Early startup employee lessons learned, part 1: affecting change

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The past two years have been a wild ride. The startup I work for went from 5 employees to over 100, one small customer to a multi-million dollar contract with the CDC, one product to over 10, and one customer report per month to hundreds per day - it’s been a lot!

And I’ve learned a lot, but most of it has come the hard way. The past two years have been among the most difficult in my life - yes, a large part of it was the pandemic and the acute experience of our public health systems failing us, but a large part of it was also work. In order to support our company’s growth, a lot was put on my shoulders - getting out from under that weight, and learning to function in the new company we’ve become, has been a huge challenge.

Now that I’m in a good spot and able to reflect on the past two years, I’ve realized that there aren’t a whole lot of resources out there to support early employees on their startup journeys. If you’re a founder, there are fellowships, accelerators, and communities that you can participate in that’ll teach you the nuts and bolts of founding a company and also give you a peek into the emotional rollercoaster you’re lining up for. These networks provide you with a community of peers you can reach out to for support, and perhaps even equip you with some strategies to navigate the founder journey and make it less draining.

But I haven’t seen similar resources targeted for early employees and their experiences. Googling “early employee startup” brings up a handful of blog posts, but they’re primarily focused on strategies to maximize work output and how joining an early startup is a great way to superboost your career growth. If emotional management is mentioned at all, it’s as an aside: “oh, being an early employee is an emotional rollercoaster so make sure you’re ready to handle it. But also think of all the potential career growth!” How to handle the journey isn’t discussed - and there’s even fewer resources if you don’t subscribe to the “work your ass off overtime, make your startup job your whole life” mentality.

Three years ago when I joined a startup as the fifth person on the team, I was naive and excited to have an outsized impact on an exciting woman-led company doing amazing work. And, of course, intrigued by the opportunity to superboost my career growth. But I now understand that I went into my job completely uninformed, swayed by all of the “joining a startup as an early employee is hard, but <1000 word blog post about all the ways it can be amazing for your career>” rhetoric. As things got really hard as we scaled and went through deep growing pains, it hit home for me how little I’d known about what I was sighing up for. And I found that if you’re an early employee at a startup struggling to figure out how to scale with your company while maintaining your sanity and work-life balance, or if you’re already so burned out that you can’t keep hustling but you also don’t want to quit just yet, there doesn’t seem to be much out there for you. (If there is, please point me to it!!) So I wanted to write down some of the lessons I’ve learned.

I’ll caveat all of this with the requisite disclaimer that these are my personal experiences, and that things that work for me may not work for you. Even within my own company, each early employee has taken a unique path, and likely learned different things from their journeys. It’s also important to note that this is my first job out of grad school, and my founders were also fresh out of academia when they started the company. So it’s possible that what I’m about to share is obvious for anybody who’s had a job before, but I also know there are a lot of people in my shoes - excited to take a chance and join a startup they’re passionate about right after finishing grad school.

This will be a multi-part series, starting with part 1 here which focuses on affecting change within an organization. I’ll also touch on coping strategies for the roller coaster, things I’ve learned about building a team, and strategies I’ve picked up for hiring well and hiring fast.

Keep your arms and legs inside the ride at all times, folks - it’s gonna be bumpy!

You’re an employee, not a founder

Building organizations is not something that humans have figured out yet. Unless you have exceptional founders (and even if you do), organizational and systemic failures will abound as your company grows. This is especially true if you’re experiencing hyper growth - there’s just no way to grow that fast without dropping some balls related to company health. My company’s dropped balls with respect to organizational health and culture hit me especially hard.

What’s helped me cope is the realization that unless you’re the founder, you can’t change the company. This has been the most important thing for me to internalize as I’ve navigated my company’s growth. As the company grows, the founders decide everything, including how much impact non-founders can have on the company itself. If they want to bring you in to large decisions where you have a seat at the table, great. But if they don’t, there’s nothing you can do about it. And that’s ok! There are many valid phenotypes of founder, and at the end of the day the founders are the ones who decide what type of company they’re building. You’re just an employee.

That said, you don’t have zero ability to affect change within your company, in fact you have quite a lot! You just can’t make fundamental changes to the company as a whole, unless the founders are also actively on board. I joined my startup in part because I was really excited to help shape the type of company we’d become. When I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to exert influence on company-wide organizational culture, I really struggled. If I’d known going into my job that “shaping the culture” is just as much of a gamble as “cash out big when we go public,” I think I would have struggled a lot less.

Focus on your sphere of influence

Being an early employee at a growing startup puts you at a really interesting nexus of influence. On the one hand, your opinions have more weight than the average employee because of your long tenure and broad context. On the other hand, folks with more seniority and different expertises are being hired above and around you, increasing the number of layers between you and the founders. So making change goes from requiring just swiveling your chair to chat with the CEO sitting next to you to navigating a burgeoning hierarchy strategically and diplomatically. For the first 6-12 months of our hypergrowth, I really struggled with this - I felt like I was wailing into the void about all the things that were wrong and that we needed to change, to no effect. But as we’ve grown our team and hired some colleagues who are much more skilled diplomats than I am, I’ve picked up a couple of strategies to make change effectively in a growing organization.

