The Reality Of The Start-up Life

You’ve evaluated everything, decided it’s the right decision for you…’ve joined. Now what?   

You have stepped behind the pretty exterior, joined a department and what are you likely to find… 

You’ll either find;   

  1. Nothing at all; or  
  2. Chaos   

The likelihood is chaos, and let’s be clear it’s not because the existing team is careless or incompetent. They are incredibly talented – how else would they have been so successful in securing VC funding and getting to this stage? The harsh reality is that start-ups run on a shoestring,literal cash vapor. It’s survival of the most resilient. So when you joinyou are faced with a fragmented department trying its best to juggle everything and keep progressing at breakneck speed. It’s impossible that nothing gets dropped or missed, it’s going to happen.   

When you join, don’t let this phase or daunt you. Many people are caught off guard with what they find on Day 1 – don’t be. We will talk about how to manage the first 90 days.    


 Day 1 to 90   

Listen & learn, listen & learn…then STOP.   

  You’ve just joined a business which the founder (who is likely also the CEO) has poured everything they have into it for years. You’ve been evaluating the business and identified so many issues and, so many opportunities to put out the fires. But you’ve just joined a business which has been constantly putting out fires and leaving many to burn since inception. It’s got this far, it doesn’t need you to get out the firehouse and drown everyone.   

Like any new job you start, the key is to listen and learn for at least the first month. This is always harder in a start-up because there are always pressing and urgent issues at hand, some of which might even appear like company killers. Solve those, of course, but keep resisting the urge to overhaul things too quickly.    

Once you have spent time listening and learning, you will begin to understand  the priorities of the business and notice why certain issues have remained unresolved while others are dealt with quickly. This will help you formulate your goals and strategy.   

The decisions you make to resolve issues for today will help you foresee and avoid issues for tomorrow. Remember, the biggest reason you  were hired is not to fight the fires that currently exist, but to eventually cease  the fires from catching light 


2 years in 

You’ve seen the shaky scaffolding and its daunting thinking about everything that you need to do, where do you start? 

But first we need to address the reality of the level of effort, the dedication and strain required to help this start-up succeed. I am fond of telling everyone I meet that the work you will do at a start-up isn’t necessarily the most time demanding job in the world (not always), that’s what investment banking is for! What it is though is some of the most intense and unrelenting work you will ever do.    

Every decision you make will materially impact everyone around you and likely impact the ability of the start-up to continue to move fast and crucially to scale. Sounds a little high and mighty. 

The biggest challenge with decision making in a start-up is being cognisant at all times that the decisions you are making need to account for the following;   

  • The data you have is likely incomplete   
  • The needs and requirements you are trying to solve for today are materially evolving continuously    
  • If it is software – you don’t have cash or resources to do a large implementation   
  • What you do need is to be straightforward and understandable by those who need to know and engage, because they are also solving their own challenges   
  • It must scale   
  • It must be able to support the organisation as it evolves and pivots rapidly   

  So, how do you make decisions in such an environment? Stay in the know on what is happening today in other departments and most crucially what they are planning for tomorrow and the day after. If you are aware where other teams are going then you at least are not making departmental decisions in a vacuum.    


Who will you be working alongside   

Most likely – some of the best people you’ve ever come across. Your colleagues will be some of the most resilient, resourceful and courageous people  you’ll have met in your professional career to date.They care deeply about the success of the organisation and will go to incredible lengths to achieve it.    

The people in your start-up are the heartbeat, the engine of success. Make sure that you gel with those you meet during the interview process as in a start-up there is no escaping anyone, you’re all in this together. The team you join will be lean, very lean and likely nowhere near as well-resourced as your previous corporate job.    

Culture trumps everything’.  In a start-up, having the right people on board is everything. You’re moving so fast there isn’t time for egos or office politics. You need to know the culture you’re joining and that you can work with everyone. I ask because if you think you can be you, you and the start-up are one step closer to success.   

The  start-up will become your second family,  you will go through and achieve so much together. The start-up life is never smooth sailing but certainly rewarding.  


Should you join or should you go 

The best and most rewarding career moments I have had to date have come from being part of startups.  There are countless tough moments, but when you and your team mates get it right and have successful outcomes, both big and small, it’s the best, most incredible feeling you can get. 

If you can join a startup once in your career, don’t hesitate 




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