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How to be a great startup employee

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Hint: it’s not “rest and vest”.

Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.

It’s common knowledge that startups move incredibly fast. In such an environment, asking for permission is not even an option.

The best employees will just figure out what needs to be done and go ahead and do it. If you were hired in an early stage team you’re supposed to be smart and be able to figure out by yourself what has the highest priority or if someone else on your team needs help with something.

Be aware of what other people are doing.

You will not be able to effectively impact your company if you just sit down and pound through your to-do list without knowing what the rest of team is up-to.

This might be the leadership team’s responsibility, but you still should try to get insights into what other departments are working on and how your work will help or block anybody else in the company.

Clearly communicate what you’re working on.

Obviously, as you’re expected to know what everyone else is working on, you’re also supposed to clearly let others know what you’re up to.

Some people tend to only communicate updates on tasks and projects which they think will impact others, but it’s much more effective to give a (daily || bi-weekly || weekly) update about everything you’re doing.

Ask your colleagues for help.

Never be afraid to ask for help. If you’re stuck on something and you know someone else can help it is much, much better to ask for help instead of spending time trying to figure out stuff on your own.

You’ll undoubtedly have to do so oftentimes, so when you can, ask for help. You’ll get stuff done faster, learn faster, foster collaboration and build morale all at the same time.

People sometimes hesitate to ask for help, worried what others might think. In reality, team members are happy to help and appreciate it when others ask for it.

Over-promise, over-deliver.

Startups are not an environment where you can under-promise and over-deliver.

Whether you’re talking with customers, partners or your team, you should always over-promise and then work your ass off to over-deliver on those promises. Startups move fast and you often have to sell more than you really have. That leaves you with no choice other than doing whatever it takes to actually deliver.

Learn to prioritize.

In my opinion, the #1 skill for a startup employee is the ability to prioritize.

You will always have a ton of stuff on your plate, probably more than you have time for, so it’s really essential that you’re able to effectively decide what needs to be done first and what can wait just

Curate the details when needed or just get the 80% done when it makes sense.


No matter your role, there are three things you should constantly be doing for your startup:

Always be recruiting.

If you’re in a high growth company, one of the biggest challenges it will face is definitely recruiting smart people.

When you go to meetups, pubs, weekend BBQs, anywhere, always try to recruit. Tell your friends what positions your company is looking for and ask them if they know someone. If they don’t, incentivize them to ask their network anyways. Expanding your recruiting reach by even one degree will help immensely with your company’s recruiting efforts, which is one of the best things you can do.

Always be closing.

Even if you are an engineer, you should still be selling your company’s product all the time. Consumer product? Have your friends go to your website or download the app. Enterprise or B2B? Always mention what you and your company do when you meet new people, you’ll eventually meet someone who’ll become a customer.

Bringing in customers for your company is one of the biggest joys, especially if you’re not in sales.

Always be marketing.

This one goes without saying: as an early startup employee you’re expected to be proud of where you work and do all you can to make it succeed.

Always talk about and market your company’s product. Post news on your social networks, wear your company’s swag, put a sticker on your laptop and give out stickers to your friends.


Enjoy.

Remember to have fun. You won’t be able to do all of the above if you’re unhappy or overly stressed and not looking forward to every work day.

It’s a hell of a ride, it’s fun, it’s rewarding and it’s much easier than being a founder, so enjoy it and try to learn as much as possible.


  • Hard_worker78

    Most of this is terrible, over-general advice, but it’s my lunch break so I’m just going to pick on the most obviously brain-dead one:

    “Over-promise, over-deliver”? So I should exaggerate my capabilities, then perform even better than my exaggeration? How exactly am I supposed to do that? If I could accomplish it, then a priori I was not over-promising. What you are suggesting is literally impossible by definition.

  • katbailey

    It is literally impossible to over-promise and over-deliver. If you end up delivering what you promised, then it wasn’t over-promising, by definition.

    • http://bernardi.me/ Stefano Bernardi

      Kat, I definitely agree regarding the semantics of it, but I don’t think the reality follows them so closely.
      You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve if you set high enough goals.

      But my point really was: “don’t try to under-promise and over-deliver” as that will be a problem for the rest of the team in terms of sync.

      • katbailey

        Yeah, I understand the spirit of the point you’re making. I just think it’s important to bear in mind that the engineering brain throws an exception at things like this and then the point gets lost (and this article is aimed at engineers too, right? :))

    • Andrew

      Disagree. You over promise and then you over deliver on that over promise. In other words engineer something better than what you over-promised.