If everyone who innovates is riding a rollercoaster with no clear trajectory, the same is true of anyone who joins a startup. You simply do not know whether you’re the next AirBnB or an operation that will dissolve in six months. But let’s assume you’ve done your homework and you’re feeling pretty sure you’re in the right place. Here’s what to look for once you’re on board:
- Are strategic milestones getting accomplished? Are deadlines being met? Or if not, what’s the response? How will things improve?
- Do your coworkers seem happy?
‘In my own experience, I was sometimes surprised or confused by how coworkers were reviewing the progress of the business. In some instances it was eye-opening; they were bringing valid issues forward that affected my opinion of how we were doing. The fact is, criticism can lead to a much better business, and good ideas can come from anywhere.’
- Does management celebrate its wins and accomplishments?
- Are meetings effective? Start with an agenda and objectives?
I’ve dealt with leaders who would come and go from meetings and be critical in front of people’s work in front of their peers. Not only was it stressful, but the product suffered as a result.
- Are capital infusions happening in a timely manner?
- What are your own experiences with the product like? Do you enjoy it? Find it useful?
- How is the business responding to unhappy customers? Are there constant product improvements? Ways to continually delight the customer?
Be fanatical about the customer; it’s the only guidepost you have. Take the time to not end up too far from your customer. Often, the product people are the only people using the product. Yet how can you sit in marketing or sales and never use your own product?
- Are there new competitors? Are they a threat or is there room for multiple competitors?
- Is there an HR department? If so, how is it responding or communicating? If not, who is picking up the slack?
Let’s say you’ve looked at all these aspects of the business, and things start to go south. What do you do at that point? If it’s at all possible to turn the boat around, ask yourself these questions to see how you can help:
- Is there a way to communicate new ideas? Test and see if you’re being listened to seriously.
- Can you get good advice or guidance from your HR dept or your direct report?
- How approachable is your CEO? Does he or she share thoughts, ideas, new directions?
I once worked at an office where the kitchen was never stocked — no coffee, couldn’t find a stirrer, the water fountain was empty — and while that’s not a major loss in the grand scheme of things, I do think that if the everyday experience of the company is not supportive, it’s hard to expect the CEO to be open to change.
- Do you see partnerships that could help your startup? Think about a strategic alliance. For example, Pill Pack and Amazon.
Whatever happens, keeping these questions in mind will help you learn as you ride the ups and downs of a new business. Sometimes things look dire and then you happen upon a product innovation. Think about Twitter. At times it’s been considered the darling of the social media-sphere and at times it’s the unprofitable stepchild. All along the way, employees have ridden the rollercoaster of public opinion as well as internal developments.
If you’re committed to startups, you have to be willing to accept that there’s an ongoing personal evaluation of the management’s vision — are you more or less aligned? For instance, let’s say you’re at a brilliant startup that’s acquired. First you work for LinkedIn, now you’re at Microsoft. That’s a big shift. The Google China initiative to create a search engine that complies with censorship has some employees rebelling. How will you shift with the startup? What will you learn?
The rollercoaster ride happens at all stages of business development. You have to be willing to climb on, snap on the seatbelt and follow your own gut to see how you feel as the business performs.