It’s National Entrepreneurship Month and Venture for America has been sharing some excellent resources on building companies and becoming entrepreneurs in the Build Something Toolkit Series. This week, the focus has been on building the right team.
One day I am going to found a company and, as VFA has been exploring this week, building the right team will be essential to its success. But I feel extremely unprepared to start my own company right now. This was my primary reason for applying to Venture For America. I wanted to learn what it’s actually like at a startup and to build the skills I’ll need to be successful when I do start a company. After all, the skills and mindset necessary to succeed at a big company are far different from those necessary to succeed in the fast-paced and less structured environment of a startup.
So rather than focus on how to build a team, in this post I’ll be sharing some pointers on joining a team and making an impact. From peers, mentors, and from my own experience succeeding and failing at Leverege, I've learned that it's all about having the right mindset.
When I began at Leverege, I found myself frustrated. I wanted to add value and contribute to the company, but many days I found myself unsure what I should be doing. Unlike working at a bigger company, I don't have a clearly defined role and I'm never handed a list of specific tasks or goals to accomplish. After some time, I came to realize that the fault was mine; I had the wrong mindset.
At a bigger company, it's good to come in, put your head down, and knock out the tasks that you've been assigned. This is much like school where you're given an assignment and you get rewarded for completing it on time and with high quality. Though I'd be warned by peers and mentors alike, it wasn't until I started working at Leverege that I realized just how different it is to have a startup mindset.
At a startup, you can't wait for someone to tell you what to do. Because the company is so small, every person (including your "manager") is working hard to move the company forward. This means that they often don't have the time to manage you and tell you what to do.
So how do you do that? When I realized that I needed to be proactive in identifying ways to contribute, I was met with a new problem. I found it easy to generate ideas, but I struggled deciding which would be most valuable to pursue. Some days I'd spend 8 hours working on something only to realize at the end of the day that I hadn't added all that much value. And the opposite problem can arise too, of struggling to generate ideas in the first place.
I've learned that it's critical to take time to understand the goals and direction of your company. Arrange time to sit down with team members and learn the company's priorities. When you understand the bigger picture you're better able to determine what actions you should take. After I spent time with the CEO to get a better understanding of our overall direction and goals, I began asking myself, "what can I do today that would best move Leverege in the right direction?". This approach and greater understanding clarified my day-to-day tasks, allowing me to focus my time and effort on the things that matter.
But it's not enough determining what you should do, you need to actually do it.
At a larger company, it's easy to get away with doing the minimum. You can come in on time, put in your eight hours of moderate work, and collect your paychecks. But at a startup, doing the minimum could mean that the entire company goes under. It doesn't matter how many hours you worked or how hard you tried, if you don't deliver results the company will suffer the consequences. With 9 employees at Leverege, if I don't contribute that means that the company is missing 11% of the work. No company can afford that.
I've learned that it's critical to evaluate yourself on your output rather than your input. Being in the office 50-60 hours a week doesn't matter if half that time is wasted on irrelevant tasks. To ensure that I'm operating with a sense of urgency and continually driving output, I've found the following strategy to be effective:
On Monday, I spend time in the morning setting actionable goals for my week. This provides me with clarity on what I need to accomplish and also let's me share my plan with relevant members of the team. That way, they can provide feedback and let me know if there's anything important that I'm missing.
On Friday, I take time to reflect on the previous week and evaluate my performance. Did I accomplish the goals and tasks I set on Monday? If not, how can I improve and do better next week? Again, it's helpful to share with relevant team members to get their valuable input. This sharing could be via a weekly recap email or a 1-on-1 check-in.
I've found this shift from focusing on input to focusing on output to be difficult. Sometimes I've spent hours working on something only to have it completely scrapped, useless. It can also be exhausting, it can mean working odd hours to make sure that a critical project is finished on time. This is why it's important to work at a startup for the right reasons.
I have several friends who work to live. They endure an uninteresting, tedious 9-5 job to earn a paycheck so that they can have fun on the weekends. There's nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but it won't work at a startup.
At a startup, you live to work. You need to buy-in to what you're doing. You need to want to be challenged and personally grow everyday. You need to be driven to produce results and forge your own path. If you just want to show up and put your head down as you would at a big company, you won't make it.
I've learned that working at a startup is different and it's hard, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. I love being at Leverege. I love coming in to work every day. Too many people I know view work as a necessary evil and they will spend (quite literally) the majority of their lives doing something that they despise. When you live to work and when you view your career as more than just a way to earn money, life is exciting to live.
At Leverege and at VFA, we believe that our career is a choice that indicates our values. If you have any questions about my experience at Leverege or as a VFA Fellow, please don't hesitate to let me know! You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Calum is the Director of Projects at Leverege and graduated from Brown University in May 2016 with a major in Philosphy. Striving to change himself and the world for the better, Calum values active living, life-long learning, and keeping an open mind.
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