Eric Ries, the creator of the Lean Startup Methodology, defines a startup as “a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” At first, I wasn’t sure what he meant but now, after ten months at Spekit, an early-stage SaaS company that is revolutionizing the way that companies drive change across their tech stack, I understand the uncertainty that comes along with creating an innovative, category-breaking service.
Whether you’re considering working at a startup or already are a member of a fast-growing startup team, there are several questions you should ask yourself: Can you operate in a working environment with minimal structure and established processes? Are you willing to step outside of your comfort zone to learn completely new concepts and skills? Does working at a startup align with your career goals?
As a senior in college, my time as an intern with Spekit has helped me answer these questions for myself and given me insight into the inner workings of a small, high growth team.
By sharing my learnings, my hope is that I can help others in the startup realm avoid some of the mistakes I have made and implement the methods and mindsets that I have found to be effective.
Since there are countless ways to succeed and contribute as a startup employee, I’ve grouped my learnings into the categories that I’ve found to be the most critical.
Step out of your comfort zone to learn new skills
I think this may be the single most important practice for anyone working at an early-stage startup because of the wide range of tasks that need to be done and the limited amount of resources (people) that are available on startup teams. Large enterprises have entire departments for sales, marketing, design, and so on. Startups, on the other hand, must use their current resources to maximize returns which inevitably leads to employees stepping outside of their skill set and learning new things.
There have been many occasions where I have been assigned tasks that I had little to no experience with. These projects have included things like “create a Google Adwords campaign” or “design a sales drip sequence” or maybe even “write a blog post.” It can be intimidating to take on these projects, but my advice would be to embrace these moments of uncertainty as opportunities to learn.
Here are some tips on how to do this:
Be willing to take a deep-dive
Simply put, your job is to make the life of your managers or founders easier by taking work off of their plate. This means going out of your way to see where you can help and taking full responsibility for your work. In other words, you want to build the trust with them that once you’re done with the project at hand, there will be no better expert in the room and you’ll be able to troubleshoot when needed.
Get started with high-level research
To get an understanding of the most important things you need to learn about, do a few quick Google searches and take note of what terms and concepts are important. Try to include the words “how” and “why” in your search and be as specific as possible. I’ve also found that phrasing the query as if you were asking someone sitting next to you such as “How do I integrate MailChimp and Salesforce?” works well. Following these guidelines will help you avoid ads and catch-phrase blog posts and get down to the real answers. Here are some more tips on how to get the most out of Google search.
Get your hands dirty
Once you have gathered a foundation of knowledge, immediately jump into the project and start creating, building, or tinkering with whatever your project might be. This will force you to confront the area where you have knowledge gaps early on so you can go back and do more specific research or ask for advice.
Use the MVP Approach
Most of you are probably familiar with the concept of an “MVP” or minimum viable product. This approach generally refers to a watered-down version of a product or service that a company can release to get early feedback from customers and demonstrate future value.
During the first month of my internship, I had a lesson that showed me that the “MVP” approach can be extremely valuable when applied to small-scale deliverables. I was assigned to create a landing page for one of our first webinars and was completely lost. I was trying to figure out the page layout, sign-up flow, and what content to include all before building out the page. After spending several hours on the project with minimal progress, I showed it to my manager and our CEO, Melanie Fellay. She immediately pulled up this image.
She encouraged me to get the essential features of the project in place as soon as possible and save perfectionism until the very end. This approach has allowed me to get more done, get early feedback from others on my team, and save a whole lot of time which is one of the most valued resources at a startup.
Effective time management
Effective time management has been one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced during my time with Spekit. During my first semester, I was struggling to balance college courses, leading a student group, and “fitting in” 15 hours per week of work for Spekit wherever I could. There was no real structure to my time and this ultimately resulted in a loss of productivity. My manager and I both noticed this so we sat down to make a plan to address the problem. What we came up with was a game changer for me and I hope other managers and startup employees can learn from it.
Create a schedule and stick to it
While this may sound obvious to some, it wasn’t initially for me and my manager. By scheduling out the hours I would be working on Spekit-related projects, the hours I would be in class, and the time I would have for school work, I saw some huge improvements. Friction was removed because my team always knew the hours I would be available and I was able to hold myself accountable. By having a clearly defined and communicated schedule, I was able to complete projects on time, communicate effectively with my team and manager, and balance my class-work.
Working on a small startup team allows for a lot of creativity when it comes to creating processes, ideating new product features, and writing copy. While this freedom is part of why I love working for Spekit, it also makes it easier to get distracted from high-priority tasks. Structured time management techniques like time blocking can be a great way to solve this problem and stay on task.
Elon Musk plans out his entire day in 5-minute increments or “time blocks” that are each assigned a specific task or activity. This strategy relies on the theory that work generally fills up the time we allot to it, so by setting shorter increments we will get more done in a shorter time period. While 5-minutes may be too small for us normal humans, it still can be highly beneficial to add structured blocks to your day even for activities like “eating lunch” or “commuting.” Doing this will give you a better idea of how long tasks take and allow you to plan better in the future.
While working at startups is not for everyone, I hope that these ideas can be applied by people in companies of all sizes to make the most of their every day and most importantly, treat everything as an opportunity to learn and grow.