By Tara Healey, Head of Sales Operations
There is nothing more terrifying to my 21-year-old, college senior sister than getting a job and joining “The Real World.” Me? I’m terrified that her aspirations are to join the MTV show The Real World. What happened to that show?!?! It’s so trashy now. I digress. As she starts her job search, I recently asked her what type of jobs appealed to her. With barely a split second pause she answered, “I want to work at a tech start-up like you.” Now, I’m not one to turn down any iota of compliment from her, so I beamed, ready for her to espouse the virtues of following in her big sister’s path. She replied, “It’s chill, you can wear what you want, and you know, be you.” She’s an articulate one, isn’t she?
While I was at first surprised by her surface view of the start-up world, I reflected a bit and could see where she’s coming from. Read about the ridiculous perks at various tech and start-up companies - unlimited vacation, endless food, colorful offices with ping pong tables and legos - they start to look like adult playgrounds. Who wouldn’t want that? Hell, even I think I want that! Having worked at a Neverware for just about two years, I can say that there is so much more to working at a start-up than free snacks and colorful wallpaper. It’s an entirely different professional ethos than established companies - and one I’ve come to adore, with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Previously, I worked at a 1,500+ person publically traded research company for five years, so I know the other side. It wasn’t as corporate as Amazon, but it was a lot closer to that than the relative Wild Wild West of Neverware. I’m here to outline some of the things I’ve learned about working at a start-up - and not just for my sister’s edification, though that is a prize in and of itself.
Note: it might be a bit overzealous to describe this list as things you must know about working at any start-up or early stage company. Neverware is a unique environment - as many start-ups are - so these are the lessons I’ve learned here with our band of rascals on our small corner of 27th street.
Perks Are Cool, For a Minute. My first couple of weeks working at Neverware, I was floored. I could wear what I want? I was allowed to keep my hoop nose ring? I didn’t have to wear suits when meeting with clients? I could choose which snacks I wanted weekly AND organize the snack section in our office? Stop the train, I’m in heaven. Fast forward two years, and while those perks are great, they contribute approximately 2% to my job satisfaction. Working in a bean bag chair loses its pizazz, quickly. My point is: perks are great, but don’t work at a start-up because of them. Think of them as the refreshing slice of lemon in your ice water on a hot summer day.
What’s a Job Description? I have no idea how to describe what I do. Technically, I’m the Head of Sales Operations (aren’t you impressed?), but I do only about 30% of what industry-standard sales operations folks do. I also have my hands deep in sales, marketing, and social media. I spend most of my time managing our free trial program, our main sales funnel, and designing systems to track and report on essential information. If it comforts you to know the exact parameters of your job - what you are supposed to do versus what your colleague two floors above you is supposed to do - then I don’t know if start-up life is for you. If you’re open to some ambiguity, it’s one of the great joys of start-up life. Not only is my job function diverse, but I can also direct it in almost any way that I choose. If I have a good, well thought idea for a function that no one is doing, I can take that on.
Guess What? You’re in Charge. Speaking of taking projects on, at Neverware, the staff makes almost every minor, medium and major decision from what we should name our products to what kind of beer we should have in the keg. This is not a top-down environment. Employees are expected to have a stake in the game and debate policy and process. It’s a tremendous amount of responsibility, but it really adheres you to the company’s evolution. This isn’t the kind of place where your boss’s boss’s boss issued an edict and you’re responsible for executing it. That also means that when something doesn’t go right, you’re accountable. We’re lucky at Neverware to have a “fail fast” mentality and failures are never berated or overly scrutinized. You’re just expected to learn and grow from both your mistakes and your successes.
The Unknown Career Road. You know all those people who are like, I’m going to make partner in 3 years, 4 months, and 17 days? Or who know exactly what they need to do to get to the #boss position at their company? Yep, throw that out the window. Why? The future isn’t known. Early companies pivot. New jobs are created constantly. There’s little historic benchmark for career pathing. That brings unparalleled opportunity but lacks the security of an outlined path. If you’re down with a bit of risk (the noun and the board game - remember, this is a start-up, we play games sometimes), a start-up career path can skyrocket your career in directions that would be impossible at a more rigid organization.
