Three Things I Learned at a Startup That I Didn’t Learn in School
Blog Post by ELP Student Aniket Jain (Computer Science | Class of 2023)
Here are 3 main learnings I’d like to focus on in the startup world: networking, the founders, and the skills.
The number one thing any entrepreneur has is their reputation. No matter what, that reputation and credibility needs to be maintained and guarded heavily, because why would anyone trust someone with a bad reputation?
Personally, the way I maintain my reputation is continuously keeping in touch with founders and people within their network. Chatting via email about life updates, wishing people a happy birthday (sounds weird but it’s the small things like this that people remember), and talking to people they know (people in their network) all helps them remember you in a good light. Over time, I found my own personal network expanding as well – it comprised a mix of people from my colleagues’ networks. In my opinion the key to meeting like-minded people is to not be afraid to send cold emails and ask to be introduced to others – people are a lot more responsive than you’d think!
Additionally, this creates chatter about you and your skills. If someone brings up your name in a conversation, the other person should go “Oh yeah! I’ve heard of that guy”. This pseudo-referral goes a much longer way than an actual referral because referrals happen through friends and are usually a result of them doing you a favor.
Next, I’ll talk about what I’ve learned from working closely with different founders.
2) The Founders
I’ve picked up a lot from watching founders manage their teams.
Good founders tend to talk less and listen more. When they do talk, it is very often to motivate the team and validate the impact of what everyone is working on. Being a founder is tough because when things go well, they direct the praise to the team, and when things go bad, they need to bear the blame. After being exposed to this type of behavior day in and day out, I picked up some attributes and developed myself as a leader. Every person at an early stage startup is a growing leader because as the startup grows, the first few employees usually become a part of the leadership team down the road.
Another thing being early to a company teaches you is how to build a culture. Initially, there is no culture, it’s just the 2-3 peoples’ personalities that are mingling together. As the team grows you need to define the culture you want. For example, one of the founders I worked with always made himself available to help out, to the point where a 15 minute response time was considered too long. This was an extreme example, but when this team grew, everyone made an effort to make themselves accessible to each other.
One of the biggest advantages of working at a startup is the opportunity to do a lot more than your role typically requires. I’m primarily an engineer, but have had the chance to be a PM by interviewing customers and defining company goals. I’ve also been able to be on sales calls to pitch to potential customers. This is extremely rare especially at large companies where engineers only code and salespeople only sell. As someone who wants to start their own company one day, I found these experiences invaluable because they allowed me to not only learn but also practice skills I otherwise never would.
I learned these lessons after working at over 5 startups. 91% of startups in America fail so chances are that the first company you work at will fail. I highly recommend people to work at a couple startups during college because it puts them in a great position to start something of their own whenever a great idea hits them. You will be exposed to different leadership styles and cultures, which will eventually help you figure out what kind of culture you like best, and how to cultivate it.