Introducing my new book Power to the Startup People: How To Grow Your Startup Career When You’re Not The Founder

Power to the Startup People: How to Grow Your Startup Career When You're Not the Founder

I’m thrilled to share that my new book Power to the Startup People: How to Grow Your Startup Career When You’re Not The Founder launches today! This book has been two years in the making and would not have been possible without the incredible help and support of so many of my friends, family, and members of our startup community.

In today’s tech startup world, career paths are nonlinear. A startup career can be rewarding, but it often can be challenging and confusing. While a ton of proverbial ink has been spilled on how to “crush it” as a founder or startup leader, there’s very little in the way of guidance for how employees can hack our own careers. If we’re lucky, we find mentors who have had careers we admire. But we may never find these people. Or, if we do, it may be too late, or their expertise in the particular area with which we need help may be limited.

Entrepreneurs get the lion’s share of glory, but much of the work is done by us: the contributors, the team. This book was born out of my desire to find answers to my own questions about how to have the best startup career possible, while ideally avoiding some pitfalls that, unfortunately, are hard to foresee unless you have a direct mentor relationship with someone who has experienced a similar situation.

I wrote this book from the vantage point of being a startup employee who wants to navigate my career as successfully as possible, while enjoying the journey along the way. While this book is not by any means exhaustive, it will hopefully help readers make more sense of the world of tech startups and make better decisions about their careers along the way.

I have a greater purpose for sharing this information. I truly believe that we, the startup people, hold the power of the tech industry in our hands. By taking command of our own startup careers, we will make a greater impact at the companies that are shaping our future. As the world grapples with questions about the nature of technology in our lives, with concerns about privacy and data and our looming automated economy, we, the employees who make this ecosystem work, will have to decide which companies deserve our time, sweat, and tears. My goal for publishing this book is to give us more choices and more power to shape our own destiny, so that we can in turn enrich the tech ecosystem with our talents. Power to the startup people!

Order now on Amazon

Thank you for reading! I look forward to hearing what you think of the book. If you enjoy the book and find it to be helpful, please leave a review on Amazon–it truly helps. Thank you! Sarah

 

Talking Tech Diversity & Inclusion In The Bay Area And Boulder On Boulder Tech Cast Podcast

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I recently enjoyed chatting B2B SaaS, Customer Success, BuildingConnected, the origin story of Flatirons Tech, and tech diversity & inclusion in the Bay Area and Boulder on the Boulder Tech Cast podcast. This episode was recorded during Boulder Startup Week 2018 at Dojo4.

Listen to the episode

Strategies for Assessing Startup Culture Before Joining

pexels-photo-380768Before working for a startup it is essential to understand company culture and values to ensure you align with them. This is not a complete list, but here are some of the questions I think are worth exploring before joining any startup.

1. How is bias handled? 

All humans have biases. “We need to out our biases to ourselves and each other and not be afraid to say, ‘I’m biased,’” says ServiceRocket COO Erin Rand. “We need to constantly remember and take action to correct our biases. We can’t feel ashamed of our biases and let that shame prevent us from doing the right thing.”

Given that bias is universal, how does the startup you’re considering joining handle bias? Do they acknowledge bias openly, working to ensure that it isn’t playing a role in key decisions like hiring, promotions and firing?

Startups that acknowledge bias take steps to mitigate it. Those that sweep it under the rug just end up reenforcing bias.

Consider asking an interviewer to give you an example of how bias is addressed at the company. Their answer may be lip service, but you are more likely to find a place that genuinely takes bias seriously if you ask about it and they give you an open, direct answer. Beware when anyone skirts the issue or says it “isn’t an issue”; it’s always an issue.

2. How do departures look?

It can be just as important how employees exit (or “retire”) as when they arrive. If employees leave and then sometimes come back, that’s a good sign. If departing employees leave behind a trail of awful Glassdoor reviews, take notice. In fact, the first thing you should do is head to a peer-review site like Glassdoor and find out how employees find the exit process. It’s also worth it to find out if your company has a decent severance package for employees who are laid off or fired.

Some startups advertise their severance packages. Netflix, for instance, has a outstanding severance package for employees. They do this to reduce the risk that anyone sticks around who isn’t a great fit and to make it easier for managers to fire underperformers or bad fits. The thinking is if that you’re firing someone who you know is going to have a great parting experience, you’re more likely to do so rather than hanging on to people who aren’t a fit, thus improving the quality of the team.

