Over spring break, I flew out to the Bay Area to escape the snowy tundra of New York. My only mission was to drink in as much vitamin D as possible. But being in the land of startups, I naturally found myself sitting in on impromptu meetings with entrepreneurs, eager for a sounding board.
Working at a startup is an incredible learning experience, since you get the chance to immerse yourself as a jack-of-all-trades in a fast-growing company. But there are also interesting lessons to be gleaned as an outsider with no personal involvement in the company. Here are my observations about running a startup from informal chats with a couple of entrepreneurs leading early-stage companies:
1. As an entrepreneur, you have to be the biggest cheerleader of your company. But be careful not to oversell to the point of losing credibility. If you start a sentence with “When I was in business school…” and then my follow-up question reveals that you actually took classes at Wharton as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, you immediately lose my trust and I will be more skeptical of everything you say.
2. Embrace the casual nature of being at a startup, but don’t abandon basic professional practices. If you’re still at the stage where no one knows your company, every interaction becomes part of your corporate brand and reputation. That means responding to emails promptly, especially ones where you are seeking informal or free help (e.g. an introduction or a one-off piece of advice), and saying “thank you.” It was a shock to see how often these common courtesies fell by the wayside.
3. Hire people who see your company as more than a 9-5 job. One of the biggest gripes I heard from these entrepreneurs was the high rate of turnover; it seemed like they were constantly losing employees. One entrepreneur suffered from kind-heartedness, where he hired under-qualified people in order to save them from an unfruitful job search. Hiring someone to help them out is not a bad move per se, but you should always make sure that they value the opportunity for more than just a paycheck. They should still be able to articulate a compelling reason for wanting that particular role at your specific company. Startups are risky and all-consuming, and you want to make sure someone is committed to staying on the rollercoaster.
The startup culture is all about being able to stay lean and pivot fast. But it’s important not to leave the essentials to running a business behind.
Dahni Ma is a first-year J.D candidate at NYU Law School and an InSITE Fellow. Prior to NYU, she was a legal assistant at Lyft and Google.