-tech startup involves significant career risks. Pay is generally low and hours can be long and very, very difficult. Oftentimes the “lifestyle” is much different than what is advertised and the person’s family is sacrificed or at least the family dynamic is severely challenged.

Most startups fail. This is not a cute saying – this is the cold, stark, heartless truth. This is how it should be and technology isn’t going to change the statistical proof of failure rate. I know this because the vast majority of my ventures have landed squarely in the dead-pool.

Consequently, the pressure to succeed is immense. And the responsibility sits squarely on all employees, not just the startup founders. If the venture fails, guess what? Everyone has go to figure out “Plan B” and go get new jobs. Not everyone is made for that type of experience and lifestyle (and again, that’s the way it should be).

If you cannot thrive in this level of ambiguity and this amount of responsibility and pressure then a startup is not for you.

Naturally there are times where the colossal risks pay off big time and employees can experience and earn wealth beyond their wildest of dreams. That possibility is and will forever be enchanting and exciting. It’s why many of us still do what we do.

In the end the startup groupie is not the type of person nor employee who can weather the physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological stress of a startup. This is not a bad thing, mind you, nor a hit on anyone’s character or integrity or performance.

Just as not everyone is meant to play professional sports not everyone is meant to join a fast-growing startup. It is what it is; no critique, no judgment whatsoever. This metaphor and model works really well, by the way.

So if the techno-culture is responsible for contributing to some of the noise and enchantment of joining a startup then the rest lies on the startup groupie and their own perception of who they are as an adult and professional.

What do I mean by this? The power of self-awareness is crucial. You must have the emotional maturity and experience to be able to look at oneself in the mirror and, as objectively as possible, consider if the startup world and economy is something that will really work for you.

The problem, quite naturally, is that we deceive not only ourselves but are able to just as easily deceive others. I do not believe this is done intentionally, for the most part, but it’s just that we’re not very good at spotting our own blindspots (duh). One way to quickly assess startup readiness is by having others help you through that decision-making process. Getting a mentor as well really, really works well too.

Finally, on the topic of the startup groupie one clear signal that I’ve encountered more recently and with more consistency than ever is meeting people who tell me, with a strange level of (ignorant) confidence that they want to be an entrepreneur, even before they’ve really done any work (these are younger folks, typically).

I am flabbergasted by this attitude because most of these people haven’t lived long enough to even spell that word. How do they really know? These aren’t people I’m looking to hire. They just aren’t emotionally mature enough nor are they self-aware enough to know the difference.

And, in many ways, I think entrepreneurship finds the entrepreneur. A startup discovers great staff. It’s not a linear and obvious progression. Nor can it be manufactured or prescribed.

10+ More Tips…? Okay. Fine.

I wrote this next section a while ago but didn’t post it as I wanted to massage it a bit. I thought it would be helpful to share after somewhat of a rambling blog post so that I can still provide some value to the many readers here.

So here it is…

Getting a job at a startup is a strange thing. It happens and then it doesn’t happen. Offers are given without being asked and rejections are a dime-a-dozen. There’s almost no science to it except the old adage of “being at the right place at the right time.”

But we’ll attempt to do that anyways, won’t we? Here are some patterns of behavior and in perspective that I’ve noticed that might help those considering a startup:

1. Marriage

You care. You can’t help but care about what they are doing outside of work because it impacts what you do at work. Just like you don’t want your wife going tipsy at the club during a Thursday night alone without you… well, you don’t want that really happening to your core developer either (although he can go by himself if he wants).

You deeply care about the company, the success of the company, and the people that you work with. This is what we call commitment and that’s what marriage is all about. Especially at the top the leaders are essentially married to one another until an exit event occurs.

Or, until the startup is royally fucked and fails. Whatever happens first I suppose. The staff will feel this as well and so you should hire people that understand this dynamic (even if they haven’t experience marriage in their own personal lives). It’s an interesting question to ask in interviews as well…

2. Titles

Titles are bullpoopy. Everyone helps with everything. You work hard, you work long, and rank is superficial and for the conceited. That’s why I love our titles on our website @ The Iron Yard. Basically we’ve tried to keep it strictly functional. I mean, it is what we actually do, right?

If you’re more interested in a killer title then you’re in the wrong industry and niche. And, if I am to be completely transparent, if the first thing you do as you introduce yourself to me for the first time is throw in a title, like CEO or Director-of-Clever-Super-Title then I laugh at you in my heart – because I don’t even know what those things mean.

If you can’t live without a title then you don’t belong in a startup because you’re focusing entirely on the wrong thing. Who really gives a flip anyway? No one, that’s right.

3. Emotion

Unless you’re a deflated bag of bag potato chips you need emotion and heart to run a startup and be a part of one. If you don’t show this then you’ll see the door faster than a backslap from from your doctor when you first came out of the womb.

People tell me all the time that I need to somehow learn to isolate and segregate my emotions from who I am and what I do. Impossible if you work in a startup. This is you very livelihood – how can you not get emotional about that?

