Working at a startup has always been a dream of mine.
Fast-paced environment. Close-knit teams. Uncertainty of what each day will bring. Unlimited vacation!
In the 3 years (and some change) that I’ve been with Buffer, it has been everything I imagined and more. With only one thing taking me by surprise — I didn’t realize is how quickly I would change both personally and professionally.
Everything that happens on a day-to-day basis in a larger company happens on a macro-scale at a startup. Highs and lows are felt deeply, business-altering decisions are made on a daily basis, each employee wears multiple hats, and autonomy is a key part of the narrative.
In looking back on the last three years, I’ve attempted to distill everything I’ve learned down to 6 important business lessons, many of which I believe are a what you might learn while earning your MBA.
1. Inspiring and Building Company Culture
The downright criticalness of developing an inspiring workplace culture is one of the first things you learn in a fast-growing company.
Many of today’s leading Fortune 500 businesses can learn a thing or two from the revolutionary bounds startups are making on the culture front.
Startups aren’t held back by long-standing views on what a company should look like, outdated managerial systems, or layers of bureaucracy. They’re on the forefront of a workplace revolution and shaping how many companies will operate in 1, 5, 10, 20, and 30 years.
While all the stereotypical things startups have become known for over the years — collaborative office spaces, ping pong tables, catered lunch, and free beer — are fun perks, perks don’t equate to workplace culture.
2. Hiring for Potential Over Experience
Startups require a unique skillset from their employees.
Resources (people and money) are often limited, creating a pressing need for employees that can learn quickly, take initiative, and thrive in a variety of roles.
Whereas employees at more established companies tend to specialize in one area, expertise, or channel, employees at startups might be juggling three or four — or ten — important projects at any given time.
A marketer, for example, is getting ready to launch a new product feature, while also running a PPC campaign and implementing their website’s SEO strategy.
A product manager, on the other hand, is working to get the new feature ready for launch, while also creating data dashboards to measure potential impact, communicating with customers to find beta testers, and working with the press to attract new prospects.
This is why startups don’t just look for candidates with impressive educational backgrounds. They look for candidates that hustle — those that have a track record of taking on new challenges, venturing out of their comfort zone, and a constant hunger to expand their knowledge.
Buffer, for example, tends to look for candidates that have pursued interesting side projects, roles, or volunteer opportunities in the past. While this isn’t a guaranteed measure of success, if does help to identify folks that are willing to go the extra mile.
3. Solving Difficult Problems in Unique Ways
I once met a fellow who had graduated at the top of his class from the University of Michigan, had a stellar career at one of the world’s leading consulting firms, and now is managing partner at a private VC firm in Wisconsin.
While chatting over a glass of wine one evening, I asked him what the number one question he asks his applicants from schools like Harvard, Booth, and MIT when they apply for a position at his firm.
You have one minute to answer the question and there are no clues. While you’re answering, I’d like you to think out loud. However you’re working this problem out in your head, express it.
Here’s the question — how many miles are there around the Earth at the equator?
I proceeded to stumble over my words and thoughts for the following minute, eventually ending up with the answer: 29,000.
The answer is 24,902, but that’s not the point.
He wanted to hear how I approached the problem. How I think with little-to-no context or information. How I handle pressure under certain challenging, on-the-spot circumstances.
When faced with a problem — such as how to grow a stagnant product — where outcomes are uncertain and information is limited, it’s important to break the problem down into smaller, manageable chunks.
That’s the kind of thinking that helps today’s fastest-growing startups thrive in the most competitive and saturated market in history.
4. Relying on the Entire Company for Growth
When I first started at Buffer, I had no idea that in three months time I would be devouring every resource that I could find on product growth.
At startups, growth isn’t just a product management thing. Growth can happen in all areas of the company.
From advocacy to engineering to marketing, each employee has the ability to help turn individual growth levers that will collectively take the product to the next level.
Lots of companies call these levers, Pirate Metrics, or, AARRR.
They’re simple and actionable.
Understanding these metrics on a deep, conceptual level across the company is critical for startups to continue increase users and revenue over time.
Customer support, for example, must know how their interactions with customers affects retention and churn, which in turn, affects revenue.
Marketing must understand how acquisition affects activation based on the quality of customers the team is bringing into the top-of-the-funnel.
Partnerships must be willing to say no to enticing opportunities that don’t completely align with the company’s business goals and target market. Doing so can be difficult, but necessary for success.
Growth is a rallying cry for every employee. The company depends on it.
5. Standing for Something That Matters
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Patagonia?
How about Southwest Airlines, Tesla, Chanel, Whole Foods, or Airbnb?
Chances are you don’t just support and advocate for brands like these because of their products. You do so because you believe in what they stand for as a business.
You believe in their purpose.
Perhaps no industry understands this phenomenon better than the direct-to-consumer industry in 2019. Competing against giant legacy corporations like Amazon, D2C brands are carving out a niche in consumer goods by controlling the supply chain, messaging, and customer data. But most of all, they’re building a brand that customers can truly relate to.
Away, Casper, Brooklinen, Ritual, Hims, MeUndies, and hundreds of D2C brands around the world are discovering that it’s more than just low costs and a mission statement that sell products, it’s a purpose-driven belief in something greater.
A product is what people use.
A brand is what people remember.
6. Embracing a Crash Course in Entrepreneurship
This one is perhaps more true at Buffer than other startups. Buffer is a fully transparent company — meaning most of the communication that happens internally is available to all interested employees (though some things are kept private). It’s achieved through tools like transparent email, Slack channels, Notion, and Threads.
Over the past three years I’ve had the opportunity to follow along — and be involved — with merger and acquisition (M&A) discussions, crisis communications, budget reviews, engineering brainstorms, product roadmapping, marketing launches, advocacy initiatives, business development opportunities, and lots more.
I witnessed first-hand how a successful ($19M+ ARR) business runs from the bottom up and top down.
All of the mistakes made. The biggest learnings. The biggest wins.
If the startup you work at or go to work for isn’t fully transparent, you’ll still have the opportunity to get involved in several projects across multiple departments.
Zero experience? That’s alright. Read, learn, and get your hands dirty. You’ll come out the other side with a brand new skill and perspective on running a business, you entrepreneur you.
Note: Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of earning your MBA (outside of an incredible education) is the network you build throughout your tenure at the university. I did not include “network” above because I believe that is unique to MBA programs. However, with the right approach, you can build your own network whether or not you’ve earned your MBA or work at a startup.