Mar 1, 2021

Debunking “that’s startup life!”

Common startup myths and other short stories

I’d like to caveat this post with a short statement: I love working with startups. I love working with amazing, entrepreneurial Founders; with talented and passionate teams, working on something that’s really making a difference. I find startup life exciting, fast-paced, thrilling, impactful and really rewarding!

Working in a startup, however, is not a walk in the park. One thing is for sure — if you’re thinking about a career in startups, be ready to jump on board a speed boat!

At Unleashed, we’re lucky enough to get to work with many of those aforementioned amazing Founders, passionate teams and transformative products. If you’ve found yourselves on our website you’ll see that we take a pretty controversial but strong stance to “kill HR”, and to replace it with something far more human. We’re on a people-centric, compassion-fueled mission to change the way that leaders think about, and build, culture so that they can scale successfully and sustainably.

This mission extends to debunking commonly heard startup myths (and downright untruths!) which are (mis)used frequently because, at best people think they are true, and at worst businesses attempt to use them to excuse not treating people fairly. Without realising it, you probably will have heard a number of these statements before, more often than not accompanied with and eye roll and followed by the phrase…“Well… that’s just start-up life!”

If you’d like the short version of this post, here it is “No. That’s not just ‘Startup Life’”.

If you need a bit more convincing, would like to know why it isn’t startup life, or just fancy an afternoon giggle, read on as I tackle some of the frequently heard statements (read: bullshit) that we’ve encountered in Startupland.

Myth 1: “Oh, it’s complete chaos and there’s no structure — that’s just startup life!”

We’ve all seen it — very small startups where the founder (and the founding team) do a bit of everything to get the business off the ground. This is 100% normal, and necessary, but yet so often, later on in that business’s life, there seems to be an irrational fear of introducing process or structure for fear of becoming ‘corporate’. The chaos continues. Now here’s for some serious myth busting!

Introducing structure won’t crush your business’s entrepreneurial spirit. You won’t suddenly become a pit of bureaucratic hell, with a culture straight from a government office.

On the contrary, adding some structure and implementing systems and practices, like clarity around roles + responsibilities, like aligning the team behind a vision, allows individuals to get more done (as they understand the remit of their role), creates more autonomy + accountability and enables individuals to own and be proud of their work (they’ll see how their work contributes to the wider business goals). In turn, higher productivity, increased engagement and more creativity will be enabled — and there, full circle, is your business’s entrepreneurial spirit. By contrast — chaos = duplicated work, miscommunications galore and a very active rumour mill.

If you struggle with the word ‘process’… we get it. It conjures up visions of aimless bureaucracy. But if you scale without structure — well, you won’t scale. Try changing your language. Move away from ‘implementing a new process’ to ‘trialing a new practice’ and always be clear on the ‘why’ — what is your goal? Being clear about this when you trial something will allow you to gather data and feedback and tweak accordingly to enhance success within your business.

Myth 2: “We have an amazing company culture = we have a beer fridge AND pool tables! That’s just startup life.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for afternoon drinks — it’s 5pm somewhere, am I right?! I’m also not chastising companies who provide beer + drinks for their employees — work can be tough and we have to figure out how to enjoy the ride together! (Although I would question how inclusive you’re being if that is the only way that you all enjoy the ride together — not everyone wants to drink alcohol or push coloured balls around a table.)

What I’m take issue with when I hear this is the lack of understanding about what ‘culture’ really is.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘Culture’ as “a way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs of a particular group of people at a particular time”. Luckily, in ‘Startup Life’, we actually have the unique opportunity to build a team from the ground up, and figure out those specific ‘customs + beliefs’ by harnessing what supports the individuals within a team to feel super motivated, engaged, and happy at work. And on top of all of that, understanding what they need to feel psychologically safe* and therefore, able to do their best work whilst at your company. That is building culture, and what we should focus on distilling + codifying with our team — not just installing a beer fridge + pool table and calling it mission accomplished.

The pool table, the stocked fridge and the free snacks only mean something if the rest is taken care of — If people feel that their needs are met, voices are heard, values are aligned, practices are inclusive and so on. Without all of these then a free beer or (the judgement you receive for using) the pool table are all meaningless. They are not your culture.

*If you’re interested in learning more about building culture, we’ve previously posted some great posts on Richard Branson’s questionable views on building culture as well as why Psychological Safety is your key to building an amazing culture.

Myth 3. “I’m a Founder + CEO, and I’m certainly not earning the average wage of a CEO. You should be happy to take a 30+% pay cut to work here — that’s just startup life”

So the reality is, that you’re not necessarily going to be earning the same kind of dough as you would at a big bank (for instance). And yes, typically startups need to be careful with cash as they don’t yet make a profit and so burn through their runway. However, the statement above is still problematic, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, Founders need to come to terms with the fact that their company is their baby, and no one will ever quite love their baby as much as them. Even if they have created an amazing and hugely purposeful community where everyone is very bought into the future success of the business and bought into the leaders, people won’t stay for their entire career, and no one will benefit like the founder in the event of an exit. The moral of the story? Even if you’re willing to take a pay cut for your baby, don’t expect (or be offended) if someone you’re looking to hire, won’t. (Side note to wring the last bit out of this analogy: no-one wants a pay cut when they’re about to have a baby. Chronic lowballing of salaries is a great shortcut to having a very undiverse team).

