Start-up Culture


There is a tendency to idealize the start-up culture. Millennials sipping lattes in their bean bag chairs. An open culture where there are more ideas than there is time to implement them.  While it can be an exciting opportunity, a small company presents a unique set of challenges.  These are challenges unlikely to be ever encountered in a large company because the roles are so well defined there.  I have had the pleasure of working in both a large corporate environment and a small start-up.  As somebody always on the lookout for learning opportunities, I gave up a corporate job to seek a small start-up opportunity. The purpose was to learn and challenge myself to unfamiliar circumstances – different culture and new tasks that I had never encountered before.  Working in a small start-up really opened my eyes to a whole new world of work-related challenges but also a cornucopia of opportunities to be creative and make lasting contributions to an organization.

The following points summarize my advice to anyone who is interested in a small start-up culture:

  1. Prioritize, prioritize and prioritize.  It can feel great checking things off on your-to-do list. But what if your to-do list changes even as you are making a to-do list?
  2. Plan your day well. If you are not a fan of sticky notes, they will be your best friend now.
  3. Keep learning.  You are constantly tasked with duties outside your job description. A love for learning is not just a nice-to-have attribute, it’s critical to success in a small company.  My fondest memory is a manufacturing colleague having to learn Adobe InDesign to create labels, a task usually assigned to a marketing department in a large organization. When a company is perpetually understaffed, it is not unusual for somebody to rapidly pick up a duty way beyond the scope of their job description.  Before you know it, you might become the in-house Excel or Python expert because you took the initiative to advance those skills that your colleagues at a bigger company probably don’t have the opportunity to learn.
  4. Do not expect anyone to hold your hand. Related to point 2, most of the learning is done independently. Largely because everyone is overwhelmed.
  5. Network and network. A small company is not resource-rich; by necessity, you have to find your own resources.  Resources can come from a great network of mentors and previous colleagues and classmates.  Do not burn bridges.
  6. Be very resourceful.  A corollary of this is to be super creative.  A small company, especially at the beginning, is very budget-conscious.   Somebody is always watching every cent and every dime spent whether it is on staples or Adobe Creative Suite.  A little creativity here and there can help you do the most with the least. The most with the least.  Remember that Sprint commercial from way back?  Yes, stretch every dollar if possible.
  7. Be prepared to work like you have never worked before. Do not think about ending your day in 8, 9 or even 10 hours. The work can stretch into the evening and more often than not, demands your time on weekends too.
  8. Be prepared to collaborate well with other functions. While that is true in all organizations, what makes a start-up culture distinct is that everyone is under multiple deadlines. To get your message across to others can be difficult when you are not one of somebody’s priorities, and you will have to work hard to be on somebody’s radar. Be strategic.
  9. Ask lots of questions.  This is especially true when you are tasked with something that may not be in your comfort zone.  You may not find the answers within your organization, but being the creative person that you are, online forums or discussion groups can be helpful.  We live in the Internet age, and there is literally nothing that Google cannot solve.
  10. Just enjoy the experience.  Life can be stressful and often chaotic in a small start-up company. Frustration will build from time to time.  There surely will be times when you just want to complain and crawl back into the comfort zone of a resource-rich big company.  But complaining will not get you anywhere.  Perhaps, if you find yourself complaining often, it is time to reevaluate the decision to work in a small company. Is this for you? Or is this an opportunity to exercise your imagination and creativity to be a valuable contributor to an organization?