Unexpected or unwanted departures can happen for all kinds of reasons at startups — sometimes a startup hired too quickly, or a pivot means no longer needing a person or department. Your role as an employee is to make yourself as versatile and adaptable as possible, but you may, nonetheless, depart either willingly or unwillingly, and you want to make sure that it will be as positive an experience as possible.

3. What is the dress code? 

Dressing for success at a startup could mean anything from jeans and a logo t-shirt to khakis and a button-down shirt. Ask ahead before an interview — nothing looks worse than being over- or under-dressed. The key consideration: Will you, in all of your uniqueness, feel comfortable bringing your whole self to work? If you have multiple piercings and hair dyed a color that does not naturally grow on human heads, will you feel out of place? Is there a policy that you can’t live with? Do you prefer to dress up and want to work somewhere that this is the environment? Find out ahead of time by talking to HR, looking on the company’s social media and website and sussing out the office for yourself.

4. Does the company champion inclusivity? 

Tech still has a long way to go in terms of diversity and inclusivity. The latest reports show that startups are overwhelmingly white male-dominated. This is a big can of worms; many companies purport to champion inclusivity but what does this mean?

How To Answer These Questions

It’s worth asking outright, but there are more subtle ways to assess startup culture as well.

Do your online research

If a startup’s career video proudly displayed on their homepage showcases men hitting each other with nerf guns after downing sake bombs celebrating a release of code, well, there you have it. Does the company have “Best Place to Work” awards, or is their Glassdoor is rife with one-star reviews highlighting the terrible leadership team from disgruntled former employees? (Note: Ex-employee reviews may not be all true. Look for patterns vs. individual data points)

In addition to the company website and sites like Glassdoor, don’t miss company social media accounts (especially if they have an Instagram; that tends to be the least formal platform with posts most indicative of culture), as well as social accounts of company employees — especially those who will be on your team. Related: Be sure that how you personally show up on social media aligns with your values; startups can and will research you, too!

Talk to people

The best way to figure out what a company is really like is to talk to people who are currently working there. You can also talk to former employees. Try to engage people who aren’t directly involved in your hiring decision. When you go for the interview, observe. Hang out. And…

Go to the kitchen

Pretend you’re an anthropologist on a mission to observe the startup culture through its kitchen. Go get a glass of water and listen to what is being said. Sample the startup’s snacks and see if they’re organic/gluten-free/free-range enough for your taste. Overhear how employees are feeling about their work and lives. Do they clean up after themselves? Analiese Brown, Director of Talent and Culture at CampMinder, wrote a great blog on the link between employee engagement and kitchen cleanliness. You will invariably learn something if you spend time in the canteen.

Observe leaders — and lower-level employees

Even if you’re considering an executive position — or perhaps especially — pay close attention to how the company treats those who aren’t in management. This includes those fresh out of college or those in lower-level positions.

Respect for everyone should be a foundation of any company culture, and if it’s not, you can anticipate other problems.

Be a consultant

Some startups will allow you to join as a consultant on a project basis before you join full-time. This can be a great opportunity to truly understand the work environment, as well as how likely you are to enjoy the experience.

Being a consultant is a great way to de-risk your involvement with a startup.

You can engage in an initial project with a company in order to assess fit with the team with whom you’ll be working, assess whether the values are truly lived by the company, and overall whether you and the company/role are a great match. Some companies have employees do an unpaid test or assignment before joining. This is not the same thing as being a consultant! It’s one-sided and doesn’t quite give you the chance to dive in with a team, whereas with consulting, you’ll be contributing something tangible, be paid for your work, and get a much better insider’s view of the business. Not every company will allow you to do this, but it’s worth asking if it may be possible to do an initial engagement prior to working together.

Should You Join A Coding Bootcamp? Ask Yourself These Questions First

pexels-photo-90807Bootcamps are a great way to get into a programming career if you are motivated but lack the skills. Reputable programs boast a 95% success rate if you follow their career services guidelines; once you land a job as a junior developer, you will always be able to continue to grow as a software developer throughout your career. But bootcamps aren’t right for everyone. To understand who should join a bootcamp and how they should approach the task of finding the right one, I sat down with Flatiron School’s Head of Online Instruction Peter Bell, who shared advice from years spent helping people make these very decisions. Here are the questions Bell recommends asking yourself before taking the leap.

If you’re interested in joining a bootcamp, be clear about your objectives.

