Startups are not like other workplaces. Your job description changes with the day. Nobody has ever heard of 9 to 5. Money is always tight. People bring their dogs. Erratic founders run around exclaiming things should be done even faster.
On the flip side of things, startups can allow you to truly “change the world.” You can pick up a wide variety of skills and try out many different roles. You can bring your dog. You get a chance to work alongside visionary founders. Your friends in boring corporate jobs will think you’re cool.
Startups are not for everyone, certainly not for the faint at heart. Joining a newborn company is akin to going on an adventure. If that sounds like it’s something for you, here are five essential tips to survive in a startup environment.
#1 Adopt a Stoic Mindset
Stoicism is an ancient Greek school of philosophy. Stoics realise that much of our stress, worry and suffering come from opinions and thoughts we assign to events that are beyond our control. A moody boss. The company running out of money. The economy crashing. The weather. A flat tire.
All these “externalities” are not bad or worrisome by themselves. They become so because you choose to get stressed about them. Worse, your anxiety will not change them. Adopting a Stoic mindset means you only expend mental energy on things you can influence. You don’t waste time wondering “why me?” or “this isn’t fair.” Instead, keep a clear head and always focus on finding the solution, no matter how dire the circumstances.
This sounds simple, but it is hard in practice. Yet it’s one of the most essential skills you can develop in a startup, and life in general. Startup life is full of unexpected events beyond your control. Those who can remain calm among the storm have already won half the battle.
Article: Calm Your Mind and Overcome Almost Any Challenge
Book: The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
#2 One Thing at a Time…
A startup is a multitasker’s dream: you can pick up projects and tasks that don’t necessarily belong to your role. Everyone communicates by email and chat apps. Using Facebook and playing a game during “office hours” is often no problem. Wide open offices allow (and even encourage) you to interrupt a colleague whenever you need their input.
There’s just one problem: multitasking does not work. Study after study has shown that for 97% of us, multitasking (which in reality is actually just constantly switching between tasks) leads to more mistakes, slower progress and the inability to do any high quality work at all (i.e., solving complicated problems through creative thinking). To make matters worse: the more you “multitask,” the more you believe you’re good at it.
The better way to work is to concentrate on one task at a time instead. That doesn’t mean you can only work on one project at a time, or that you have to see a project through to completion before taking on another. In the fast paced startup work environment, that wouldn’t work. Rather, it means you should set aside blocks of time (e.g., 25, 50 or 90 minutes, depending on your personal preference) to group one type of activity or task (e.g., answer emails, draft sales proposal, etc.). Last but not least, make sure you keep distractions at bay during those blocks (no Facebook, close your chat app, signal to colleagues your busy, and so on).
Article: The Multitasking Myth
Book: Deep Work by Cal Newport
#3 Be Prepared
As any professional project manager will tell you, a good project team spends 50% – 80% of their time planning and preparing. If this sounds surreal, it’s because in reality it hardly ever happens. We’re biased towards action. We believe we make progress only when we’re executing.
This concept also applies to your own workdays. While it might seem you’re off to a good start by just jumping right into action, taking 10 – 20 minutes in the morning (or evening before) to plan your day and upcoming meetings has tremendous pay-offs. Similarly, the best thing you can do when you’re so busy you can’t see the forest for the trees, is take a step back and re-plan.
Even more powerful is to adapt to such a rhythm of planning and preparedness as a team. Whether or not you are familiar with and work according to principles of Agile project management, a daily standup is a great way to force the team to think about the day ahead and catch problems early. By asking three simple questions (What are today’s goals? Did you finish yesterday’s? Is anything holding you back?) everyone sets goals, has a feeling of progress and is up to date on what everyone else is doing.
Article: The Best Meetings of My Life
#4 Understand Founders
At a Fortune 500 company you may never run into the founder or CEO, but at a startup, you could quite possibly work with or often meet the founder(s). It’s important to understand this rare species of human being so you’re prepared when you encounter one in the wild.
For starters, they’re often erratic in some way. They might work 20-hour days, they might suffer mood swings, they might have a God-complex, they might be extremely socially awkward. While there is no excuse for disrespectful or arrogant behaviour, keep in mind that no matter how busy you are, and no matter how much pressure you are feeling, the founder is likely facing at least a multiple of that, even if it doesn’t show on the outside (and then you’re lucky).
There’s never enough money, the product can always be better, users are always complaining, investors need updates (and results!). Top that off with a failure rate of ~90% for startups, and you know that the founder, who has (or should have) more at stake than anyone else, has to be at least slightly insane to have started this thing in the first place.
Book: Zero to One by Peter Thiel
#5 Enjoy the Ride
With all these things (and many more not even mentioned here) going on, it’s easy to think startups are a nonstop parade of misery. Yet amid the endless challenges, there are great rewards (and not just the monetary ones, though those are a potential outcome, too!). Perhaps this saying sums it up best:
“Behind mountains are more mountains.” – Haitian proverb
It correctly reflects that there will always be another challenge waiting right around the corner. But it also reveals another fact of startup life: if you hate problem solving, firefighting and improvising, you will have a hard time surviving. If, on the other hand, you enjoy climbing, you will certainly thrive and enjoy your journey to the top!
Tim Metz is the co-founder of Saent, a hardware device and software app that blocks digital distractions and develop better work habits. Before Saent, Tim worked in mobile gaming and electronic music, amongst other things. Tim lives and works from Beijing, China. You can follow him on Twitter & LinkedIn.
Saent is the world’s first smart device and app designed to help you do great work and live a more fulfilling life. Saent creates the ideal conditions for deep focus, and helps users stay on track and productive. It uses work data to issue personalized Challenges designed to help users be more productive, complete workers and live more balanced and fulfilling lives.
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