What I Learned from Working in an Early-stage Startup

For the past 7 weeks, I have been working at an early-stage startup in Japan. Start-up work can be exciting as there is a lot of room for improvement and individuals often have the autonomy and power to shape the core ideas and the final output. At the same time, it can be challenging as there is less clarity in the vision of the company as well as in the roles and process at work. Here are the five most important things I have learned during my time.

1. Early stage startups need a focus to distinguish themselves

When I began my internship, there was not a clear idea on how our product would look. All that existed were ideas and there was not even a running prototype. It is also a “red ocean” field with many existing Japanese websites and apps as well as international competitors. As I worked on the market research, I spent time talking with the founder to define the real need of the customers. I conducted interviews with tourists and local people to ask about their dining experience in Tokyo. I tried to look for analogies from existing services that I can apply in this case. It could be frustrating at times because you have to navigate through a lot of ambiguities. During that time, my first year of studying and working at Minerva came in handy. Questions such as “What exactly are we trying to solve for here?” or the principles of human centric design guided me through the process. At the end, I managed to narrow down the important functions for our service and started working on the prototype.

2. Work around the constraints

Working at a young startup means that you may not have all the available resources at hand. You may want to implement a lot of ideas but the engineering team may be understaffed, for example. In the company, we chose the lean methodology to build a minimum viable product first and try to iterate afterward. As an intern, it is important to understand these as constraints and try to find places where you can add extra value. I started at business development but during my internship I gravitated more towards product development, involving in market research and product design. This is because I felt that they were the most critical aspects that the company lacked. In my case, the design of the product is an important differentiation so I chose to work on it first before putting resources into marketing. Constraints, as I realized, is not necessarily a bad thing and can help direct your focus towards the essential.

3. Adaptability

As roles are not rigidly defined, I found myself having to learn to adapt quickly to the requirements of the job. During my time here, I worked on front-end development, UI & UX design, and content development. Although it can be overwhelming and lacks focus, these tasks allow me to test my ability at different skills as well as familiarize myself with roles that a startup needs.

Communication is also a big issue, especially when working across different cultures and languages. For example, at times it is hard to get my idea across to my colleagues even if they have good English skills. This is because Japan usually has a culture of being polite and people may have the tendency to avoid disagreement. What’s more, the process is sometimes as important as the results in contrast to countries where the indicator of performance is the output. As an intern, it is important to be patient with the company since the work may sometimes not move as fast as you expect. More importantly, I also learned to be patient with my own learning process.

4. Feedback is important

Feedback is what makes us grow and also helps the company improve its operation. This is especially necessary for startups where everything is still a trial-and-error process. Initially, however, I found that my company lacks a structure of making and receiving feedbacks. This is probably due to the small size of the team at an early stage and the lack of experience with interns.

After realizing this unnoticed spot, I proposed to have 1-on-1 check-in sessions with the manager, basing on my previous experience working for Minerva. In these meetings, I talked about the work that went well and tasks that could be improved since the last check-in. This also ensures that all the members of the company are on the same track and keep each other accountable in the process. At the end of the internship, I also prepared a transition document to sum up my learning and prepare the company to continue with the projects I have been working on.

5. Choose the right company

Choosing the right startup to work for is important because as an intern you may get involved in many undefined roles and have to figure out the work yourself. This experience has taught me to look for opportunities that can maximize my learning. Moreover, in environments where communication is a barrier, it is good to choose positions where you have the expertise and autonomy to carry out the work.

Overall the Mistletoe Summer Program has been a great learning experience and a chance to apply what I have learned after my first year at Minerva. I have learned about the difficulties that start-ups may encounter and how their operation can be improved with more focus and their products need more emphasis on customer experience. At the same time, working in Japan challenged me to step out of my comfort zone to work in a totally different culture and understand the local mindset.

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