What I learned working in a Startup


The Social Network is one of my favorite movies so you can believe my excitement when I first started working for a venture capital funded tech startup just like the one in the film. Like the film, during my time that I got to feel that thrill of the hunt, whether it was creating a new product or design, or landing that huge new client. But unexpectedly for me I also learnt many new things about myself and lessons that would stay with me long after I had moved on. These are things that I learned working in a startup.

 1. The difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.

It’s part of human nature to compare yourself to someone else. I know I did when I was growing up. Alot. In itself there is nothing wrong with setting benchmarks based on other people and their achievements or abilities. In fact comparing yourself against others is a way to see what areas of your life you can improve on and need to work on. However the problem comes when you start to treat these qualities of people you’re comparing yourself too as innate or inherent in that person. We are all guilty of this and alot of the time we aren’t even aware that we’re doing it. “Oh he’s just very good at maths”, “She’s just a very charismatic person.”

Being in a startup was like being in a Superhero team like the Avengers or the Justice league. When the CEO is just two years younger than you, and when the CTO is straight out of high school you can find yourself questioning your own abilities and try and rationalize why these people are simply better. It’s part of human nature to rationalize and explain things, and when we cannot find an explanation we end up creating one – The idea that people are just naturally good at certain things or excel at certain tasks.

“We end up not trying to improve those abilities we believe we are naturally bad at, hence fulfilling our own belief that we were born bad at it”

However this creates a very dangerous and self limiting belief, that our qualities and our skills are set and permanent. That we are born good at certain things and bad at others and that nothing we do can change those facts. That we cannot improve or reach the same level as those that were born with those traits. This is what is known as a fixed mindset and you know the greatest irony of this belief? We end up not trying to improve those abilities we believe we are naturally bad at, hence fulfilling our own belief that we were born bad at it. 

So instead we must adopt a growth mindset.

What is the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset? Fixed mindsets mistakenly believe that people are either smart or not, that intelligence is fixed by genes. People with growth mindsets correctly believe that capability and intelligence can be grown through effort, struggle and failure. Those with a fixed mindset tended to focus their effort on tasks where they had a high likelihood of success and avoided tasks where they may have had to struggle, which limited their learning. People with a growth mindset, however, embraced challenges, and understood that tenacity and effort could change their learning outcomes.

Understanding that your skills and your abilities can grow and improve is important not just in your professional life, but outside of it as well.

2. Know when to be outcome dependent and outcome independent.

During my time working there ideas would come and go like clockwork. In the morning we could have what we believed would be a great new innovation only to have to face the realities of the practicality of it’s implementation in the afternoon. The same would happen to our clients, we could focus in trying to create a meaningful and productive relationship with another business only to have them renege on their commitments. This is where having an outcome independent mindset comes into play.

“it’s learning to focus instead on what we can control instead of what we can’t.”

What is outcome independence? It’s knowing that you can never control the end result of whatever action you take. It’s learning to accept that an outcome is outside your control and our power. But most importantly it’s learning to focus instead on what we can control instead of what we can’t. And what can we control? The process. Instead of focusing on whether or not we have gotten the outcome we desired or the deal we wanted, we should instead focus on how we go about getting what we want. So how do you start getting this mindset?

You start by admitting to yourself that you are outcome dependent. You care about whether or not you land that client, or whether or not your idea is successful. Because being outcome independent is not about pretending you don’t care about the results, It’s understanding how to deal with being outcome dependent. And most importantly, separating the emotion from the action.

Be outcome independent when you need to focus on the process of the action and in achieving your goals. Be outcome dependent when you evaluate your whether you achieved your goals and which actions you need to improve.

3. Taking Initiative and how to take Initiative

The last thing they said before they offered me a job was how much they liked that I took initiative. Previously I had worked with another company with a cross business campaign involving the startup, I was in charge of communication between both businesses as we planned a huge city wide campaign. And on top of that I also handled the public relations of the campaign juggling media interviews in between. During this time and the time working for the start up the value of taking initiative dawned on me and why it was such a highly valued quality.

“Doing something is valuable, but knowing when to do something and doing it, is invaluable.”

Taking initiative isn’t simple a matter of forcing yourself to do something or take action. It’s about putting yourself in a position where you can take action. Doing something is valuable, but knowing when to do something and doing it is invaluable. Counter-intuitively taking initiative has a lot to do with planning and what you do before you take action. And this is a lesson that not many people understand, or are able to communicate eloquently when they want someone to ‘take initiative’.

I was only able to succeed with my goals and my campaign, not only because I had taken the right actions, but because I knew which actions to take and when to take them. I had planned and researched what steps needed to be completed, what order they needed to be done, and when they had to be done. If I had not known all of these things I would not have been able to take initiative and get them done.

4. Train your body and your mind

During my time in highschool I was a national level swimmer, and if there was one thing I took away from my brief swimming career it was the importance of exercise and more importantly, the connection  between your body and mind. Making sure you’re fit and healthy is just as important as being mentally fit and healthy, and in fact they’re both linked to each other. And in order to handle the stress and work load when you’re working in a new company that competes against businesses thrice it’s size, you need to be healthy.

“I knew I needed one to have the other.”

Eat well, exercise as much as you can, but most of all, make those things habits. Make them part of your day and part of your life so that you don’t have to consciously have to force yourself to do them. When I was younger I always had trouble waking up at 4.30 to go train, but what I did love was competing and racing against others. So I learned to focus on that and take the training, because I knew I needed one to have the other. Apply that same mentality to living healthy, they’re simply a means to an end and a way to improve your professional performance. In a way treat working out as a part of working at your job.

5. Living in the moment

This was the most important lesson that I learned during my time there. And it’s something that I still use and apply even outside of work, in fact I try and apply this to all aspects of my life. Living in the moment is about being able to fully take in all available stimuli in any given moment. It’s something that came in handy in work as you needed to be able to plan ahead bu at the same time focus on your actions in your current moment. Not learning how to be mindful will decrease your effectiveness and your execution of your work.

“Instead perceive only what you perceive at that given moment”

Being mindful is being able to focus on exactly what you want when you want to. It’s being able to exclude thoughts and feelings that are irrelevant to the task at hand. This skill is something that anyone can learn and should learn regardless of who you are or what you do. So how does one become more mindful? Whatever activity you’re engaged in, engage in it fully and move beyond ideas or preconceived notions about how it’s supposed to be or how it’s supposed to feel. Instead perceive only what you perceive at that given moment, and feel only what you feel at that give moment.