Succeed at a Startup: The Two Fs

I don’t want this to be confused with “What does it take for a startup to succeed?”. I am sure there are thousands of articles on that topic.. for that matter perhaps on this topic as well.

This is about the individual, the person who joins a fledgling army with mountains in the distance. Terrain yet untraveled and no confirmation that the army will grow or that the terrain is even be passable…

Now let’s start by clarifying this often overused term “startup”. According to Paul Graham a startup is:

To that point, I will not disagree. But the title of this blog becomes misleading. I am not intending to discuss succeeding at any company “designed to grow fast”. At the annual Austin Startup games, I am continually amazed by the list of “startups”:

The winners have raised a collective $80M, been around an average of 9 years and have at least 70 people.

What it takes to succeed at these “startups” is very different than what it takes to succeed at a startup with less than 10 people and say less than $2M of funding, but most importantly BEFORE PRODUCT/MARKET FIT.

So for the sake of this blog, let’s say a “startup” is a company pre-Product/Market Fit, because the skills to succeed in that company are very different when more things are question markets than not. There is no game plan.

In that company, the two things needed to succeed are FLEXIBILITY AND FOCUS.

Now this may seem slightly contradictory and it intentionally is. Because a startup for all intents and purposes is contradictory. Act big, but stay small. Grow fast, but control burn. Automate things, but do them manually. You get the point.


A startup is constantly changing. While the founders may work hard to set up some sort of routine or process. It can all change tomorrow. Today you may be delivering food and tomorrow building mockups in MarvelApp.

If you like a routine, like scheduling your day and knowing what time you are going to go home, flexibility is potentially not your thing. This is not a reflection of skill, knowledge, or ability. It is simply the ability to adapt to constant change. It bears repeating, constant.

As we say in Colorado, it changes like the weather.

Photo by Dave Robinson on Unsplash

With this need to be flexible, there becomes an inherent need to be a quick learner. Flexibility is not succeeding at the things at which you are proficient. It is succeeding at whatever needs to be done. And often that will be items outside your comfort zone, outside your skill set and beyond your experience.

Succeed anyways.

Adapt. Teach yourself. Call a friend who knows how to do the task. Ask Quora. Or just fake it until you figure it out. As the founder, I do not care how it gets done. I only care that if I ask you to do something, I can trust that you will get it done.


On the other side of this flexibility coin is a constant opportunity for distraction. Heck, as I just said EVERYTHING IS CHANGING! Feedback you get from co-workers, investors, customers, friends, your mom’s friend from bridge class… everyone has advice, thoughts, opinions…

And if you follow them you will fall into a perpetual state of distraction.

It’s easy to get distracted and filtering through all the noise is about as difficult as trying to make a pina colada in a blizzard. To be honest, I don’t know where that came from.

This is where mission and vision and these other items of startup folklore come into play. Whether the focus is “Powered by service”(Zappos) or “Make commerce easy”(Square), the ability to lose focus is massive.

You start working on one thing and it is not happening fast enough so you don’t follow through and go do something else. Eventually, you let change be the constant. And if nothing is focused about what you are doing or what you are working towards the results will be similar to trying to use roller skates on an ice skating rink. Hopefully that analogy makes more sense.

Things will come at you at 100 mph or like drinking from a garden hose or an avalanche down a mountain or some other analogy that gives the impression of a lot of things happening really fast.

You need to focus on small victories. This reminds me of the 2000 Mel Gibson film the Patriot “aim small, miss small.”

If you have the ability to focus on small victories and the tasks that can be implemented to achieve measurable results, a startup may be a good place for you.

In Summary

Flexibility and focus are two sides of the same coin. Being flexible to go where needed is crucial to stay valuable at the startup while focus is critical to avoid getting off track.

This requires a character that is very much independent and driven. There will be no trail guide and you will definitely get dirty. Before you decide to join a startup I would think deeply about the following:

  • Do I like learning new things?
  • Do I like constantly putting out fires?
  • Do I like having to make tough decisions with little information quickly?
  • Do I like starting from scratch on an almost daily basis?

It’s not for everyone, which is the first piece of advice I ever give about joining a startup. But if you answered yes to all the questions above, I wish you the best of luck and I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from

About the Author:

Will Mitchell is the CEO and Co-Founder of Contract Simply a construction loan management platform. Prior to founding Contract Simply, Will worked as a developer and contractor in the Washington, D.C. area.