Orginally written in April, 2013. Notes added after a few more years of experience.
It’s not easy getting kicked out of your first startup, but sometimes things happen. You do have some choice in the matter and the points below can help you take a step in the right direction.
This past weekend I was cut out of a startup business I had joined at Startup Weekend Columbus. Before I go further, let me say I hold no grudges and what follows is an account of what I learned in my two months. If I come across as whiny, that is not my intention. I’m grateful for the time I spent with this startup and am proud of the work I accomplished with my team members. That being said, here are some things to keep in mind when joining a startup.
Communication Is King
Startups move quickly and it’s a “get on board or get out of the way” situation when you’re getting ready to launch. It’s a great environment and I love it, because everyone is under pressure to get to the finish line. But what happens when someone stops responding? To phone calls, to emails, to everything. The machine slows down, can grind to a halt and everyone has to look around and ask “what now?” Keeping some stream of communication open is very important, whether it’s a Gmail thread, IM, Google Hangout or GitHub Repo. Keep reminding people you’re there, or they’ll forget about you and what you bring to the table.
2021 Note: Oof. Communication is still super important, but “or they’ll forget about you”? Come on man.
Set Roles and Expectations Early
What aspects of the startup are you going to be working on? Knowing a clear role is important so you can be working toward a particular goal. Knowing what’s expected of you is one of the easiest and hardest things with a startup and dipping your hand into a little bit of everything (even outside of your main role) is never a bad thing. More on that later.
Think Long term, even at the beginning
Where do you see the company in 5 days, weeks, months. Are you still a part of everything? Is your role still the same or has it shifted? Keeping an eye on the horizon can keep you in touch with how to make yourself a more important part of the company. Be pro-active and see what else you can do to help your team make progress. Building a website at the beginning may be crucial, but down the road, it’s may not be as important. That was my particular situation and it makes sense.
2021 Note: I’d add here that it’s also important to think about the types of problems you’re solving. Are they still the right ones? Are you still passionate about those problems? Good things to think about.
Don’t Get Too Attached
There’s a term in business called a “pivot,” which generally means you stop going a certain direction and start going another. It doesn’t have to be a complete 180 degree turn, it could just be 2 degrees, but the bottom line is, things can change. Whether it’s because of market research or trial and error, you’re probably never going to finish with the same idea you started with. Getting attached and moping when your startup takes a new turn is toxic, so make your points and if you get vetoed, let go and move on.
2021 Note: This is still pretty spot on. I think about it now less as pivoting and more of an evolution. As things evolve, you should continue to assess your role and how you can best assist the company moving forward.
Make Yourself Irreplaceable
There are no allegiances. If you’ve latched on to someone else’s idea, you are the replaceable one. You may have your own grand visions, but it ultimately comes down to the person who had the original idea. They’ll generally be the most passionate and are hopefully the driving force. If you’ve got your hand in all aspects of the company, you’ll be harder to replace. Jack-of-all-trades, master of none is a good thing in startups, because at the beginning your numbers are so few. It’s much easier to stay on board as a Swiss Army Knife than as a spork (the most underrated piece of silverware).
2021 Note: This is a fairly salty take, and really I haven’t felt this much after this one incident, but the “wear many hats” take is still helpful.
Get Something In Writing
In the beginning everyone still has that twinkle in their eye and is all excited. “Equal division of profits!” can quickly turn into, “I’ve done the most work” which could lead to larger arguments about distribution of income. Easy way to solve that is by getting something in writing at the beginning. And in the end it may still come down to trimming the fat and cutting costs. Having 6 employees is a bigger division of profits than 3 and while I hope that this was not the case, it makes sense and I probably would have looked to do the same.
2021 Note: 2013 John didn’t know what equity was and also didn’t understand how to go about getting any. If you’re headed into a startup it’s always good to check in on stock options and equity in general.
Hopefully this article was helpful in some way. I learned a lot in the few months before heading out and hopefully that’s translated well here. Yarr, startups be a cruel mistress, but help make the web community unique. If you’ve got any startup comments or horror stories, feel free to share them below.