Are you looking to get a full-time job as software dev, to enhance your skills with front-end dev as a designer, or to build the skills required to found a company? Each objective drives a different learning environment. Bell says the first job out of a bootcamp is the hardest job you’ll ever get; after that, you’ll be turning down offers within two years. Once you snag that first job, the only reason you wouldn’t succeed long-term is if you chose not to because you didn’t like the job.

Are you sure you really need to participate in a bootcamp to meet your career goals?

Bell says if you just want to be a product manager, you don’t necessarily need to learn to code to manage developers. Learning to code gives you deeper empathy, says Bell, but if your only goal is manage development, he says taking a bootcamp isn’t the most effective way to build skills you need. in addition to focusing deeply on skills you don’t need, bootcamps don’t cover a lot of skills regarding product design, agile, kanban, scrum, workflows, and other important things. Bell says bootcamps are primarily training you to be a junior engineer – not build or manage a dev team. So make sure you really want the software dev skills or want to become a software developer.

Have you tried free online labs to see if you actually like software development?

Bell recommends going to Code Academy or Flatirons Schools Bootcamp Prep Program where you can go through labs for free. These free online programs will show you whether you enjoy the process.

“The actual task of being a software developer is writing code. It doesn’t work, then you spend the rest of minute, hour, day or week getting it to work,” says Bell. “Do you find that frustrating or in general to be an enjoyable challenge?” Bell says if you spend hours or days or weeks getting it to work, finding the answer on StackOverflow, trying to figure out why the thing that worked yesterday doesn’t work yesterday, and enjoy this process the way you enjoy doing crossword puzzles, great.

“If you get frustrated when tech doesn’t work like it should, you won’t enjoy the task no matter how much you like developer salaries and opportunities,” says Bell.

Have you fully researched the bootcamp(s) you’re considering?

Assuming you want to become a software dev or have a reason to take a bootcamp, try to check on coursereport.com where graduates provide feedback from their experience. Bell advises you to take the time to look through those reports. Find out: does a particular bootcamp align with your values and learning style?

Do you want to do an-person bootcamp or an online course?

The first decision you’ll need to make is whether you are going to do an in-person bootcamp or an online course? Bell says the benefits of an in-person course is much more structure.
“You complete the course in less time and build good friendships and connections that help you get through program and succeed over time in your career,” says Bell. This is because it is easier to build a network during an in-person course.

“In-person is a wonderful experience,” says Bell. He says if you don’t live near an in-person bootcamp and the logistics of moving somewhere for three months, or you have a job or family that make a 60-70 hour week impractical, there are a number of online programs.

Whether the bootcamp you’re considering is in-person or online, Bell advises speaking with one of instructors. It is important to figure out the instructor’s objectives and background. Bell advises interviewing a bootcamp company the same way you’d interview a place to work for. He says not to discount cultural alignment.

“You’re looking for a place that values similar things,” says Bell.

Ask them specific questions about learning environment, and what to do when students are struggling or having trouble with motivation or other issues. Admit your weaknesses upfront to see if it’s a good fit. Bell says you’ll get a good sense for whether the program adopts a “be tough or else you won’t make it” approach or is a more supportive and engaging environment.

Has the bootcamp you’re considering scaled quickly?

It is not wrong for a bootcamp to be large, but there are cultural challenges with scaling any organisation. As with any company growing too fast, be particularly careful about the quality of the instructors you’re going to be working with.

“That will have a big impact on experience,” says Bell. He also advises asking for their jobs report – do they have some statistics on what percentage of grads get a job and average salary, and ideally listed by a third-party. Those statistics can shed light on the quality of the program, regardless of scale.

Final Thoughts

Bootcamps aren’t for everyone. Be clear what you’re looking to achieve from attending one, whether it’s the right program for you, and plan to invest energy into going above and beyond the requirements.

We Need To Start Talking About The Debt of Withheld Feedback At Startups

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I was on a walking meeting with my colleague Erin when she gave me feedback on a talk she had just seen me rehearse. For an instant, I wanted to rebut it, but instead I thanked her and integrated the feedback, and it made my talk better.

The feedback Erin gave me was relatively easy to receive; I was asking for it, and the feedback involved was something I could (and did) easily adjust. Honestly? Even then it was hard to receive.

In many cases, the kind of feedback we desperately need to give each other is much harder to give and receive. And so, we avoid it, and the pain accumulates over time.

