From 500,000 people to 5: What joining a start-up has taught me

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When I read about, watched and observed start-ups from afar, I thought that running a start-up is like playing poker. The founders are engaged in a risky, high-stakes game where there is only one winner and each player wants it to be them. Even when they know the game is slipping away from them, the stakes are too high to simply fold and walk away, it’s a game to the end, either you win big or you go home.

However, the truth is different. Actually working in an early stage start-up is like building a house with only a very basic blueprint. You are the architect, the structural engineer, the builder, the interior designer and the landscape expert, all of that under pressure of time and with very limited financial resources. The goal is to create a home that is not only unique but one that will stand for many years and only grow in value.

Six months ago, I decided to join Klydo, as the first full-time employee, moving from a giant global corporation with more than 500,000 employees. I want to share what I’ve learnt and observed during my time so far at Klydo.

Trying everything

It’s a cliché, but it’s true; in a start-up, everybody is expected to do a bit of everything.

There is so much to do. When friends ask me what I actually do, I give them a long list of wide-ranging priorities, from strategy formulation, business development, project delivery to marketing, product management and recruitment. The biggest difference between a small, early-stage enterprise and an established company is the variety of tasks you will engage with on a daily basis. But, with the plethora of things that need to be done, relentless task prioritisation is not only important, it is crucial.

It is all about smart prioritisation.

You constantly have to ask yourself (or discuss with your team), what tasks are the most crucial at this point? Is it better to spend a few hours reviewing applications of prospective hires or would it better to continue working on the go-to-market strategy? If you add to the mix the fact that some tasks can’t be completed before others are done, it creates a real jigsaw to-do-list.

In a big corporation, your responsibilities are pretty well defined. The company hired you for your defined area of expertise, your niche.

In a start-up, it is exactly the opposite.

You are hired because you are up for trying your hand at anything. You are not afraid to challenge yourself or to try something you have never done before. This is because when you are part of a founding team, it is inevitable that your role will evolve and change over time. Start-ups are heaven for people who don’t want to be defined by their job title.

Focusing on the vision

Every day at a start-up is different. You might know how each day will start, but you certainly don’t know how it is going to end. So many things can happen during each day. There might be a huge engineering breakthrough, or a new client might emerge. But sometimes it might feel like assembling huge and complicated puzzles, you can’t see the end of it and, you get confused and frustrated.

Too much freedom, and not enough information to go with can also pose a big challenge.

On a good day, when you think you are getting closer to the goal, you may feel like you are on cloud nine. You are able to imagine how the business will effortlessly take-off. However, you also have days when you are just stuck, and you struggle to believe that you will ever succeed.

In days like these, have to be much more mentally resilient, and keep focusing on the bigger picture. It is easy to focus on the good days, but it’s the harder days that actually motivate you to get stuff done and get yourself out of the mud.

In moments like this, the company vision is what really drives the will and motivation to see past the current challenges and overcome them.

Building team culture

Building a company culture is hard. Culture is something that will inevitability appear within a team very quickly. So it is crucial to consider culture building as a very important aspect of building a start-up.

From my experiences, in a big company often culture gets diluted in the vast ocean of corporate processes. It is something that is HR’s responsibility, something that employees only take into account and think about on their first day of on-boarding. It often gets neglected by employees, because there are always plenty of opportunities to switch teams, change locations or avoid co-workers altogether.

However, when you join a 5-person company, there is nowhere to hide.

In a small company, every new team member helps shape and build the culture, and each person has a huge impact on the whole company. When the entire company can fit into one small room, “cultural fit” (however defined) is essential. Using my house analogy for the last time, the culture is the way that you want people to behave while they are building the house and how they will interact with each other when they live together.

What I’ve learnt is that creating a great culture is essential for success. Start-ups are all about collaboration and cooperation. Engineers need to be aware of a client’s feedback on the product, and the commercial team needs to understand what is possible to build from an engineering perspective. A team that knows each other well, can achieve results faster and have fun while doing it!

Rushing to succeed

Innovations in large companies are often slow and involve a lot of effort. Innovation consultants all too often advise large corporations that, “you need to act like a start-up!” (I have to admit, that I was one of them), but they don’t understand or don’t realise one crucial aspect of start-ups.

Start-ups are so good at disruptions and innovations because of one thing; limited financial resources.

The financial runway — the amount of money a company has left — is the single most important factor behind the innovative spirit and speed of a company. In large organisations, ones that have the luxury of not bootstrapping their operations processes inevitably become slower and more opaque over time. The failure of a corporate project does not mean the demise of the entire company and its workforce. In a start-up, people are constantly motivated to get stuff done because they know that time is not on their side.

In a start-up, when the money runs out — that is it.

Lights out, nobody home; the account shows $0 and everyone leaves with nothing but memories. Start-ups know that time is not on their side. They don’t have to only win against the clock but have to outcompete their competitors at the same time. So in order to succeed, start-ups are obliged to take bigger risks, take the path less trodden, as for them it’s a success or nothing. The relentless ticking of the financial countdown clock motivates start-up teams to get stuff done quickly, it’s about being brave and taking bigger risks. This makes for the best place to be creative, innovative, and taking risks that would be unthinkable for big corporates.

During the last 6 months, I have really learnt a lot about how to build a business from scratch. I had a lot of preconceived ideas about what it’s like to work in a tech start-up, but what I have seen is that what defines a start-up is a founding team is supporting each other, not afraid to dive into various tasks and united to solve a really difficult problem.

If you would like to give a start-up a try, we are hiring!

Business Design, Strategy, Innovation and Design