Top 5 Rules I’ve Lived By While Working at a Startup

For the past two years I’ve worked for a early stage startup. Early as in when I began the adventure it was the two founders, a few engineers, and me — wondering how and why I was given the opportunity to be a part of the madness. It all started in a small space shared with an alarm company (constant beeping muted our Spotify playlists) and little mice that would make their morning debuts rolling around in bags of boom chicka pop.

Eventually we moved out of the dungeon and into a modern and beautiful space in the Mission District with lots of natural light, a spacious roof deck, and endless whiteboard walls. The fourteen desks quickly began to gain occupants and the whiteboard walls filled up with illegible yet seemingly brilliant ideas.

The past two years have raced by filled with uncertainties, hard choices, lots of dedication, great moments, shitty moments, and strong relationships with some of the most intelligent people I know. Working for a startup is weird. No one day is the same and there’s no rule book to tell you the step by step. One thing I do know is that I’ve learned a lot and time has flown by in the blink of an eye.

As an Operations Manager at a tech startup these are the top 5 rules I’ve lived by:

  1. Never waste time waiting around for someone to tell you what to do. Things are chaotic, the business is budding, and there’s no pause button. As a startup employee, you have to do whatever it takes to define your own role and to choose tasks that drive the business forward. You have to have a GSD (get shit done) attitude and not only be able to create your own structure but start creating the structure of the company. Most of the time you’re hitting the ground running and acting as your own boss. Everyone has a lot on their plates, there’s endless things to get done, and there’s seemingly no time to do so. It’s up to you to figure out where you can add the most value and prioritize what needs to come first. Embrace the newfound responsibility. With the right mindset, you can open your career up to more opportunities than ever thought possible.
  2. Always make employee happiness and engagement a first priority. Without engaged employees, you don’t have a viable business. Remember birthdays and work anniversaries even on the day of the big PR launch or when the website crashes. Listen to people when they voice their concerns. People want to know that they are valued and that the company they work for cares. Even when you only have a team of five in different locations across the US — spend time celebrating, congratulating, and checking in. Maybe a birthday card seems like something small, but all the small things add up and make a lasting impact. Also spend time giving feedback when it’s needed. Set up goal setting and OKRs early on. People spend majority of their time at work. You want to make sure they keep coming back. Gratitude, recognition, and constructive feedback are such a huge part in that.
  3. When in doubt: research, network, and get comfortable asking lots of questions. In a startup environment everyone is stepping outside of their role and taking on projects and responsibilities that may be somewhat foreign. That’s a challenging part, but that’s also a fun part. When in doubt don’t be afraid to get creative. Reach out to people on LinkedIn that have experience with what you’re working on. Ask for advice. Join Google groups. Post questions. Post learnings. Start discussions. Host in person meetups on topics you want to learn more about. I hosted one at our office about creating and maintaining company culture — a lot of awesome people showed up and we had a two hour long discussion that I think everyone benefitted from (notes from that here). Google search is your friend but sometimes it takes more than that. There are so many resources out there. So many great books to read, conferences to attend, podcasts to listen to, HUMANS, that have the wisdom to guide you through the unknowns. Never think you’re the expert. Also never think that everything you read or hear will work. Research. Try things. Fail. Read more. Talk to more people. Try something different. Repeat. Badabing, badaboom. (I’ve added a guide with specific resources at the end of this post)
  4. Document everything. The biggest time saver, at least for me (especially with HR duties), is to document, document, document. Document all the steps to onboarding a new employee, who’s responsible for what, early culture, norms, processes. Make everything easily accessible, readable, and repeatable. Things are rapidly changing in a startup culture and documentation helps everyone stay organized and on the same track. It also allows you to look back and wonder “wtf were we thinking” or realize “ooo we need to start doing that again.”
  5. Stay humble. Act with integrity. With the climb to success comes hard decisions. Sometimes you have to fire your friends. Sometimes you have to take necessary shortcuts. Choosing to act with integrity isn’t always easy, but choosing to save face and not take responsibility for your actions will always hurt you in the long run. When it comes to your employees and your customers, be as open and transparent as possible. In some cases (lots of cases as an Operations Manager) this also includes using discretion. Startups are small and lots of times you’re stuck with the same few people every day, all day. Always use as much discretion as possible when dealing with sensitive information. It doesn’t matter how big or small the company you work for is. Loyalty helps maintain relationships which equates to a stronger company culture and a safer work environment overall.

Working in a startup culture is one of the best things I could’ve done for my career and my own personal growth. I will always take what I’ve learned with me and be a better employee, coworker, and person because of it.

I’ve included some resources from topics mentioned above that we’ve used as a company and I’ve used personally to help me be better in my role.


1. How to not waste time and GSD

  • Slack to communicate effectively and quickly as a team
  • Trello to keep organized
  • I’m weird and love using a mini whiteboard to write down my to-do list for the day, then erase things as a finish them. It stays right in front of me on my desk, doesn’t get lost in the sea of windows on my computer, and saves paper.

2. Tools to help employees stay :) and engaged

  • In the beginning of the journey our CEO would ask each employee to send an email to him every Friday with three things that they were worried about (it could be anything). This gave everyone the chance, no matter what their position, to voice their concerns to leadership. There’s something really powerful in that.
  • Betterworks is a goal setting platform that helps easily manage collaborative goals and OKRs.
  • Greenhouse Onboarding is a great platform to streamline and automate the onboarding process. It also allows you to tell your company story to a new hire before they even start. I believe smooth onboarding is so important, and employees should feel engaged and valued from the start.

3. HR/Operations Manager Resources

4. Documentation Tools