The difficulties we face in giving and receiving feedback leads to an epidemic of withheld feedback at an organizational scale — feedback debt.

Just as a startup can incur financial and technical debt, withheld feedback is an insidious and often unaddressed issue that is responsible for a myriad of problems at companies. Conceptualizing withheld feedback as debt makes it easier to understand it as an untapped source of organizational value.

Withheld feedback is a resource. Like capital, it holds tangible value, and comes with interest.

The sum of feedback not given among individuals and teams at your startup is creating a strain on your company’s outputs. Thus, it is a kind of organizational “potential energy” and has the capacity to reveal issues so that they can be addressed. When people have insights for each other — good, real, constructive insights that could make a person, project, or team better–and then don’t give it, that depreciates the total value of your organization.

Like technical debt, the debt of withheld feedback may actually keep an organization working smoothly in the short-term but sets it up for major long-term problems.

Technical debt is a term coined by Ward Cunningham to explain the consequences of a shoddily-done short-term technical solution. According to Atlassian:

“Constantly procrastinating on bugs that need to be fixed is a dangerous way to make software. As the bug count grows, tackling it becomes increasingly daunting–resulting in a vicious death-spiral of technical debt.”

Withheld feedback has a similar impact. Procrastinating on discussing issues that need to be fixed is a major issue. On individual, team and organizational levels, the consequences of not giving feedback can be devastating:

  • A subordinate doesn’t disclose a potential security issue she notices in a new feature that could put customers at risk because of fear of upsetting her manager.
  • A CEO doesn’t tell her VP of Sales she’s afraid he isn’t right to scale with the business, watching the company performance lag until finally the situation becomes unsalvageable.
  • A head of HR doesn’t follow up on getting feedback about major allegations of discriminatory behavior at the company because she’s afraid the founder won’t listen, or worse, may be implicated.
  • And more…

Withheld feedback debt must be repaid eventually

If you haven’t told someone the truth about something, chances are you’re going to skirt the issue and that’s going to be wasteful in some way vs. directly addressing it. That’s a debt that accumulates over time–with interest.

Uber has come under fire recently for missing the opportunity to receive feedback about its cultural issues. Companies that just don’t want to face the truth will have to pay up at some point, with interest, and usually publicly.

Winning companies will become adept at maximizing the flow of healthy feedback at every level of their organization.

My hope is that by conceptualizing withheld organizational feedback as debt, startups squash it on their way to increased profitability and success, and improve culture along the way.

Startup Employees: Here’s What To Do If Your Startup Is Acquired

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Imagine you’re working for a fifteen-person startup known for its tight-knit, values-driven, outdoorsy culture, and suddenly, one day, you’re pulled into an all-hands meeting letting you know that your company has just been acquired by a big company headquartered across the country. You may know a little or a lot about this company, but either way, very soon, you will become their employee.

For startup employees, an acquisition can be a nerve-wracking time due to the number of unknowns.

Some questions that may arise:

  • What will change, and will any of it markedly affect my work experience?
  • Will the parent (acquiring) company share the same values as my current startup?
  • Will my job become redundant and/or will I no longer be needed?
  • More immediately, what will happen to my PTO, benefits and will my spouse still be covered on my health insurance?

In addition to the potentially negative consequences of an acquisition, it’s important to remember that there can be many positive outcomes. For instance, you could get a promotion. Or perhaps you had equity that you could turn into cash in the acquisition. Regardless of whether you have equity, there may be an opportunity for you to leverage the value you bring to the transition to negotiate a nice windfall. Acquisitions and their resulting transitions can be highly emotional times, and no two acquisitions look quite the same. That being said, there are some ways you can empower yourself to make the most of an acquisition.

In 2015, Analiese Brown was the HR Manager at the time of acquisition of ShipCompliant, then an approximately forty-person self-funded, privately-held SaaS company headquartered in Boulder, CO. During the acquisition, Analiese’s role involved helping ShipCompliant through the transition, and much of her work centered around trying to help employees feel empowered throughout the process. Analiese oversaw changes in employee benefits, policies, and procedures such as well as the integration of HR systems and record-keeping with the acquiring company, Sovos. But Analiese also managed the “human” side of the transition, which involved helping employees grapple with the emotional elements of the transition. Read Analiese’s blog post sharing lessons learned from working at ShipCompliant.

“The CEO filled me in as it became more of a reality that it was going to happen,” said Analiese. “At that point, my focus became understanding  the acquiring company’s processes, employee benefits policies and handbook, and other things that might potentially affect our team once acquired.”