Most importantly, the change you make must begin within your sphere of influence - the people and teams over whom you have influence, and not the ones outside your reach. As an early employee, your sphere of influence is often the whole company. But as the company grows, that changes - it becomes just your team and maybe also the team adjacent to yours, plus a few additional colleagues who you have strong relationships with. It can be painful to see this dynamic and feel like your sphere of influence is shrinking - but it’s not! Yes, you may go from having influence over 100% of the company to, say, 20% - which is a large number becoming smaller. But actually, it’s highly likely that your sphere of influence goes 5 people to 25 - a 5x increase!

That’s what happened to me - in the early phases of our hypergrowth I maintained my influence over the majority of our growing company because I was handling so many aspects of our day-to-day operations. The founders were the first to leave my sphere of influence, as they focused on capitalizing on this moment to supercharge our company’s growth. As we grew, I had opinions on how our non-technical teams were growing, our market strategy, and so much more that I couldn’t do anything about - they were all things which I had no authority over and more importantly, were all under the purview of people outside my sphere of influence. In contrast, our data science team is well within my sphere of influence. Because of that, it was very easy for me to substantially shape our team’s culture, despite growing to almost 20 people. In fact, our transparent, collaborative, and positive culture is my proudest professional achievement so far. :D

Change starts at home

So does that make changing things outside your sphere of influence a mostly hopeless endeavor? Well, yes and no - you probably can’t change big things directly, but you aren’t powerless to influence your organization. That’s because grassroots efforts can lead to organizational impact. Even though you can’t change how the whole organization works, doing something really well within your own little world can resonate more broadly. It’s possible that other teams will become ready to tackle an issue that you’ve already solved, and come to you for inspiration or advice. Alternatively, folks may notice aspects of your team functioning better than theirs, and reach out to learn how. It can be less satisfying than directly wielding influence because you have to wait for other teams to be ready and in many cases to reach out, but that’s fine if it’s the best you can do. You can’t force anyone to change who isn’t ready to, or convince anyone to listen to you who doesn’t want to.

My favorite grassroots effort that’s led to company-wide adoption is the data science team’s onboarding document, which has become the template for other teams’ onboarding. And our document was initially inspired by the simple existence of the software team’s onboarding document. Our team also hosted a key cross-team training, which has become the model for inspiring other teams to think about formalizing their own cross-team interactions.

Influencing teams outside your sphere

When it comes to other teams that I’m not explicitly on, I’ve learned that making change is all about personal relationships. Even if you’re not on a given team, having strong relationships with key individual can put them in your sphere of influence. And if they then have influence over their team, then you can indirectly have influence through them. Before we had siloed teams, my closest relationships were with folks who had started around the same time as me and my technical colleagues in software and data. Now that we’ve grown to 100 employees with siloed teams, those relationships still carry the most impact and are the primary - and sometimes only - way I can influence other teams.

A concrete example of how I’ve learned to adapt my influence is our culture around async communication: I’m a big proponent of frequent public communication in slack channels, and of sharing unfinished work early and often. (In fact, there’s a :surfacing: slackmoji made just for me!) Other teams at my company have a different culture, and that used to frustrate me so much. But I’m not in their team meetings, I’m not involved in hiring, and I don’t get a say in the culture they’re building - so it’s pointless to get upset or try to change it, when it’s so far outside my sphere of influence. All I can do is slowly nudge folks in the direction of transparency through one on one conversations. Over time, other teams have started making slack channels where they discuss their work publicly and open agenda notes that anyone can look to for async updates. It’s been a slow process and very much a team effort, but I like to think that my one on one conversations have contributed slightly to that cultural change. On my team, in contrast, I explicitly ask about communication in interviews, collaboration is one of our team values, and we force folks to share unfinished work as part of onboarding. As a consequence, the data science team is one of the most open and collaborative at our company. But that’s because the data science team is as much in my sphere of influence as you can get - in fact, I helped write our team values and design our onboarding!

Timing is everything

Finally, timing is everything when it comes to making change in a growing organization. Just because you have all the best ideas for how to grow a team or take your product to market doesn’t mean anything if the timing isn’t right. Maybe there isn’t enough personnel and bandwidth to implement your idea, or you haven’t built up enough conviction for your idea among the right stakeholders, or maybe there’s just some external forces you don’t see holding progress back - if you keep hammering away at your idea in an unreceptive environment, you won’t get what you want and in the process you’ll drive yourself mad and likely frustrate your colleagues too. This is especially important to recognize if you’re in a period of hypergrowth - there will be so many things that could be handled so much better, but it’s likely just so chaotic that folks are already at their max and doing the best they can. It’s hard and it sucks, but you just have to be patient. Luckily, there are so many things you can be doing right now - so it’s important to recognize when the timing isn’t right, and refocus your energy on things that you CAN achieve in the current moment.

So basically, figuring out how to make change at a growing organization is also a lot about all the ways you can’t make change in the organization. But knowing what you can’t do is important to stop wasting energy on sysyphean tasks and instead refocus towards approaches that have a chance of achieving impact: starting small and biding your time, with the hopes that your local impact will ripple outwards and upwards to the rest of your organization.