The People Really Do Matter. Every company says it’s all about the people. And that’s true, as the collective mass of people gives any organization its lifeblood. At a start-up, it’s felt a lot more acutely. Neverware currently employs 17 people and every single person matters, even our cleaning man, Errol. Everyone’s DNA can be felt on the company, not just in our culture, but in our product, our interaction with customers, and our operations. At a small company, you can’t hide. Organizations with thousands of people have complex layers of management that, while often scrupulous, can mask individual success or errors. Not here. The camaraderie I feel with my colleagues is different than I’ve felt elsewhere. We’re like one group rowing a rickety boat through treacherously beautiful ocean waters. We’re not a band of pirates looking to overthrow management. Collectively, we’re a team.
Meet Your New Friends. With such a close group, lines can blur between colleague, peer, and friend. Like many companies, start-up and not, we have an open work space with two individual, unisex bathrooms; every single employee sits within 20 feet of one and other. My old office took up 6 floors of a building with different functions separated per floor, with different gendered bathrooms on each floor. Here, I am surrounded by my colleagues. I literally hear what’s going on in our development, product, support, and executive team (but thankfully not in the bathroom!). This can lead to a lot of noise and opinions being shared, but the clearest benefit is that there’s little segmentation by function. I sit diagonal from our Director of Engineering. I understand approximately 5% of what he talks about professionally but I’m grateful that I can hear what’s going and have learned a bit of the foreign vocabulary of developers - just ask me about how we’re planning to regression test our latest build during this sprint. (Spoiler alert: I won’t know the answer, but I do know what the words mean!) I also understand maybe 30% of his social banter but admittedly, I am lost during many side conversations, with Star Wars and video games and Linux being common topics. Last week’s was a spirited debate about the difference between a dork and a nerd, if that gives you a benchmark for common discussions here. All of that to say - we have a camaraderie fueled by professional goals, general proximity, and a wholehearted interest in each other’s lives. It’s hard to hide.
Fast Feet, Fast Feet! My team has a daily 9:15am meeting with our boss (well, everyone’s boss), the People’s President, Andrew Bauer. It’s not uncommon for him to suggest a new initiative in that meeting and have us start cranking throughout the day, reporting on an initial framework by the next day’s meeting. We are constantly trying new things and aren’t afraid of change - or failure. Slow, deliberate decision making processes - ones I’ve seen at larger organizations beholden to a variety of stakeholders with different interests - is absent here. Our way of things allows flexibility and creativity, but being fast on your feet and quick to adapt is essential. You can read some examples of this in Jake’s blog post about how being agile has helped us serve our customers better.
Under Pressure. Every job has pressure. Some have more pressure than others, some have more at stake than others, but pressure is something that you will have to deal with in any career. At Neverware and at a start-up, the pressure is building a company. It’s exhilarating when you’re establishing the foundation for a company that could be 40 times the size it is now in a couple of years; it’s terrifying when you have a bad day or a bad week (which every company does). In my old job, I was used to pressure of meeting weekly revenue goals, of the mysterious implications of quarterly earnings numbers and subsequent rising/falling stock prices, of achieving the occasionally herculean expectations to get to the next step in my career. Here, it’s the pressure of making sure you and your equally hard working colleagues will have a job. It’s surprisingly simple. Just make it work, so we can all come back to our bean bag chairs and eat our free snacks. I feel more collective team pressure than individual pressure here and while at times it can be high, it’s comforting to know that you’re in it together.
For those of you reading (anyone? anyone? Bueller? Bueller?), does this sound like your start-up life? What’s similar? What’s different? Start-ups are fueling many national professional opportunities, which I see as a good thing - the flexibility, creativity, and sheer determination that start-ups require are generally helpful skills and, in my experience, lead to increased professional satisfaction. If you’re evaluating working at a start-up, don’t get distracted by all the bells and whistles - focus on the culture and the professional opportunity. Play your cards right and maybe you’ll be an early employee at the next Facebook, Uber, AirBnB or Neverware!