For Analiese, being on the team spearheading the integration was challenging; she oversaw details such as how to honor everyone’s time off balance and roll it over into the new policy, and also had to determine how to communicate the changes to employees. Analiese learned that the key to successfully navigating a startup acquisition as an employee is to focus on how you can shape what’s happening, and to find ways to re-frame it from something happening “to” you to something you have the power to shape to better your future.

Here’s what Analiese recommends if you’re a startup employee finding yourself in an acquisition scenario:

Upon learning of an imminent acquisition, take it upon yourself to learn as much as you can.

While there will be much that you don’t know and can’t know right away, obtain as much information as you can about the acquiring company. Research the acquiring company’s leadership, financials, and key customers and stakeholders. Editor’s note: You can search for recent press releases about them and check Crunchbase and Angellist to determine whether they’ve fundraised and/or if they plan to one day go public. Try to find out what happened when they bought another company; did the founders stay, and if so, how long? How many employees stayed?

Some of this information won’t be readily available, but you’d be surprised what you can dig up with some modern sleuthing. You can learn from internal resources, too. There might be a designated go-to person at your startup (the company being acquired) you can ask questions of who may be CEO of the company, startup’s founder, or whomever is managing HR or Finance. Whoever it is, there is probably some designated go-to resource you can look to who will be able to provide you with information to help you feel empowered, but remember they may not have all the answers or may be unable to share information one-on-one before announcing it to the whole group.

For as long as you’re planning on sticking around, commit to doing an outstanding job.

Don’t let the shifting sands environment of an acquisition be an excuse not to be a stellar performer. Keep up the great work — regardless of how long you plan to stay, you need to put in extra effort during this period because upon staying or leaving, you will have new people to impress either at the acquiring company or a new role very soon.

Sam Altman of Y Combinator says, “Most acquisitions are not smooth sailing. Go into it knowing it’s going to be hard.” Sam recommends employees wait at least six to nine months before making a decision that it’s not going to work (Source). In many cases, you’ll benefit from staying long enough to fully explore the opportunities present in an acquisition.

Empower yourself by becoming actively involved in the transition.

Your company may form a group of employees who are interested in shaping the transition. If there are ways to get involved, you’ll have access to information and will be in a place to shape the transition process. Every acquisition and integration is structured differently – the more you can be actively involved, the better chance you’ll feel positively about the outcome.

Sam Altman recommends adopting the mindset of “bridge builder”. “You don’t want two warring factions,” says Sam. “You want the new company to support you and you want people to like each other.” He advises making it your personal business to develop strong relationships with as many people as you can at the acquiring companies and be a bridge as tensions inevitably rise. (Source)

Give up on trying to keep things the same.

Things will change. That’s a given. The only thing you can control is what you do about the changes. Take time to mourn or celebrate the startup experience you had, and then roll up your sleeves, learn and decide whether you want to stay and/or if you need to go. Sam Altman says that often agreements will be reached with acquired companies to stay fairly autonomous, which can be a great thing if you already like your work and its processes.

“I would push the founders to make sure you got such an agreement to operate as independently as possible,” said Sam. (Source)

Unfortunately, even if such an agreement is reached, the reality of what “staying independent” looks like can be vastly different in each scenario. There may be certain processes like vacation time or required internal systems that will bend towards the parent company’s way of doing things. Figure out what will change as soon as that information becomes available.

Determine whether the new reality aligns with what’s important to you, and determine which things are non-negotiable for you.

Analiese recommends reading What Color Is Your Parachute?, a classic career discovery book, which can help you do the crucial work of discovering what’s important and what ultimately will be most fulfilling to you in your career.

Upon deciding to join the company, you probably have evaluated a number of factors that you’ll now have to re-evaluate. This includes: preferred geographic location, office environment you thrive in, and essential company values. Analiese says coming back to our own needs and desires provides a framework to evaluate whether the new reality of your acquired company will support and fulfill these things (or not). This personal inquiry is valuable regardless of whether you’re currently undergoing an acquisition, but is especially crucial when your company is experiencing major change.

Analiese reminds us that it is a human impulse to fear change. Figure out what’s important to you personally. Are you unwilling to move to a new city? Will you draw the line if the acquiring company doesn’t value inclusiveness?

If you have equity, understand how it works.

