There was a lot of thinking behind my decision (probably enough for another blog post at a later stage). Basically, I decided to jump into the startup pool because I’m moving to the US in August to go to business school, and wanted to arrive there knowing a bit more than what you get from consulting. But in this post I want to focus on three things I’ve learned so far:
1. Setting your own agenda 100% of the time is awesome – but daunting
I’m really loving having complete control over / input into my day-to-day and medium-term agenda. At a consulting firm one of the key things you’re trained to do is ‘self manage’. In practice, this tends to mean taking responsibility for solving a problem that someone assigns you to solve. Especially early in your career, you’re unlikely to be at the table when the longer-term agenda is set or when the work is doled out.
In a small startup team, you both define and execute the agenda. Without the same layers of management and same numbers of client stakeholders, you can generate the same amount of output in maybe 60-80% of the time. For this reason alone, the hours tend to be better – even in weeks where you feel you get more done.
The challenge is that, when its you and the team that have decided on the direction to take, you can’t afford to charge ahead confident that someone more senior knows what needs to be done (or will cop the blame if it goes wrong). Instead, you have to be constantly challenging your previous decisions. It’s not enough to decide what to do – you need at the same time be thinking about how you’ll decide if it hasn’t worked or if you need to change course.
To combat this, you have to be as self reflective as possible. You have to be constantly asking whether you’re working on the right things. If you set a plan and then measure success by whether you stuck to the plan, you risk wasting time and money. And in a new business, you can’t afford a couple of weeks on autopilot.
2. When you suddenly find yourself in a tiny organisation, you have to seek out opportunities to learn from and be exposed to a wide range of smart peers
I think what I loved most about BCG were the people. The best part of the job was working with people that were consistently incredibly smart, interested in lots of things, and easy to get along with. Since BCG is a massive company (~10,000 consulting staff) with lots of internal global mobility, you had heaps of opportunities to chat with and learn from people from all over the world, who’d worked on all sorts of problems for a huge range of clients.
Working at a startup with a team of five is obviously different to that. What’s not different is the quality of the people – everything I said about BCGers equally applies to the Qwilr team. But of course there are only five of us. The chance of running into a Belgian in the kitchen who just wrapped up a six month project transforming a public hospital system is exactly zero (well maybe slightly more than zero if the security system in our building fails, and the Belgian in question is particularly inquisitive).
I’ve found two ways to make up for the loss of varied ‘watercooler conversations’. First, I’ve used the fact that I have a bit more time and control over my schedule to stay in touch with friends and contacts with a wide range of backgrounds. What is worth emphasising is that, while ‘just chat to friends’ sounds an obvious solution, it’s consciously checking that you’re maintaining a wide circle of interesting contacts. Secondly, I’ve found it great that Qwilr, like lots of other startups, shares office space. There are another 10 or so people in our office on any given day, mainly from Helix, a freelance dev team made up of a bunch of smart people formerly from Google, Facebook, etc.
3. (At least for me) Working really flexibly and dressing casually is great for satisfaction and productivity
I suspect I’m a bit more sensitive to this than some other people in the corporate world, but I really hate wearing a suit. If you hate wearing suits, then putting one on every morning to go to work means starting you day with a tangible reminder that you’re compromising on your identity in order to do your job. Moving to a startup has meant I no longer have a ‘work’ wardrobe and a ‘casual’ wardrobe. For me, there’s great freedom in looking the way you want to look. (And to be clear, it’s not like I’m cutting around now with massive piercings or a face tattoo, I just like wearing a t-shirt, jeans and Nike frees to work).
On a slightly more serious note, I think there is also a real productivity dividend to flexible working, including but also beyond what you wear. I love running, I love running before work in the morning, but I am also not a morning person. In a corporate job that requires you to be at work somewhere between 7 and 8.30am (as my BCG job did) it is literally impossible to thread that needle. Since no one is any risk of paying me to run any time soon, inevitably it was running that lost out to work.
At Qwilr, I take advantage of the greater flexibility afforded by a small team by starting work later, so that I can get up at a civilised time and still fit in a decent run before work most mornings. With the benefit of regular morning exercise I have more energy during the day, am in a better mood and feel happier about life. As much as BCG makes (admirable) efforts to incorporate flexibility into its working style, there is just no way you could tell a manager that you were going to start work at between 9.30 and 10 every morning, even if it did make you happier and more productive.
The synthesis, I think, of what I’ve written above is this: in a startup you can closely and profoundly control the choices that determine how happy and productive you are. But at the same time, you have to be willing to take on radically more responsibility for managing your agenda, your time and your professional development.