There’s a widely held belief that startups are fun places to work and all employees become overnight millionaires. But once you get over some of the perks –- like free snacks and no meetings before 10 a.m. –- it becomes clear that startups are actually a grind.
And for every Instagram or Airbnb that seems to materialize out of thin air, there’s tons more startups that trudge along slowly. In fact, the median time from initial VC investment to IPO is 10 years. That leaves a lot of time for workplace politics, blunders, boredom, and mistakes.
Here’s how I’ve learned to stay happy along the journey:
1. Embrace reality
Day after day, working at a startup often isn’t that exciting. The most hoopla is about what ZeroCater will deliver for lunch or who just started following the company on Twitter. Reality is about seeing the good along with the not-so-good.
2. Ask better questions
The questions you ask set your frame of reference. If I ask my coworker, “What are you concerned about?” I would hear just that, even if there was a lot that she was excited about. Similarly, if we focus on what isn’t working with our product, we run the risk of missing what totally is working. Focus on making the good features even better.
3. Appreciate your coworkers
At my startup, we have a Honey Badger Award (a reference to this viral YouTube video from last year) that we pass around to whoever has gone above and beyond. It’s been on one of the designer’s desks for months now because she continues to churn out awesome work on ridiculously short notice and takes time to whip up baked goods for the whole office. She’s also the one who recently left a beautiful flower and a sweet note on my desk to thank me for my work. I don’t think she even knows how much it meant to me.
Awards and flowers are really nice, but even just a high five or a few words of gratitude go a long way. Build a culture of appreciation and tell the coworkers that you spend most of your waking hours with that you appreciate them –- whether it’s for work they did or the coffee they surprised you with … or even just showing up at all.
4. Stay inspired and keep learning
It’s easy to get in a rut of working long hours and getting home with just enough time to cook dinner or watch a new TV series. But chances are, if you landed a job at a startup, you’re a multifaceted individual with lots of outside interests. Take time to attend a cool lecture or Skillshare class. Read books beyond The Lean Startup or The Start-up of You. Go watch live music and check out museum exhibits. There’s inspiration everywhere, and part of “staying hungry” is staying inspired.
5. Take time for yourself
There was a period of time that I was working so hard and had no time to date, so interviewing candidates became my way of meeting new people. I started dating an engineer after meeting him when we were interviewing him for a role. He didn’t get the job because he wasn’t a cultural fit. I should have heeded my coworkers’ concerns — it would have saved me some heartbreak.
Now, thanks to sites like Grouper, it’s easier to meet people without much effort. But I’ve set boundaries between work and personal life and am a lot happier and more productive because of it.
6. Make better mistakes
Making mistakes is what startups are all about. It’s as if failure is the new success. The startups that fail are the ones that are too tentative or paranoid to take risks and won’t ship anything unless it’s perfect. But mistakes don’t count if you don’t learn from them.
For example, one time I got so upset after accidentally sending a marketing email out to all our users with a broken link that I burst into tears and slid off my chair and into a ball on the floor with such conviction that my coworkers were concerned something tragic had happened in my personal life. Nope, no one had died. It was just another day at the office.
Later that day, I went to the kitchen to grab some almonds and the CEO was there filling up his water bottle. I told him about my email disaster and to my surprise, he was more concerned that I was so upset about the email mistake.
“It’s a broken process,” he said, “If you write the email and get it ready, you shouldn’t be the person to press send. Someone else should review it first.”
We now have a proper editorial process, and all emails are reviewed before being sent out. I’ve made plenty of other mistakes with email marketing, but I haven’t made that same one, so I feel like I’m improving.
Some of my coworkers have gotten frustrated and jumped ship over the past year and a half, but I’ve been able to stay happy through disappointments and stark times because at the core, I really believe in the mission of my company. And when things get really frustrating, there’s a great bar across the street from our office.
Disclosure: Some of the inspiration for this article came from a lecture on happiness by Tal Ben-Shahar, who taught at Harvard.
Julia Plevin is a writer and blogger who has contributed to VentureBeat, The Huffington Post, and The Atlantic. She works as a ‘Marketing Maven’ at Luvocracy.
Happy businesswoman photo via Peter Bernik/Shutterstock