Of course, it should be tempered and you should do all that you can to manifest and share your emotion with a level of adult maturity, but let’s be honest for a moment: This is really tough stuff. I cry once a week about the challenges that I face. I have wanted to quit multiple times over (once a day…?) for every one of my startups. I don’t quit but I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t think it.

4. Attitude

If you’re behavior is crap then no one likes you and you probably will be shown the door at some point in time. But that’s just you. If your attitude is bad then no one wants to work with you and now you’re infecting the entire organization. Don’t get it twisted. I can work on and coach out bad behavior but your attitude might just shot-block you every single time.

Growth-minded perspectives and attitudes are the only type that will thrive in a startup ecosystem. You have to believe (even if you feel like quitting at times – see #3) that it’s going to work and that you’re going to absolutely destroy the market, even when the odds are significantly stacked in your favor.

I love spending time with people that believe that they can do anything and so I can augment their enthusiasm, drive, and passion for excellence. I have almost no time to work with people where I have to coach their baseline attitudes. No startup has time to work on those people. They should go get a job that can literally afford this waste.

5. Work Ethic & Hustle

If you don’t like working hard (and I mean seriously fucking hard) then go someplace else. Fly or die time.

Every single person that I’ve met is willing to work hard – the question is whether they actually do this or not. A word that we’ve been throwing around as a leadership team recently is a word that I’m not a super-fan of but is very appropriate for most situations, and that word is hustle.

There are those that do this naturally and on their own accord and those that have to be constantly jump-started to do it. Obviously, a startup requires staff and team members that do not need to be told to hustle – they just do this for themselves and they work hard.

A natural outcause of this level of work ethic is that trust and intimate rapport is created between other staff members and leadership. And, the first people that find opportunities for growth and progression in the organization are also the ones that are hustling on the right things.

You see, not all of hustle is created equal. That is to say, that just because you are working hard does not necessarily mean you are working hard on the right things, especially the things that the organization needs at this very moment.

A startup is constantly changing and the needs of the growing organization is constantly evolving. If you’re not in-tune with the needs of the organization than effort and work is potentially wasted in areas that do not need to be focused on at that specific time.

The remedy? See #6…

6. Baller Communication Skills

Communication is the lifeblood of a startup and we have a number of systems and technologies in place to allow copious amount of information to flow freely between team members and leadership.

But, it is up to each individual to actually do this, not just well but also wisely. Not everyone responds well to a text message or a ping via a closed loop communication tool. If phone calls or video conferencing works better then you should do that.

Regardless, if you’re not a good communicator and do not execute against this daily then you are not a cultural fit for any startup, not just the ones that I are fortunate to run and operate. There are many other organizations that do not necessarily need constant communication to be successful and you should join those types of organizations with a culture that can support relative silence.

Communication, also, does not require additional overhead or commitment nor is a ton of communication a way of “checking in” or “making sure that people are actually working.” It is simply an instinct and natural by-product of an internal motor that pings one’s survival mechanism. Want to survive and thrive in a startup? Communicate. Want to die? Don’t.

This isn’t something that can be taught as it has to exist before the hire is even made. Testing for it is crucial and if you can do a better job of qualifying candidates

7. Ask Questions, Do Your Homework

This two things can be combined as I will never hire someone who doesn’t ask great questions nor someone who doesn’t do their homework on an organization. The former is a consequence of the latter, by the way.

You see, if you’re doing your homework then you’re getting all the information that you can get on your own volition and through your own creative channels and techniques. If you can’t find the answer then you humbly and courageously ask for help and ask the right questions to fill in the gaps.

A startup is ambiguous and the leadership, especially in the beginning, may be the only few who really have an idea of what’s really going on globally. Without the staff asking the right questions then vision and mission leak and the consequence of that leaking is momentum and growth.

This is very much in line with someone being what I call “humblitious” or “humbly ambitious” – they are hungry and do work to find out the answers but are humble and self-aware enough to ask the right questions without fear.

8. Pay

If you’re looking for the most stacked out financial package then a startup really isn’t for you. You’re in it for the wrong reasons and you should go do something that will easily make you more money, especially something that is far less risky.

A startup is an opportunity to do something exciting with your life with real and gigantic impact. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme nor does that really actually happen. Staff must be bought-in to this reality before they ever sign on to the company.

That being said, every leader and company should do all that they can to financially provide as best as possible for their employees. That is their duty and responsibility and so far I’ve been blessed to be able to do that for my team @ The Iron Yard. We pay competitively and provide a “work / life” balance that is envious. Serving others (this model) is success.

I’m not a fan of that terminology, though, but that’s a blog post for another time.

9. Ego

You can leave that at the door – or, at least, the wrong type of it (see “humblitious” above). Sure, you’ve got some, that’s why we want you. But if it gets in the way of the team then you’re out. You have a role to play and not a dragon to slay solo. In fact, we don’t go questing ever without a team. Didn’t MMORPG’s teach you that?

You know it when you see it and the bad ego is offensive.

10. More Characteristics

This is somewhat of a lame attempt to add a #10, but you should go read this post for 10 Characteristics of a Growing Entrepreneur.

And… start working on them. And… if you fit the bill, ping me. I’m hiring. I’d love to work with you.