Startup Jobs

Reasons for things not working out

As our startup is growing, I’m learning a lot about what makes people successful in an early stage startup, and what doesn’t. I put them all in a nice list and hope they can help you when you run or (would like to) work at a startup yourself. They’re a mix of tips for founders and startup employees. You’ll see that most of them are simple, and easily avoidable.


Bad communication (from two sides) is the most common one. It kills expectations, motivation and is very hard to fix. Startups can be broken for a bit, but if it lacks basic structure and communication, it’s hard to do any work. At the very least, make sure everyone knows who their manager is, and have regular, structured feedback sessions.

A bad setup or context. There are easy basics that can mess you up especially in the beginning like arriving and not having a desk, laptop, email, knowing who is who etc. It happens surprisingly often and it is hard to recover from a bad first impression.

Then there are more complex things like the team, leader, project, culture. Even the most talented people can perform badly in the wrong context. Most companies can change your context (team) a few times to give you a few good shots at a good setup. I have always been a bit surprised by people taking not working out too personally. It’s almost always the context, not a specific reason or fault — just like most things in life.

I’d like to note diversity here too. Feeling at home is just hard if everyone enjoys / looks / talks the same, but not like you. Mixed teams are just better.

A limited horizon, not being able to connect your work to business goals. You need to understand how your work relates to, and impacts the business goals or you are working on the wrong things. The best indicator for this is if you see yourself moving down the org chart as the company grows. Talk to the founders, look at the data, figure out what the biggest problems are and make a dent.

Sloppy-ness. Even geniuses need to work neatly in a team. Good grammar, decent testing, reasonable documentation, and generally being responsive are the basics for being a good colleague. If you make a mess, others will have to clean it up, and no-one likes that.

Culture, or a general negative attitude. Being critical is great, but startups are hard and need a can-do attitude to make the process of overcoming unreasonable challenges bearable and enjoyable. People in startups should believe in what they do.

Not wanting to work at a startup. Startups have limited resources, broken processes, inherent risk and no clear paths to success. Some people are still surprised by that when they start.

Taking it easy. Even while it may seem that you can get away with the basics if the company is growing and you find yourself in quiet zone for a bit, be aware that startups are organically optimized at filtering out people who don’t perform.


Next up: a list of things on how to excel at startups.