If you’ve never worked at a venture-backed startup, well—I highly recommend it as an exercise in chaos readiness. There are few rules, fewer resources; no guidelines about who, how or when to get stuff done; and near-constant uncertainty when it comes to your company’s future.
This, friends, is my 3rd such startup. I’m a masochist, I know.
On the bright side! These experiences have led me to come up with a conveniently corny acronym for thriving in such chaos: C.E.O. These goals might not ensure success, but they'll at least give you a good shot at sanity.
For small teams, a product might literally change direction between a morning meeting and an afternoon coffee run. Communication is life.
I won’t advocate for a certain magical set of tools to accomplish this, or get on my soapbox about how Slack is ruining work-life balance (both worthy conversations for another time), but I will stress that people should err on the side of over-communicating.
Track decisions in a centralized, easily-accessible place. Say more than you think you need to say, and say it too much. Have all-hands meetings. We all eyeroll at meetings, but it’s better to embrace them than to have everyone losing their goalposts and focus.
When in doubt, talk it out.
Larger companies have established checks and balances. Deadlines run on longer cadences, responsibilities are clearly divvied up and everybody knows who’s Management and who’s a Plebian.
Not so in startups; they prefer self-ownership and relatively flat management structures. It tends to result in divergent pathways and a team that’s grasping for guidance. It becomes incredibly important to define the 5 Why’s so everyone can set meaningful, achievable expectations. Checks and balances and whatnot.
In a tiny company with no safety net, misalignments have huge consequences. Say you expect a co-worker to build a feature and they aren’t on the same page—missing that ship date can mean the difference between life and death for a startup.
The more chaotic and fluid a company’s environment, the more crucial it is that expectations are crystal clear.
All of this (over)communication and expectations-setting doesn’t mean a thing if people aren’t also taking ownership. And when I say that, I intend ownership to mean more than “accountability”. Plenty of people can be accountable and totally disengaged from the process.
Ownership means sometimes stepping outside of the bounds of what you’re directly accountable for—lending a helping hand, or even stepping in. In a startup, this can mean everything from making sure the snacks are stocked to helping a colleague ship that last feature in time for a deadline.
No matter the scenario, a true owner takes pride in the company’s output and doesn’t balk at making sh*t happen.
In short, everyone should be a mini CEO. Communicate more, set expectations well, and take ownership wherever possible. That next round of funding is just around the corner.