Lessons I’ve Learned From A Start-Up So Far! – Part 1

So it is now early August and Brain Drain has launched! I say ‘launched’, but it was a soft launch and we are positioning it as a beta release (hey, some products spend their whole lives in beta so who cares? It is all about managing expectations). So far, so good. But now the fun really starts so if I keep on top of MutterLog I should continue to give you updates as well as posting interesting things about product development and business in general.

Having passed such a massive milestone in the life of Brain Drain, I thought it might be a good time to start a series of posts sharing what I’ve learned so far. 

Lesson 1: Business Culture & Interpersonal Relationships

A funny one to start with, I hear you say. But for me it is fundamental.

If you are joining an early-stage start-up, the first thing you need to realise is there will be hardly any people in your office. You might not even have an office. On the one hand this means closer working relationships, intense engagement with the goals of the business and the genuine ability to make a difference – all of the things small business fans rave about.

But what this also means, inevitably, is that the impact and influence of personalities is magnified, perhaps far more so than in larger organisations where individual peccadilloes are more likely to be mitigated by larger numbers of people and more formal constraints on behaviour (such as HR policies and management oversight). The boss can be either empowering or oppressive – depending on his or her nature and moods – because its his business. Not getting on with a colleague is one thing if you have tens or hundreds of colleagues, but quite another if there are four of you in the office. And very few small start-ups are going to have a full-time on-site HR manager; a tick on the plus side, I hear you say, but HR managers can help to moderate the worst behaviour of individuals by reminding everyone of what is acceptable within the law and what is sensible in order to get the best out of people.

But if all of your colleagues are great people and you get along like a house on fire, where’s the problem? Well, maybe there isn’t one. But as business life throws up its challenges, and stresses take their toll on people who may have a wedge of their own money hanging in the balance, even the nicest person may have a few off days. And when they do, there will be nowhere to hide.

Lesson 2: Whatever you think your job is, it isn’t that

I joined Brain Drain Ltd as product manager. True, product management is a broad church which takes different forms in different organisations and industries. But broadly speaking, a product manager expects to be able to execute the strategy of the business through the medium of product, and to inform that strategy through a feedback loop with the market. It is a role which usually carries with it a significant responsibility along with autonomy and authority.

But joining Brain Drain as employee #3 meant that there were two other people who had already formed deeply-held views about what the product should be. To be fair to them, they had based those views on market research and understanding user needs. But having done that, they wanted to race to launch. No time for me to do the things you would expect a product manager to do such as talk to customers and define problems. No, I had to jump straight into managing technology partners and overseeing a development programme. I am more project manager than product manager.

On the plus side however, I’ve directly influenced strategy, driven marketing activity, made pre-sales calls, reviewed legal documents and interviewed every single subsequent hire. I’ve had experiences and developed skills that I never would have had access to in a corporate environment, and I am right back at the coal-face.

I guess what I’m saying is tiny businesses don’t have the luxury of rigid job descriptions and specialised roles because they can only hire a few people and they have to make the maximum use of them. Obvious, really. But for every disappointment that comes from the job not being what was sold to you, there genuinely will be an opportunity to do something new, interesting and valuable.

Lesson 3: The boss is the boss

You have years of usability experience? It matters not a jot – if the boss wants the button to be there, that’s where it is going. He has bad eyesight so the fonts need to be bigger. He wants that logo, even though everyone else hates it. He doesn’t want to spend money on meeting accessibility standards even though a significant chunk of the market won’t use a product that doesn’t meet them. He doesn’t want to spend time and money on solid architecture and robust dual hosting because he thinks they are “nice to haves” pushed by “perfectionist” engineers.

I could go on but I won’t. This is a problem that will affect creative staff most but everyone on some level: the boss thinks he knows better than everyone else. He wants executors, not thinkers. He says he doesn’t, but really, he does. I suspect this is an issue specific to certain personalities, and the dynamic of a start-up founded by one person instead of two or three, but it is real. Many people expect more autonomy, freedom and creative control working in a start-up, but it isn’t always forthcoming. This is a potential negative consequence of my first two lessons, especially the dependency on the character traits of the most influential of the start-up’s founders (i.e. “the boss”). Personally – and this is my first start-up so I am reluctant to generalise – I was respected more as a professional with more autonomous authority in a corporate than I have been so far in a start-up, where I often feel like an over-qualified delegatee.

So this was Part 1and there will be more to follow. I may have come across as a little negative, but lessons are often born from negative experiences so I won’t apologise. Besides, I said I would be warts and all. Whether these lessons resonate with you will depend more than anything else on Lesson 1, which is a universal truth. If you as founder, or your co-founders, or your boss, are all great, well-adjusted folks who know how to keep less attractive personality traits away from the office, then you are on your way to a happy and productive team. Lesson 2, I suspect, is also true in almost all cases, more so the earlier you join the team, and is as conducive to positive experiences as negative. Lesson 3… well maybe that is a little more personal to me, but I’d be surprised if no-one had had a similar experience.

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