It has been more than 4 months since I left my startup employer. When I first decided to explore startup opportunities outside of Google, it took me 2 years to finally make the jump. I talked to a lot of friends, family, industry peers and mentors. I outlined and prioritized the things that I care about the most. At the time, the most important thing was to “learn,” so I made a wish list of all the things I wanted to learn. A few days ago, I actually found that list in my notebook.
Here is a snapshot of that list:
Of course things never really turn out the way you expect them to.
Here is what I actually learned:
People come first. Products and companies don’t build themselves. People build them. Whether you’re a lead client engineer or customer support agent, each individual is critical to the growth and success of the startup. With limited resources, experience and knowledge, a startup is already at a disadvantage at Day 1. People are the only competitive advantage a startup has over any giant. It’s not just about hiring people who are smarter, better and faster than you. It’s about hiring people who are passionate and best at the things that you don’t want to spend any cycles on. This is not only important to keep your company ahead of competition but also in case you need to pivot.
Don’t f*ck up your culture. Startups are hard. Choosing to work at a startup means that you are saying goodbye to your social life and financial stability. At a startup, especially at earlier stages, you are working long hours, experiencing high levels of mental and emotional stress, and facing financial uncertainty. You have no idea whether the company will exist twelve, or even six months from now. As Brian Chesky, co-founder of Airbnb writes inMedium, “Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion.”Culture provides the identity that your employees will rally behind and a community that they want to be a part of. The stronger the culture, the less corporate process and structure a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust that each individual will do the right thing.
Core values matter and should evolve. I took this for granted while working at Google. Core values are honest and authentic statements of what’s essential to an organization’s success. My last startup didn’t articulate their core values very well. At one point, we asked all employees to write down the company values on a piece of paper. Not one of them listed the same core values as the CEO, so the organization wasn’t even on the same page. You can imagine how this led to lower productivity, misaligned expectations and slower execution.
Safety, above all else. If people are the startup’s only competitive advantage, what separates an average team from a great team? By building a work environment where everyone feels safe, open communication, healthy discourse and collaborative decision-making are natural outcomes. Safety harbors mutual respect, so people feel comfortable making mistakes or offering ideas without judgment or fear. The startup “grind” turns into “fun” making individuals more relaxed and energized. Leaders who shame employees publicly or panic over small issues can deter their team from admitting mistakes or taking intiative. In a startup where time and resources are limited, this can be the difference between success and failure.
As you can see, there wasn’t really much overlap. Rather than learning a new industry or building product, I experienced firsthand the harsh reality of how people (both rockstars and less-than-stellar) can impact a startup’s success. I also gained an immense appreciation and respect for Google’s ability to recruit and retain the smartest, most ambitious and yet humble people I’ve ever had the privilege to work with at scale. I feel incredibly proud to be a “Xoogler” (ex-Googler) and will have nothing but positive things to say about my Google experience.
There is one thing on the list that did overlap. I do think I have what it takes to not just start but build a company of my own. Whether that be a team within a larger company like my Google Play experience or a new company from the ground up, I’m hoping with my time off I’ll be able to find like-minded people who are just as passionate and crazy to make an impact like me. 🙂