Words for the wise: Handy skills for joining a startup


[Editor’s note: Julia Plevin recently started a job at a startup that’s still in stealth mode. She’ll be posting occasional columns on VentureBeat about her experiences.]

It’s hard to believe I’ve been working at this startup for one year now. I joined a company of four people, and now I see about 25 of us. I never know how many coworkers I have because there seems to be someone new every Monday.

A new intern actually asked me if I was in the marketing department. I found that funny because a year ago that would have been an absurd question. It was just five of us in the corner of one floor in an old bank office, and we all had our own remote control helicopter.

We’re still in so-called stealth mode, but only for a few more weeks. I can’t wait to talk openly about the awesome stuff we are working on (even though the company may remain unnamed in this column). It’s amazing. For a year we dreamed and brainstormed. We had so many ideas of things we could do someday. But we had separate pieces that didn’t seem to really relate.

And then it happened. Things are coming together. Ideas are turning into features. The startup is actually starting up!

I’ve learned a lot this past year just from observing. I feel as if I embody the company’s history because I’ve witnessed it all. Week after week, it seemed as if nothing was happening with the startup. But now it’s been 12 months, and we’ve accomplished quite a bit. I’ve been on the roller-coaster ride of my life.

And I’m starting to realize that the real ride hasn’t even started yet.

A friend of mine is applying for a job at a startup and recently asked me some questions about my startup experience. Lots of friends have asked me for advice on how to get a job at a startup, but I love that her questions focused on what I’ve learned, because learning is really what it’s all about.

I’m sharing my answers here. I hope you learn something, too!

What are the most important skills you’ve learned on the job?

  • Be the person who gets things done. A lot of people have ideas but don’t actually like to do the work. The person who can take an idea and actually make it happen is very valuable. My CEO says the person with the most stuff on their desks is the one who actually get things done.
  • Just start. Making things pretty and professional and creating processes will come, but you’ve just got to start somewhere. It’s a real skill to be able to start small and humbly with whatever you’re working on and see a bigger vision for the future.
  • User research and user testing is key. Talk to customers/users/people to see what they want. This works for usability testing on the website and also for testing out marketing copy. I like to go to Union Square and talk to people from all over the country so that we don’t get stuck in the San Francisco bubble.
  • Own your calendar. Prioritize things that need to get done and don’t let people schedule all your time for meetings. If you need “maker time” (for coding or for writing or whatever), be sure to carve out your most productive hours for that. I know I focus best at a café outside the office.
  • Stick to deadlines. It’s amazing to me how many people miss deadlines. Your coworkers will take you seriously if you take deadlines seriously.

What are some skills that you didn’t expect to be important?

  • Know how to communicate with your coworkers. It’s really important to be able to talk about what you’re working on and learn what other people are doing.
  • Be happy! If you’re fun to work with and are generally pleasant, people will pull you into cool projects. Never underestimate the value of a positive outlook and a big smile.
  • Organize fun events. Startups are all about culture, but oftentimes people are too busy to think about creating a culture. Your coworkers will appreciate it if you go out of your way to organize fun offsite events or even just remember birthdays.
  • Be patient. It always takes longer than you’d think to get things going.

What are some of the best things you did to prepare for your interview?

  • Tell your story effectively. Walk people through your resume. Explain why you made the choices you did. It doesn’t really matter what you’ve done as long as you have a compelling story.
  • Ask questions! It’s amazing how many interviewees never ask a thing about the person interviewing them. People love to talk about themselves and their company, and they will think you’re more interesting if you ask them questions.
  • Play it cool. Sweaty palms and a shaky voice are warning signals. People at startups want to hire someone they want to hang out with. But don’t be too cool that you seem blasé.

Of course, some jobs have specific requirements. I do believe, however, that these skills are universal for all “departments” in a startup. After all, the best thing about working at a startup is there is no such thing as a department.

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