Eight months ago, I wrote about my six-month anniversary at Algolia. It was more of a journal entry than anything, and I used the opportunity to post about life lessons that I had learned from working at a high-growth SaaS company, Algolia.
By no means is my 1 year 4 months of work experience that significant, but it’s insane to think about the opportunities I’ve been given and what I’ve taken away from them. It feels like I’ve learned so much in so little time, but the reverse mindset is even more humbling: how little work experience I’ve acquired and how much more knowledge there is to be gained.
With that being said, here are some learnings of mine from the past year. They might be helpful if you plan on joining a startup or some type of high-growth, early stage company. Hope you find them as insightful as I do:
Take Time to Reflect
This one isn’t meant to be cheesy. It’s not original by any means, but it’s essential for your ability to function inside and outside of work. High-growth companies are stressful, and it’s important to have a grasp on why you’re doing what you’re doing. Reflection helps with that.
I’ve always struggled with meaning. Helping VC investors make a boat-load of cash has never provided me much life-fulfillment. This obviously brings into question whether or not we should look to derive meaning from our careers, which I don’t necessarily think the answer is “yes”, but it’s still important to understand what motivates us.
For me, knowledge-acquisition and knowledge-sharing is my motivator. For me, developing relationships internally and externally give me meaning; I love learning from people and I enjoy supporting people.
Aside from hitting KPIs, if I’m making people smile, then I have my meaning. If I’m challenged on a daily basis, then I’m incentivized to continue.
In the heat of it all, it’s easy to forget these things. All it takes is a broken process or a promotion on the horizon to distract you from the things that really matter. Never forget why you do what you do. Constantly reflect.
It won’t make things easier, but it will make them better.
Keep a Journal
Keeping a journal has two applications: 1) A journal is an outlet for your thoughts, frustrations, and opinions, allowing you to process them in a healthy manner and 2) A historical record to document quotes, learnings, and experiences with people in your life.
Both of these are important. To reflect on vision and purpose; I’ve found it helpful to maintain a clear mind. Journals help with that.
Documenting is also important. Some of the most inspirational quotes and stories in my life haven’t come from literature or famous figures, they’ve come from friends and colleagues.
A journal has helped me really understand that wisdom is the application of knowledge. I work with some of the smartest people I know, but knowledge can only go so far if you’re unable to apply your learnings and experiences to your life.
Practice humility and learn from everything and everybody you can.
It will help you understand yourself and it will put you in the shoes of the individuals building and growing startups on the front lines… individual contributors.
Track Your Accomplishments in a Portfolio
If you want to change jobs, it obviously makes sense to update your resume and you should also be able to articulate your impact in an interview.
Even if you don’t want to leave your company, proactively tracking your accomplishments both quantitatively and qualitatively could positively impact your growth potential.
While performance metrics are essential to quantifying your impact, do not forget about your extracurricular impacts: how many reps did you onboard, how do you impact the culture of the office, what projects outside of your role scope have you worked on, did you initiate any volunteer work or plan team events, etc.
Journals (as previously mentioned) will help with this, but use this as an opportunity to leverage your contributions to get you to where you want to be. Startups are flexible in early stages, so make sure to take advantage of that.
At the same time, high-growth companies continue to be demanding. Don’t forget that and don’t forget your accomplishments. Don’t underestimate your contributions.
This journal also happens to be a great way to prevent burn-out. It reminds you of your impact.
Use Your PTO
Speaking of burnout, use your PTO.
Taking time off is not a weakness, it’s a strength. It takes a lot of self-awareness and emotional intelligence to know when it’s time to give your body and mind a break.
The trap that most individuals fall into is to complain about working too much, when they are the ones in control of how much time they take off (i.e. unlimited + flexible PTO).
This can obviously be a bit nuanced, which is why if you feel you’re unable to take PTO, then you need to reflect on whether or not this is company-inflicted or self-inflicted.
PTO is there for a reason. These jobs are stressful. There’s pressure from all sides (investors, competition, etc.).
