The single most important thing about your work

There are many things that are important when you think of your work. The atmosphere, the people, the learning opportunities, the meaningfulness, the impact, the experience, the career options, the pay, and many other things.

When comparing my time at the first startup I was involved and the current one, I realized that for me it all comes together in one simple question that’s also pretty easy to answer:

How many mornings have you had where you weren’t excited about the upcoming day at work? Or even worse: didn’t want to go to work?

Right now I’m extremely lucky to still answer: not a single day. It’s been a bit above two years now – and a crazy journey that I’ve been part of with the incredibly amazing Podio team. Sure there have been plenty of days where I’d feel horrible during the day, bike home extremely tired and frustrated, and yet – the next morning comes and I’m happy to get to work.

Back at the first startup, there were many days after the initial honeymoon phase, where I’d fight against staying in bed, drag myself to our office already in a bad mood, and hustle through the long day. If you ask me I’d probably say that the crucial piece missing, and making all the difference, was purpose. (More about that another time.)

Purpose is big at Podio, and so is the vision. The team is made up of some of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with – and at the same time people I fully trust and would always have a beer with. Using the product we built 24/7 is an amazing experience. The daily feedback from users and customers is terrific, and I really feel like making a positive impact.

Should I pay attention to not get too comfortable? Probably yes. There’s some point where routine might take over and fool you into a wrong sense of work satisfaction. I’ll watch out for that point and for the day where I won’t be excited anymore about getting to work.

How do you feel about your work every morning?

Meditation Lessons for Startups Pt1

On my dauntingly long list of things started and stopped without reaching any sort of proficiency, you’ll also find meditating.
A few years ago, I got a chance to participate in a secluded seminar where a buddhist monk introduced a small group of people to buddhist meditation and some of the principles behind it.

meditation

If you’ve read Siddharta or anything about buddhist meditation, you’ll remember that meditation is a life-long quest for enlightenment.
However unreachable this might sound, already engaging in the art of meditation can enrich one’s life I was told.

Unfortunately, as with everything else, success doesn’t happen overnight. Give it a few years and you might be able to laser focus your mind on not thinking anything for longer than 30 minutes.

So how can startups, or people in startups benefit from meditation?

One of the principles behind meditation that stuck with me can be perfectly applied to the way startups are sprinting a seemingly never-ending marathon.

Imagine you’re in some river or lake water. You’re in constant movement and thereby stirring up the water all the time. As a result the water is muddy and you cannot see the ground. Meditation changes this and as the mud settles down, clearness in water, i.e. mind, is achieved.

In a startup you’re at all times building the bridges while walking them, trying to check off dozens of things every day from an infinite to-do list, while being uncertain whether you do the right things at all.
I love it. I wrote more about this in my post on joining Startups.

It seems obvious to me that once in a while, the stirred up mud has to settle down to give a clear view of goals, strategy, vision, or solutions to complex issues.

If this happens from time to time both on the individual and team level, I’d imagine that less time is spend pursuing wrong directions, and the important things are pushed forward faster.

Does this mean everyone should start meditating? No, but how about drawing your own analogy to this meditation technique: focus laser-sharp on not being disturbed or drifting off, settle down for a bit, and listen to yourself.

Go.

Today I’m gonna talk to a developer

Recently, we got some new office space for our Podio HQ. We were already almost sitting on each others’ laps (don’t think of Jimmy Saville now), so it was about time. One of the things that I don’t like about it, though, is that the product team (developers and designers) and the business team (user engagement, communications, and marketing) are now separated on two floors. So I remembered how it was in the beginning when I tried to make the first contact.

Business studies fail at many things but one of the most fundamental flaws is that most of them do not bring business and tech people together.

So if you come out of one of those business studies, didn’t participate in a STARTupLive or startupweekend, and also don’t count any developers amongst your friends, you’ll have no clue.

And if you think you don’t have to work together much with developers in a startup when you join as a marketer or on the sales side, you have a huge problem. The developer ninjas are where the shit happens. They do seriously impressive stuff. Even if it’s just an ecommerce startup, you better spend some time with the devs.

How I approached developers

This is probably not the best way but that’s how I did it in the beginning

- I ping them on skype whether they got a minute. The answer is yes? Run over to their desk – now or never!

- Sometimes I forget to ping them and just walk over. If I see either a black or white screen with lots of stuff I don’t understand I keep on walking, passing their desk and pretending I was just on my way to the kitchen for a coffee. You don’t want to interrupt their flow. If their screens don’t look like code war I just start talking.

