For consultants headed to startups
Maybe you just made the jump from consulting to a startup, or maybe you’re considering doing it for the right startup. Before I jumped, I found myself saying idealistic things like “I want to be on a small, nimble team”, or “I want to be building a product and closer to end customers”, and of course everyone’s favorite: “I should be making more impact”.
Joining a six-person, consumer startup, I found all of those things but did question whether those were actually the most important things for career satisfaction.
A few thoughts on the transition to early stage having come out on the other side:
Your team is not well-rounded like in consulting.
But it is really interesting to be surrounded by people who are deep in one specific area and enable the skills to balance out on the team as a whole.
You can’t delegate work as if your team member is proficient in what you would consider “the basic work toolkit”, or that they can get up to speed on a new type of task in two days.
Be prepared to sit down with teammates to whom you’re handing off processes and adjust documentation to their style of learning. You can always offer to coach others on consultant-y things — structuring ideas, presentation, using analytical tools, and listening to the different people involved in an issue.
Make your own professional development.
In an early-stage startup, no one has ever done what you’re doing before in the way that you’re doing it, so how could there possibly be any formalized program for developing you?
If you hope to be a GM with P&L responsibility:
- build / understand the sales process
- take responsibility for managing and hiring staff
- build operational dashboards that supplement any financial reporting
- always think about whether the process still works at 10x the current size or rate
If you hope to be a PM:
- document user stories and be the eyes and ears for the engineering team when it comes to the users
- spend as much time as you can trying to understand the problem that the product is resolving for customers and how the customers are feeling about this “solution”; it’s always a good time to learn a few principles of design thinking if that’s new
- generate data about the product’s usage, even if it is a manual data-gathering process to begin with that then becomes a query that you run on a database and then an automated feature that you beg the engineering team to build
- always document bugs and, if possible, exactly how to replicate the bug
- figure out exactly which engineers deal with which parts of your tech stack
- understand the technology roadmap
- if you’re technical, debug as much as you can as frequently as you can, and make specific requests with priority labeling in your engineering workflow meetings and tools
If you hope to be running marketing:
- define the marketing funnel if there isn’t one
- help set measurable goals for marketing efforts in terms of engagement, conversions, retention, and/or spend
- own ad campaigns, email campaigns, and PR campaigns whenever you can, and develop a feel for how adjusting the “levers” on a campaign influence the outcomes
- develop brand collateral (and a style guide if none exists) that ties back to a cohesive brand story
- set up customer service channels that document feedback, and figure out how to use this information to iterate on the sales script and retention strategies
You can easily spend all your time on execution instead of strategy.
There is a constant hamster wheel of repeated processes that need you. In my case, there was a constant backlog of customer service requests, feature requests, and job candidates. Intentionally carve out time to think about how to reconstruct the hamster wheel. Hire someone to run the hamster wheel instead of you if it’s not going away anytime soon.
Quantification is a major strength you can bring to the table.
Remember constantly having to prove that you “add value”? There are some metrics that show you move the needle for your customer, and there are other metrics that show your legitimacy as a business. Always err on the side of proving you help customers.
For an enterprise startup, you want to show that you are reducing costs or increasing revenue/growth. Find some metric(s) that work as a baseline and ask pilot customers to be part of measuring change against that baseline.
For a consumer startup, you may need to be the one surveying customers one by one for things like engagement, attendance, NPS, or even basic demographic information that you match against another data set.
Find ways to incorporate the things you were happily doing before you became a consultant.
In a past life I did plenty of theater, and I incorporated improv and body dynamics into the staff training programs I built. I also loved layout design, which I had a chance to revive as we created customer-facing brochures, documentation and ads.
No one’s going to say no if you want to go the extra mile to make the company better while keeping it exciting for yourself.
I certainly hope you’ve heard all of this before, and this is just a reminder to commit to taking the actions.