Use PTO to re-align and maintain balanced, realistic expectations throughout the ride.
Balance Your Expectations
Keeping journals, processing emotions, taking PTO…all of these things should be done to ensure that you are able to balance your expectations when joining and contributing to a startup.
Lots of individuals join high-growth companies thinking that it’s going to be a regular 9-to-5 AND all of the cool perks that come with being a younger, more progressive company.
That’s just not true.
Business processes aren’t established, best practices are still being A/B tested, timelines change and are sometimes unpredictable.
This is what you signed up for. Your learning and development is up to you. Your career progression is up to you. You must understand that you are working for a young company, and that you are bowling without bumpers.
This doesn’t mean that everything is up to you. This means that a lot is up to you. Autonomy and independence is great if you don’t mind the vagueness that goes with it.
There’s an awesome quote in the form of a LinkedIn post from a SaaStr investor, “The jobs that will take your career the farthest often have the most imperfect definitions The ones perfectly defined, also often have well-defined ceilings”.
This right here ^^^ is why we do what we do for these types of companies.
Expect better and work towards making the company better, but learn to accept that stability and rigidness is not a part of this equation.
You’ll be working for first-time managers and directors. Maybe first-time founders, too. This could also be your first time doing something.
Stay calm. Don’t get impatient. Don’t lessen your expectations…balance them.
Make Time to Talk to Others…Candidly
Balancing expectations is made a million times easier when you find people to confide in…especially individuals who have done the “startup” thing before.
Speak candidly about your emotions. Someone will ease them.
Share your frustrations. Someone will help you work through them.
Share your ideas. Someone will listen.
Share your ambitions. Someone will advocate for you.
Share your gratitude…and you’ll be the reason people stay. You’ll be the reason that teams succeed.
Learn from others and talk to others. We’re all in the same boat.
Don’t Compare Apples and Oranges
Candid chats are a great way to find peace in our commonalities, but there’s a dark side to this: negative comparisons can quickly become toxic.
A great saying that has been told to me before in the same context: “Don’t compare apples and oranges”.
Not all startups are the same. Not all Glassdoor salaries are the same.
Not all teams are the same. Not all team members are the same.
Not all markets are the same. Not all industries are the same.
Don’t draw comparisons for the sake of dividing people. Don’t draw comparisons based on flawed datasets.
Find differences to see what you can do better, not to emphasize what your company is doing worse.
Differences are great in industry-wide and company-wide scenarios.
It’s what makes us human. It’s the one thing we all have in common.
Learn from them.
Stay in Your Swim Lane
While we’re on the topic of using comparisons to create a toxic work environment, let’s not forget to just stay in our swim lanes.
If you’ve ever done competitive swimming, there’s a way to sync your breaths with your movements. Generally, you alternate sides. This allows for you to keep your head down and focus on what’s ahead. When you look to either side of you, it’s easy to get distracted by the other swimmer, but it also ruins your rhythm for breathing…causing you to fall behind.
Oh…also, literally stay in your lane. Don’t go over the rope into another swimmer’s lane. That’s a big no-no.
I’d recommend looking at this advice from two different perspectives: 1) For a company: don’t change your company vision because of the competition or 2) For individuals: Stay within your role scope. Don’t blame your failure on another department’s shortcomings.
Stay in your lane. Win the race.
Master your role. Make the most with what you get. Push for success.
Don’t compare yourself to others.
You do your thing, first. Let everyone else do their thing.
Master swimming in your lane…then become a coach or a lifeguard.
Prove yourself…then you can concern yourself with the other swimmers.
Seek out More Experienced Individuals
It’s hard to stay in your swim lane. Not going to lie.
You’ll need a cheerleader. Find an advocate, a mentor, someone internally to motivate you and keep you accountable.
Continue to surround yourself with these individuals (more experienced than you) that can think objectively and get you where you need to be.
Yes, this is a repeat of earlier advice in some sense. Who cares?
It’s that important.