- if they seem busy but I’m sort of eager to talk to them I just stand behind them until they acknowledge my presence…chrm…chrm

- you might feel engineers are by default grumpy, which really is not true, but they might not be in the best mood during bug fixing times. This post explains why and gives some more great insights. So unless you got the latest tech gadget as a present for your developer or your question is about life or death, consider asking it later

Ok so now you are at the point where you ask your question but here comes the next hurdle:

Communicating to a developer

This is where I learned a lot. Sometimes the hard way. And I’m still learning:

- how I can be precise
- how to communicate the bigger picture, reasons, and goals for a required action in a simple and short way
- how I can involve the developer early-on in the creative and decision process and not just push an isolated task in the end of that process
- to know what I want – or make clear I need their input first
- to make sure we both have the same understanding of what we just agreed on
- to include all information in a structured way

Oh and don’t give up only because you get a “no that’s not possible” at first – that goes for many things of course.

Go back to your desk with a big smile and pat yourself on the shoulder – you’ve just successfully established contact with a developer! Carry on, you’ll find out how amazingly nice all of them are.

Generally, don’t assume they don’t want to talk if they don’t initiate the conversation. Don’t assume they only want to talk tech stuff, or are not interested in what you’re doing. Some might really only live in their code but most of them are just people like you and me, just a little different, and that’s good:)

What’s your fancy job title?

After the acquisition, I was sitting in a meeting with HR who gave me the run-down of my new contract, policies, the new benefits – and my new title. I got the longest title in the entire team. Here it is:

Associate CRM Marketing Programs Manager

Wonder what that means? I’ll tell you: nothing.

There is probably nothing less important in a startup then titles. In fact, I’d argue that titles contribute to a lot of the bad in large corporations.

Relatively in the beginning of my journey at Podio, there was this big tech conference in Germany called Cebit. Podio was invited to a panel but neither our co-founders nor CEO could go. So they asked me whether I wanted to go. I’d sit on a panel with the general manager EMEA of Yammer, some VP at Moxie Software, and some other important people judging from their titles. I was doing business development back then. Comment from my CEO was simply:

‘At Podio you don’t need a big title to do big things’

This definitely stuck with me and I recently remembered it again when I felt weird to put a title onto my linkedin profile.

Here’s why I think titles specifically in startups are bad:
- they can limit you
- they become a false goal and means of motivation
- they create hierarchies
- they might cause jealousy
- they erect and keep separations existent
- they can give wrong impressions
- they can be an excuse to not make important decisions

It can of course be argued that titles serve a number of important functions in big companies for orientation, hierarchy, coordination, and power distribution.

However, they can lead people to establish a wrong value set. What’s the meaning of a promotion to a manager title when you are neither managing anyone nor having more responsibility? Instead at looking at what people contribute and the value they create, the focus is shifted to the title. Titles for the sake of titles. Promotions for the sake of promotions is probably a closely related topic.

So, the next time you look for acknowledgement of your work – instead of more money and a higher title, what would really make you happy?

Btw: The only title that matters and that no one can ever take away is no real title: (co)founder

The shortest hiring tip

Look at the candidate’s shoes.

Ain’t they shiny.


Ok, ok for everyone opposing stereotypes: listen and trust your gut feeling.

If you’re one of those who live for joining startups and love wearing patent blacks – don’t forget it’s illegal to wear them in Cleveland, Ohio. Then again, that might have been the reason you started wearing them?

That little bit extra

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Today my girlfriend borrowed a little recorder device to conduct some interviews for her thesis from her uni’s library. She’s been doing that already a number of times for different assignments over the last couple years. You get a little recorder that works just fine if the person you’re interviewing sits across you. For the situations where you’re conducting an interview via phone you have to hassle around a bit, though. Switch your mobile speakers on, position the recorder next to it, and then hope the quality is not too bad. It’s not ideal.

Today, however, she came home with the same device plus something extra on top. And guess what – there is something built for that particular purpose of using the recorder for phone interviews. Only, the previous times no one ever cared to ask whether my girlfriend was planning to use it in phone interviews.

Today, the person behind the service desk did care. She asked that extra question and went that extra mini mile in being service-orientated. She also asked to spread the word as they’ve had this add-on for years but most students wouldn’t know.

Well, none of the other library employees had bothered to tell them. If you were to rate the service and decide who of the employees should receive your tax money – I suppose it wouldn’t be too difficult to chose.

Doing that little bit extra, asking the one additional question, showing genuine interest and care for your customer – it’s what makes all the difference when you are a small startup. And if anyone in the team neglects this imperative – whether in development, marketing or sales – you better change this fast or hope your target customer are robots.