All this leads me nicely onto point 2, which is — you never know what someone’s going through, or the details of their financial situation. That person (who won’t take a pay cut to join your company) may have an obsessive + unhealthy avocado habit (guilty as charged), or on a serious note — perhaps they’re an independent parent, or have to care for a sick loved one. You literally never know, so let’s stop throwing judgement at those who are unable to sway from their desired salary.

Of course, many startups, despite all the will (and market benchmarking data) in the world, are simply unable to pay ‘market rate’ for a role, which is very common. For those businesses, having a very clear + transparent philosophy around pay and reward is vital, so that their team understand exactly why they perhaps aren’t going to be paid the big bucks (extrinsic reward), and with that acknowledgement, explaining how they will instead support those individuals through various intrinsic rewards — think benefits, learning opportunities, growth + progression, autonomy etc — another reason to not be afraid of ‘structure’ as we discussed earlier. Of course, there are always going to be individuals whose financial needs are greater than the extrinsic + intrinsic rewards than you’re able to offer — and that’s ok! There shouldn’t be any judgement or ‘bad blood’ when that happens — and we certainly shouldn’t be branding someone as “not cut out for startups” because they aren’t willing to take a 30% pay cut. It’s certainly easier to recruit people for less money in the early days — however, this ‘goodwill’ and ‘we hire people who are purpose driven’ only lasts a while and won’t scale. What motivates people in the early days in a smaller team will be different as the team grows, at which point you will 100% have to pay fairly.

Myth 4. “We all work 15 hour days, but whatever — that’s just startup life.”

No, no, no.

As I’ve already said, working in a startup is like riding a speedboat — there’s lots to do, and often too few people. However, we have to stop glamorising overworking. We’ve become a society fueled by the pride we have when we state how many hours we work in a typical week, wearing our burnout as a badge of honour. It’s not healthy, nor is it conducive to productivity (surely what we’re all striving for in order to get done all of the things! Team productivity always links directly back to a company’s bottom line).

The same percentage of startups fail due to burnout as those who were unable to get funding. That’s HUGE. At a personal level, whilst ‘stress’ might initially give you a quick burst of adrenaline, it will very quickly drain your energy, leave you emotionally and physically exhausted, lacking focus and without the ability to be creative. All things which are going to massively affect your ability to be engaged with your work, have great relationships with your peers, produce quality work that you’re proud of and ultimately, your ability to get stuff done. Oh — not to mention, it’s no way to live. Let’s stop applauding how many hours someone works, and start focusing on quality output. And is it too much to celebrate our employees looking after themselves, relaxing in their free time, spending time with their friends and family and coming to work with the headspace to produce amazing work!?

Myth 5. “We need to move fast and break things — that’s just startup life!”

You’ve guessed it… Again, No! That’s not startup life!

Two initial thoughts. Firstly — this was famously Mark Zuckerberg’s motto. In 2021, are we really still believing stuff that ol’ Zuck says?! (That was deliberate, I still haven’t forgiven him for those ridiculous comments about only hiring young people.) And secondly — I wonder exactly what we’re breaking… ?! PEOPLE — we’re breaking people!

Hopping back to my previous analogy — being in a startup is like being on a speedboat. Speed being the optimal word here — the reality is that sometimes we need to make things happen, and fast.

Now, I’m not going to get all Hare and the Tortoise on you because that’s not going to help either. But maybe if that speedy little hare had taken a moment, assessed the challenges and complexity of the race in its entirety to understand fully what was needed to win, brought an amazing team together with the expertise to drive things forward and then given them the autonomy to do amazing things — well, maybe they would have been able to create an amazing first shot in that race, and then been able to iterate their approach to make it even better to win the next time.

So perhaps let’s rephrase “Move fast and break things”, with “Move fast, but do things properly — look after your team so they can produce incredible work and build amazing things”. I know that’s not quite as catchy as the former statement, but I don’t have Mark Zuckerberg’s PR team (and if anyone is working 15 hour days, it’s definitely them).

Through this post, I guess what i’ve been trying to explain is that yes, being in a startup is indeed like stepping on board a speedboat. But that doesn’t give us the right to drive like a maniac, throw the passengers’ life jackets overboard, kill a dolphin when making a sharp U-turn and then exclaiming “What do you expect! You’re on a speed boat!”. How’s a-boat we do things a little differently moving forward?

Written by Unleashed People + Culture Partner, Michaela Bartlam.

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