What I’ve Learned From Working At A Startup

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Working at a startup is an unique experience. Today we're sharing impressions and thoughts on internal processes and their improvement opportunities.

After acquiring some experience in ‘traditional’ employment and then doing Master’s in Manchester, I got an opportunity to intern in one of the startups from the currently booming fin-tech sector. Approaching the end of my contract, here are some observations on working at a startup.

OK, it’s not strictly speaking a startup, as the company I’m currently interning in has grown way beyond the formal borders in the last three years is still to be referred to as such. However, it tries to preserve a liberal and fluid corporate culture of a startup environment, which, despite obvious perks, doesn’t lack some drawbacks.

It was never my intention to discourage anyone from trying themselves in exhausting yet highly rewarding startup stew as well as diminish great significance of startups and small companies for the whole economy. But forewarned is forearmed, so maybe a couple of lessons I’ve managed to learn so far would be helpful for both founders and their (potential) employees.

#1 You’re Free To Learn & Experiment

It’s in the nature of new and growing companies to exploit their staff’s skill set way beyond the job descriptions, which are often quite vague themselves. And that’s the advantage of it’s own to be involved in literally everything what’s going on in the firm and to know what everyone else is up to. In this environment, people are valued above all for the diversity of their skill set and their ability to learn – and to learn fast. No other job is more likely to contribute to one’s adaptability and knowledge and harden them against constantly arising challenges. There’s never a dull moment once you throw yourself into a startup community. And also, if you’re active and bursting with ideas, you can move up the ladder really fast, as your ambitions are the only limiting factor for personal and professional growth.

#2 Firms Experiment As Well – On You

Stop for a moment and fully grasp the fact that the friendly and approachable guy, who started the company you’re currently helping to develop, may know as almost to nothing about running a business as anyone else in the firm. Naturally, some things work out but the majority doesn’t, and startups need to zig and zag in the hostile and competitive market just to enter tomorrow in one piece. It’s highly debatable if founders should possess experience of any kind prior to starting a company, but be prepared to hold tightly on the side of the boat… and be thrown overboard. It may actually break the owner’s heart to get rid of people but never forget that business survival is on the top of their list.

#3 You Can Enjoy Exceptional Freedom

Flexible working hours and a result-oriented culture with only necessary supervision and mentoring are proven to do miracles for raising employees’ productivity, to say nothing about boosting creative problem solving and genuine engagement in the firm’s success. Even when the bosses tend to stick to 9-5 but allow their staff a certain amount of freedom, as long weekends and shifting the hours, it’s absolutely vital for job satisfaction. Pool and football tables, providing pleasing distractions from overwhelming mental effort, an office layout designed with people in mind, and last but not least – unlimited access to fresh fruit and coffee (and Friday beer!) unleash imagination and help people feel at home. Some nowadays consider these perks as part and parcel of the employee package when being employed at a startup.

#4 Everyone Else Enjoys It As Well

You know the feeling when no one seems to be responsible for anything, or the one who can actually help is really hard to find in a brownian movement of your colleagues around the office? Like you, everyone around is involved in a constant process of learning – which at this very moment may result in no one knowing what’s the right thing to do! The most frightening is that your boss may be as clueless as you. Founders try and get mistaken and become frustrated by this and have to try again. What is more, they have a whole bunch of stakeholders to answer to, including demanding investors. Overall the atmosphere of mutual unawareness is a constant companion of a startup, so be prepared to step into the unknown hand in hand with the founder, and face whatever it brings.

#5 To Give Control Or Not To Give?

Obviously, the owner is currently the very one who is inseparable from the business itself and the most invested into its prosperity. For the time being, it is physically possible for one to two founders to be Jacks-of-all-trades and have an understanding of what’s going on. So far, the team stays together as a big family and expands organically, as every candidate is tested for compatibility with existing team members, amongst other things. But when the growth investors want is achieved, it becomes unfeasible to stay in total control of all processes. The boss is no more a buddy to every employee, and this technique might not work any longer, once more formal structure is needed. And your tech-background founder might not be that good a manager after all. Ironically, the same owner, who is desperate to turn their startup into the second Uber or Airbnb, starts hindering the company’s growth. In this case, founders need to pass some strings they’re holding to professional managers, which unfortunately, they are not always that willing to do.

At the end of the day, it’s perfectly clear that a comfortable and nourishing working environment is by no means only about table football and free beer or fruit (although these do raise the staff’s spirits). It’s true that startups cannot always guarantee long-term stability as bigger companies do, and for some it’s the thrill that’s especially appealing in being involved in such a risky environment. However, once a firm gets past the stage of sitting on a powder keg every day, there’re loads of things it may – and should! – learn from it’s ‘older brothers’, people management included. Getting mentoring and advice when they’re needed most is as vital as is delegating part of control to those who are more skilled in certain areas of the business, while the owner(s) navigate and pivot in the storming sea of the market. It’s just a part of getting things right.

Personally for me, working for a startup was a precious experience. I’ve learned more about myself and would certainly like to be involved with the startup environment a lot more. Apparently, my current internship has provided me with insight into the industry and made my expectations more mature and adequate, especially in getting and accepting valuable feedback.


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