About making decisions

You’ll get nowhere if you can’t make decisions yourself and stand up to them. This probably holds true for many aspects in life but especially if you work in a startup. Btw: the answer is yes if you’re still facing the decision whether to join a startup.

Is throwing a dice to make a decision the best way?

Everyone of us is dealing every day with dozens if not hundreds of decisions. Our brain is both handling more conscious ones such as ‘what should I wear today?’ to the many subconscious ones that keep us afloat and guide us through our daily routines. Imagine you’d have to make a conscious decision every time about lifting your right or left foot next to do a step.

That would probably cost a lot of brain capacity and time. But how effective are you at handling decisions that need a conscious thinking process and action? Do you spend the right amount of time and energy on situations where your decision might have a big impact – relative to the time you spend on small-scale stuff?

Take my acquaintance Leo for example. If you’re tweeting a lot you should check out his startup Buffer. He has limited his wardrobe to white t-shirts, so he doesn’t lose any time in the morning to decide what to wear.

Now this might not be the right thing for everyone but it clearly removes unnecessary clutter in Leo’s daily life and he can focus on growing Buffer.

Aside decisions in your personal life, working in a startup has additional challenges around decisions:
- often decisions have to be made fast
- often it’s unclear who is responsible for making the decision, so you’ll have to make it yourself
- you’re hired to make the right decisions yourself in your area because the founders/CEO need to focus on their own difficult decisions – no time to hold hands
- many of the decisions have direct impact on the product, and can be seen by the customers and people using it
- there are dozens of opportunities, requests, offers, issues, problems – how do you prioritize them?
- you have no clue what works and what doesn’t work
- chances are you’ll be doing things you’ve never done before that require decisions to be made by you from the very start

And that’s the beauty of working in a startup. Even if you’re an intern: you not only need to make influential decisions, but in good startups the flat hierarchy and culture will also empower you to actively do so. If you’ve ever worked in a larger company or big enterprise you know that this is nothing you can take for granted.

However, if you can’t make up your mind on how to do something, it will probably never get done.

I still remember being relatively new at Podio and having a beer with Kasper, one of the co-founders. He said something along the lines of “You’re a great guy and probably smarter than me but I make stuff happen. And I’m here to teach you how.”

So how do you get better at making decisions?
I’m much more confident and better at making decisions now than when I joined my first startup. I think starting small is good. I don’t ever want to stop there though. As far as possible I try to push myself to make bigger decisions – and stand by them. Learn from them. Sometimes I forget it again, so I’m reminded next time that I should remember. Saying no is still an area for me to improve. I’ve sort of developed my system of prioritizing stuff but it’s still in ongoing iteration:)
If it takes too long to make a decision, I’ve taken Kasper’s advice and just start doing it and see what happens. I always look at data if possible. For the rest I trust my gut feelings.

Be opinionated and stubborn but not narrow-minded. And of course: only because there’s no one else to sign off or decide doesn’t mean there aren’t people whom to ask for their opinion or advice. You don’t have to save the world alone – and you won’t. Be opinionated and stubborn but not narrow-minded. Don’t be dumb, don’t let yourself put under stress, don’t be drunk, angry, or too tired when making decisions. Plus my personal credo: be ethical.

So, are you gonna make the decision to make less less important and more more important decisions?

Interview at a Startup

Is getting a job at a startup easy? I’d say it’s as with any other job: if it’s too easy you’re either a total rockstar hire or the job isn’t worth it.

Finding startup gigs is, depending on the location, anything from easy to difficult. I’ll share how I ended up in two startups in another post.

Let’s assume you found one (if you’re a kick-ass developer or designer be sure that the job will find you:).
What can you expect from the initial talks/interviews besides all the normal stuff you already know about interviews?

Comic illustration by Canary Pete: www.canarypete.be

The obvious things first:

  • Looking for a safe job? Go back to start.
  • Aiming to get a higher salary then in your agency job? Double fail. Of course we all expect a fair compensation package. Should it be amongst your top 3 priorities? No.
  • Is it necessary to wear your finest suit to the interview? I can only imagine 2 situations where that’s the case: a) you join a suit customization startup; b) you’re interviewing for a Glengarry Glen Ross startup.

The less obvious stuff:
If they don’t ask you tough questions, if they don’t check up on you, if they don’t ask you for concrete examples of your work -> it’s either a newbie startup founder/CEO without a lot of experience, or they don’t put the focus on their most important resource: their team members. My humble opinion: you shouldn’t bother joining in that case.

