How to Survive – and Thrive – in a Startup

How to Survive – and Thrive – in a Startup

by Nora von Ingersleben-Seip

Founding or joining a startup is among the most popular career choices for high-flying graduates nowadays. According to data compiled by the Financial Times, 28% of Harvard Business School MBA graduates founded their own companies in 2015, more than four times the number at graduation three years earlier.

This trend is not surprising given that startups provide unique opportunities for personal growth and learning. For founders and share-owning employees, an additional incentive is the (very small, but hugely enticing) chance of becoming rich in a Facebook-style exit event.   

The other side of the coin is that working in startups can be so intense that the idea of work-life balance seems like a cruel joke told by the fortunate souls who have never had to slog through 18-hour workdays. (“Wait… you mean there is such a thing as life outside of work?”)

Building a company entails putting in long hours, taking little vacation (or taking “workcation,” as one of my former colleagues put it), and dealing with unexpected events almost every day. Even for the most passionate and dedicated founders and employees, these intense pressures can lead to stress and anxiety.  

There are different ways of dealing with these feelings; for example, many of my colleagues have told me that they find physical exercise to be a great outlet for stress. This article focuses on a different tool, however, namely the attitudes and principles that can be helpful in surviving and thriving in a startup.

1] Don’t sweat the small stuff

Startups typically don’t have stable structures and processes in place. This leaves room for innovation and quick pivots, but also means that tons of unexpected things happen every day and nobody has experience dealing with them. These events range from small hiccups to big mess-ups that threaten the future of the company.  The key to staying sane is to know which event belongs into which category.  

In the buzzing and busy atmosphere that is typical of a startup, it is fairly easy to lose track of what really matters. So when something bad happens, ask yourself: Does this threaten our biggest revenue stream? Will it get us in trouble with the government? Will it seriously anger our investors? If the answer to all three is no – great! Don’t sweat it, think of the best possible fix, and move on to other things.

2] Design your own path

One of the really great things about working in a startup is the fact that nothing is set in stone. In a typical entrepreneurial venture, there is neither a fully-fledged HR Department, nor fixed job descriptions. Not a SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) in sight! While this can produce anxiety, the absence of stable structures also entails great opportunities for those eager to expand their skills and responsibilities.

Have you always dreamed of becoming Chief Happiness Officer? In a startup, you can – as long as you know exactly how you will create value (read: add to the bottom line) in this position. Startups are small, so budgets are limited and every employee really counts. You can be extraordinary creative in defining your role, just make sure that the role isn’t only exciting for you, but also helps the company grow.

3] Work hard – and smart

Startups – especially early stage startups – require hard work. There is simply no way you can start working at 9am and finish at 5pm if you are the founder or one of the key employees. Those who hope to leave the office early on a regular basis to go to salsa class, guitar lessons, or the local pub will probably be disappointed (and experience a backlash from their coworkers sooner rather than later).

The flipside of all the hard work is the steep learning curve experienced by most startup founders and employees. One of the things that you will learn early on (out of necessity) is to work not just hard, but smart. This means that you will need to prioritize tasks, with the most important criteria being impact on revenue, compliance with vital regulations, and relationships with key stakeholders.

4] Find a balance

Despite working hard, it is important to retain balance. This may sound like a contradiction given the long hours required. It is critically important, though, as exhaustion and burnout are distinct possibilities for those who only focus on work and don’t take good care of themselves. I had a colleague once who worked almost nonstop on weekdays and weekends – and who burned out after six months.

There are ways to create balance in your life that don’t require a lot of free time. Even 20 minutes of meditation can help you de-stress. Lunches with co-workers are a great way to blow off steam. And the quickest way to catch a break is to (almost literally) stop and smell the roses. Look out the office window, savor a little snack, or step outside into the sunlight and listen to the birds for a few minutes to relax.

5] Be grateful for what you have

Last but not least, it is important to enjoy the ride. Working for a startup is not for everybody. Some people enjoy working within clear structures and having a defined area of work (and some people just like to leave the office at 5pm). However, if you value your startup job, make sure to enjoy it and make the most of it. After all, you probably won’t be in this job forever (many older workers leave the startup world).  

Take advantage of the career development opportunities. Suggest new initiatives. Learn from your smart and ambitious colleagues. Go to happy hours and network. Most importantly, focus on the positive and don’t forget how amazing it is that you are one of the lucky gals / guys who has managed to score a startup gig.

Hopefully these tips will prepare you at least a little bit for an exciting career in the startup world. Go on… get on the rocket ship, buckle up, and enjoy the ride!


See also: Stressed Out? Here’s 3 Lessons from the Bhagavad Gita


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