Three golden rules for being a successful startup employee

There’s a lot of material that gets written about startup founders – from their struggles to startup best practices and everything in between. Lots of good material too, and from a wide variety of perspectives – founders themselves, angels, VCs, big company CEOs, and several business authors. It’s safe to say that the topic is well covered.

Yet, there is little that gets said about the majority of the startup world – the startup employees. Even, when there is something said (see this google search for “startup employees”), its mostly generic advice – be open to learning, be passionate, persevere, be biased towards execution, and so on.

This is all great advice. For anyone. The thing is that there’s a lot more to being a successful startup employee. I’ve had an opportunity on being on both sides of the startup equation – and what follows is one perspective on what it takes to be successful as a startup employee.

How do you define success

There’s only a couple of good reasons to join a startup as an employee – either you believe in the product or the people behind the company. Ideally, both. If you find yourself in a startup for any other reason, you should probably reevaluate your choice.

Given this, the definition of your success should only rely on two factors – namely, the overall success of the startup and the success of other people in the company. Measure yourself by how much you contribute to those two factors on a day to day basis.

Learn to deal with ambiguity

Startups are a mess. It’s tempting to think, on seeing them from the outside, that startups are free of the annoyances of larger companies. They’re just a team of 20 or 100, or a few hundred. Surely, they’re faster and more organized. Perhaps, they are. A tad faster, or a tad bit more organized. However, what we forget to see is that Startups evolve a lot faster than large companies. With that evolution, naturally, comes chaos.

A successful startup employee learns to deal with the chaos and make order out of it. In any given month, you will feel the pull in 10 different directions. Get comfortable with the ambiguity instead of clinging to your natural comfort zone.

Learn to manage upwards

Given the high chaos environment, its important to manage upwards. Startups often have flatter organizations relative to larger companies. This ends up putting a lot of responsibility on managers as they end up communicating with and managing cross functional teams and initiatives.

A successful startup employee has to learn to manage upwards. This involves asking a lot of “why”s before asking “what” and “how”! Truly understanding the motivation and direction of the leadership is what will make your work the most impactful for the company.

Learn to leave everything better than you found it

In larger companies, it becomes increasingly difficult to take something broken and fix it. There are layers of bureaucracy and middle management to go through to get the right approvals to do something basic. In a startup, there is no excuse.

Not every system you find is going to be perfect. In fact, its highly likely that most systems will be sub par. Don’t criticize, figure out quickly what needs to be improved and work on getting it done. Each small system improvement effort may yield fabulous results in the long run.

So, there you have it. Deal with ambiguity. Manage upwards. Leave everything a little better than you found it. Three golden rules for becoming a successful startup employee.