I think there’s often also quite a difference between “business” and “tech” hires. At Podio, usually the whole development and product team would take turns to get to know the potential new team member. As a business hire, I only had talks with the CEO and two of the co-founders on the other hand.

The important stuff:
YOU gotta ask questions. You will influence this startup with your personality, your ideas & beliefs, so make sure it’s a great match. Make sure you get a picture of the DNA of the startup. Just read Steve Job’s biography to see how this DNA is shaped from the beginning and hardly changes. You want to understand, and more importantly share the vision. Be critical of course, but if you don’t believe in it, don’t just join because the founder is famous.

A few of the questions I asked:
How transparent do you communicate the product roadmap and financial situation (I had just read these extremely great insights about the early PayPal days)
What’s the vision – exit-orientated, long-term?
What’s your plans around VC funding? (they probably can’t tell you if they’re in talks other than yes we’re looking or no we’re fine)
Biggest challenge at the moment?

What I think is good to find out:

  • What comes first? User, product, revenue, thought leadership?
  • What’s the product development process? How do strategic, business, design, and development aspects play along?
  • Is there an open culture to actively influence the product?

Asking those kind of questions can give you a great sense of how the ship works that you’re onboarding. What the potential barriers to getting your work done might be, and also the support you can expect from the team. And, you might be able to spot if there’s any contradictions between the beliefs & values communicated in public on their website for example vs. behind the scenes.

After the interview:

As with anything else: follow-up and follow-through. Don’t just go home and sit and wait. Get your head spinning on how you can help the startup propel things ahead.

Follow-up. “I’ve set my mind: I want to join Podio” – that’s the subject line of an email I sent 3 days after the interview. And that’s exactly how I felt so I wanted to make sure to be clear about that. I guess it worked:)

What’s your experience with interviews at startups? What’s the main difference you see from other job interviews?

Joining Startups

Joining a startup is an experience I wouldn’t want to miss in my life. That’s why I’ve done it twice. And I’m not alone as I see more and more people choosing the startup path – whether they do it right after graduating, already before, or leaving their well-paid Goldman Sachs, consulting or agency jobs. (Just in the last month I’ve seen three people being lured by Rocket Internet to join their worldwide clone empire, but that’s for a different post).

It’s clearly a trend – and a logical consequence of more and more people jumping to found their own startup.

We’re reading a lot about these brave entrepreneurs these days – but what about the people who buy into their visions, join their startups at early stages, and help them make it happen?

We love the startup game. We’re not entrepreneurs or founders but we definitely have some entrepreneurial spirit and some of us might risk to jump themselves later. The famous examples of the YouTube founders who were early employees of Google or the whole PayPal Mafia show this.

Joining a startup as employee #1 is a totally different game than founding it and can’t be compared. I also agree with Christina Cacioppo that joining a startup is different from joining startups. She’s written an excellent post about the difference that you should read.

Joining startups is fun. We accept the hard work with lower pay and get rewarded with an incredible team spirit that is essential to achieve things that at times sound impossible.

So who are the people who join startups?

I feel they are strong individualists and yet they’re united in their motivations and beliefs.

People who join startups are united by their strong drive and passion to create value, excel at whatever their work is and have a can-do attitude. They get motivated by seeing direct results of their work and being empowered to move things. Move things and shape and build.

They enjoy the varying degrees of ambiguity and uncertainty every startup is facing and see it as an opportunity. They grab the opportunities and take the lead with own initiatives, bringing new ideas to the table and also execute them.

They leave secure jobs with “clear” career options, move to another country without knowing whether the startup will still exist in 8 months. And they prefer to work agile, can’t stand the feeling of being restricted in strict hierarchies, facing walls when trying to get fresh approaches accepted.

So one could say that in many aspects they have certain startup founder characteristics. And yet, we know that our burden and risk is far smaller. Our upside and downside is not as extreme.

You probably noticed my switching between ‘they’ and ‘we’ as it’s hard to have an objective point of view – so I will stick to ‘we’ and ‘I’ from now on.
Joining startups also requires a certain degree of ego-centrism anyway:)

I have many learnings and stories I want to share. Expect me to write more posts: tips on evaluating whether to join a specific startup or not, the ups and downs, marketing lessons learned, the joys and lowdowns, the gap between bubble and real world, making sure you don’t work for free, team spirit, understanding differences between business people and developers,…there’s a lot going on in startup life.

I’d love to hear from you, too! Are you thinking about joining a startup? If you’re already at one, why did you do it? Do you regret it?

In the meantime as put by Chris McCann: Join a startup or do something you love. Life is too short to work at a boring company.