How to Manage at Startups vs. Established Companies

When you’re a founder or early employee of a start-up, there’s a lot you don’t know. There are a lot of “firsts,” and trial-by-fire is the status quo — it’s where the famous “fail fast” mantra stems from.

The beauty of working at a start-up is that, by and large, everyone is trying to figure everything out together. Even if you’ve got an executive team with lots of experience in the industry, you’re still likely traversing choppy waters to unknown territory, but you’re doing it together, and that makes it fun.

If you’re lucky enough to be an early employee at a start-up company, chances are you’ve had the opportunity define the standards for product, people, and process. It’s one of the most amazing professional experiences one can have. Imagine having a seat at the table when a company was 30 people to help determine the core company values that would be promoted to hundreds or thousands of employees to come. It’s unreal! 

But what happens when someone accustomed to being an “early stage employee” joins a more established company? One in which product, people, and process are already established? All of a sudden you’ve got someone accustomed to creating, building, and scaling trying to assimilate, negotiate, and drive change to the status quo. It’s a hell of an adjustment! 

But that’s not to say it can’t be done. Historical “builders” can, in fact, be “improvers” at more established companies, they just need to approach things in a slightly different way. It takes a little more finesse, investigative prowess, inquisition, and patience. Above all else, it requires the ability for that person to be completely comfortable saying, “I don’t know” or “Oh, I didn’t know that — can you explain that to me?” 

At first glance, that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but you’d be surprised how hard it is for someone accustomed to establishing the foundation upon which a company functions operationally to pivot into the “new guy/girl” trying to “wrap his/her head around it all,” let alone improve upon it. Here are some things that I’ve found useful: 

  1. Don’t be afraid to be unsure. One of the key differences between being at a startup vs. an established company is that you don’t have the luxury of having defined everything from the start and learned as the company evolved. You’re going to have to say, “I don’t get it” “Can you explain that to me again?” “I don’t understand.” That’s OKAY! The more inquisitive you are, the faster you learn and the more people consider you a passionate member of the team. 
  2. Figure out who knows what and figure out how you can help them. At any established company, there are people with a ton of proprietary institutional knowledge that can help you get up to speed a lot faster than you think. And chances are that those people are swamped with work and could use a hand. So show them that a) you’re interested in what they do; b) you are willing to help them and voila! All of a sudden you’ll have someone helping you learn the ropes faster than you could have imagined. 
  3. Don’t be too aggressive or pompous. No one at an established company wants to hear some new hire bash the way they’ve done things for the last 5-10 years. You have to be thoughtful about how you make recommendations. It’s one thing to say, “this is a dumb way of doing things,” and quite a different thing to say, “interesting… I appreciate that you do it that way, but am curious to know if you’ve ever experimented with doing it this way.” It may seem obvious, but a lot of people forget to be polite and diplomatic. That’s essential in an established company. 
  4. Roll up your sleeves & stick your elbows out (softly). One of the major differences between start-up and established business is that the former needs all hands on deck, whereas the latter sort of expects people to stay in their box. If you’re a start-up person in an established company, you will need to elbow your way into conversations, meetings, projects, to prove your value. Don’t take it personally that you weren’t invited, it’s just that the organization is so used to doing things a certain way that it doesn’t quite understand how you fit into the puzzle. That’s nothing against anyone on the team, it just means you have to go out of your way to show them how you add value. 

At the end of the day, whether you’re at ground zero of a start-up, or joining an established company, the most important thing is that a) you’re passionate about the product, b) passionate about the job that you do to further the success of that product, c) have plenty of work to do, and ideally, d) passionate about working for the management team at your company. If you have these 4 things in spades, you should relish it. if you only have 2… you should still be grateful, because even that’s not common. 

Bottom line: treat any job you have as if it were a learning experience. Whether you’re defining the process or trying to learn it 10 years after it was established doesn’t matter. Be inquisitive. Question everything. Strive to understand as much as you can and help as many people as you can. Period.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>