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I was the first employee of a startup — here’s what I learned


It was an uncharacteristically sunny day in San Francisco, which I only remember because I was wearing flip-flops.

I was late to meet my team at our co-working space, and as I saw the bus approaching, I sprinted to catch it. You can probably already picture the rest: One sandal edge got caught on the sidewalk, and I flew through the air and face-planted on the ground (very graceful, I know). The bus drove by without stopping.

As I peeled myself off the asphalt, I thought, “Well, I sure hope I didn’t break anything — I don’t have health insurance.” But even if I did break something, it didn’t matter. I had to get to work.

When people ask me what it was like being the first employee of The Muse, which today is a venture-backed, nearly eight-year-old company (with health insurance!), this is one of the first scenes I remember.

In many ways, it perfectly exemplifies my experience at an early-stage startup. The other memorable moments — setting foot in our first “real” office, clinking champagne glasses after closing our Series A, hiring our second, third, 30th, 100th employee — don’t tell the same story. In those very early days, you’re always in a rush, you’re broke, you’re exhausted, you’re face down on the asphalt, but you pick yourself up because there’s work to be done — and also because there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing.

Does this sound exciting — or absolutely miserable? If you’re considering joining a startup, I’d start with that question. There’s plenty of advice out there, but most of it, like “understand the culture,” “do research on Crunchbase,” and “ask lots of questions during the interview process,” assumes the company’s been around a while. But what if all you have to go off is a founder and their dream?

In that case, all you can do is think about what’s right for you. From someone who’s been there, here are the other key questions to ponder.

What do you want to get out of this?

If the answer is, “a one-way ticket to the tech IPO billionaire’s club,” let me stop you right there. Seeing even a cent from your stock options is a massive gamble, so there needs to be another reason you’re trading in your comfy corporate paycheck for this gig.

I joined The Muse for two main reasons: I wanted to make a major change in my career, and I believed in the company’s mission enough to devote the next few years of my life to it. Though it wasn’t my primary goal at the time, joining a startup also gave me the experience, contacts, and confidence I needed to launch my own content strategy business several years later.

There are plenty of other good reasons, too: the desire to build something from scratch, the change in pace, the opportunity to learn about starting a company from the founders. Figure out your why.

Whatever your reason, make sure it’s good enough to keep you motivated through 100-hour work weeks — and that it goes beyond the prospect of a potentially big payout. Sure, your company might go public or be acquired someday, but you can’t count on that. And even if it does, it won’t happen for a while.

Bottom line: You need to feel good about the skills and experience you gain, regardless of what the company’s exit looks like.

Read more: Pinterest’s 2nd employee ever explains why becoming an early startup employee is a ‘terrible’ idea if you want to get rich

Do you believe in the founders (not just the company)?

Like me, many people consider joining startups because they’re excited about the product or the mission. But the truth is, those two things are likely going to change. Often. So will the company’s financial situation, your co-workers, and the office culture. (More on change in a bit.)

One thing that probably won’t shift (at least not any time soon)? The founders.

I lucked out in this department. Though I didn’t know them well when they hired me, The Muse’s founders Kathryn Minshew and Alexandra Cavoulacos became people I admired, supportive leaders, and dear friends. But, unfortunately, this isn’t always the norm.

Spend some time getting to know the founders, and really ask yourself: Can you trust them? Can you learn from them? Are you willing to put in 18 hours of work for them every day? What do you value in a leader, and do they embody that? What do you know about their past track record, either as previous founders or as managers, technologists, or subject matter experts?

If there’s more than one founder, go through this process for each, even if you think you’ll only be working for one. Company leaders often shift roles and may even come and go.

What’s your tolerance for change?

You might have heard that joining a startup means getting comfortable with risk.

Well, I disagree. Exhibit A: When I was considering accepting The Muse’s offer, I called a mentor in another department at my job at the time. “That sounds really scary — you just never know what could happen,” she said, and tried to convince me to stay at the company and work for her.

Within three weeks, her entire team had been fired, and her “safe” job was a blip on her resume. So, uh, I’m glad I didn’t choose to go that route — turns out it was just as risky.

Risk is everywhere — it’s change that you have to have an exceptionally high tolerance for. If the company is growing, everything will be shifting. Who you work with. Who you report to. How things are done. What you spend your time on every day. As an early employee, you might oversee six different areas of the business, only to eventually have that reduced to three, two, even a fraction of one. Because as the business grows, you’ll be hiring people to do what you do over and over (and over) again.

For me, each quarter that went by felt like an entire year because of how fast things evolved. It was the best learning experience I could imagine, and it was also exhausting. (Those 18-hour days didn’t help, either.) Be clear on what you’re looking for at this point in your career. If you thrive on change, great. If you’re not comfortable with it? Well, working at an early stage startup probably isn’t the right move.

Read more: The Silicon Valley headhunter whose company has placed execs at Lyft and Spotify reveals the precise formula he uses when placing tech professionals

Are you OK with it taking over your life?

If you’d hung out with me during my first few years at The Muse, you probably would have been quite bored. I could speak at length about the company’s growth, our new hires, how excited I was about recent traffic numbers or a high-profile writer we’d landed. But outside of work, I didn’t have much going on. At all. I also didn’t eat well, exercise, call my friends, or get eight hours of sleep a night. (Don’t worry — I’m much more fun these days.)

Getting a company off the ground requires more hours than you’ve ever put into a job before, as well as putting the rest of your life on the back burner. You’ve got to be OK with that tradeoff, at least for a while.

I was, and I’m glad. It was incredibly rewarding to stretch myself more than I thought possible, to help build something I was truly proud of, and to make some of the closest work relationships of my life (thank you, long days and close quarters).

But to do it again? It would have to be really, really right.

And thankfully, I have that scar on my knee from that day in San Francisco to remind me.

Adrian Granzella Larssen is the founder of Sweet Spot Content, which helps world-class marketers, thought leaders, and publishers create authentic, engaging content. Previously, she was the first employee and editor-in-chief of TheMuse.com, a content-first career destination. She’s also the author of Your Year Off, a digital guide to traveling the world inspired by her experience traveling to 30 countries in 12 months. (Say hi and follow her travels on Instagram.)





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