Understanding the impact to you as soon as you can will equip you with information about whether there’s a choice to be made, whether there’s an obligation to you around how that is paid out. If you don’t have equity you may feel the ship has sailed, but there may be some individuals who were very involved in transition or contributed heavily to the company’s success in the recent past  who may be then be in a position to be rewarded in some other way. That can be discretionary. It’s worth having the conversations. If in doubt, consider hiring a lawyer or business advisor who specializes in startup equity; you’ll be glad you did.

You may be acquired by a parent company with bonus or Management by Objectives (MBO) culture and if you’re in a key position, you can negotiate with the parent company for a favorable compensation structure or bonus. If you’re someone integral to transition, whether or not equity is part of your current compensation package, you may have some leverage.

Consider negotiating for a new role or a promotion.

If you’re planning to stay, once the shock wears off and people wrap their heads around what’s happening, incredible opportunities may surface. It may not even be something you have to ask for; you may see a restructure and be asked to take on a new role, or perhaps travel more or be based out of an office in a more desirable location. Analiese suggests looking for potential opportunities to learn and grow and develop as much as you can during an acquisition process. You may need to explicitly ask for a promotion if you’re being assigned more responsibilities or your role is being enhanced. Often larger companies acquiring smaller ones  may have more well-articulated career paths, or may look at the role you’re doing in a new way. At smaller companies, you may be a Jack or Jill of all trades, but upon acquisition, you may find that in this new reality, your multi-faceted role puts you a peg higher in an organizational chart.

You may also find that you are qualified to be in a higher-level role, and the acquiring company will likely have more funds or resources for learning and development. This may include going to conferences, workshops, or perhaps an internally-created leadership development program. There may also be more structured rewards and incentive program.

In the early post-deal stages, Analiese reminds us that it may not be totally clear what new career paths will be available or who will be impacted and how. Analiese says, in an ideal scenario, managers are a good first line of contact to ask for information and discuss how you’ll be impacted along the way. Hopefully, your manager will have the inside track (or be able to point you toward the right resources) to explore promotions or other opportunities.

Final Thoughts

If you’re facing an acquisition, adopt a learner’s mindset and find ways to become an active participant in the transition. Your goal is not to try to resist the change or preserve status quo, but to understand what the new scenario will be and to determine if the new company “reality” aligns with your values and needs.

If you’re resourceful, the acquisition of your startup can be an incredibly powerful catalyst for your career and personal development.

When evaluating startup “extras” ask yourself: Is it a perk, an essential benefit, or a distraction?

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At well-funded startups, “perks” like coconut water, nap pods, dry cleaning on-site–even ping pong tutoring sessions–and more have become the norm (as well as the subject of plenty of jokes within and outside of Silicon Valley). Tech journalist Kara Swisher calls this phenomenon “assisted living for millennials.” Competing for our talent with other companies of comparable size and growth, many startups use perks for recruiting and retaining talent in addition to cash compensation.

Here are a few of the perks offered by tech companies:

  • Google offers a concierge service to run employees’ errands and save them time.
  • Apple pays for fertility aids including covering female employees freezing their eggs.
  • Airbnb offers $2000 travel bonus to go anywhere in the world.

Essential benefits vs. perks

Let’s break down perks into “nice to have” and essential benefits, aka things that you really do need in order to maintain your general well-being and feel happy at a company.

Essential benefits include: health, dental, and perhaps vision insurance, a solid retirement plan, fair parental and sick leave policies, decent vacation allotted, flexible hours and remote work policies. On the less essential side but still very good may include things like good, strong coffee onsite and snacks so you don’t have to leave the office and walk twenty minutes in order to get a bite while in the middle of a coding session. For you, other essential company benefits may include a formal education stipend so you can continue your education and increase your skills, or childcare reimbursement, or flexible spending accounts, or a gym onsite so you can work out during lunch to feel balanced and help you focus. Or maybe a remote office stipend so if you’re a remote employee you can work outside your home in a community-filled, secure, reliable location.

When is a perk a distraction?

Geography of Genius author Eric Weiner argues that so-called perks can actually curtail creativity. Weiner says we need some friction in order to facilitate the creative processes so crucial to startup success. Weiner says we actually do our best work without all of the perks. “Discomfort, and even a degree of hardship, are what drive creativity, not bean bag chairs and ping pong tables,” says Weiner. The “is this a perk or essential benefit?” question is encapsulated in this sardonic tweet:

Indeed, perks can masquerade as valuable but may actually be a distraction from something essential a company is failing to offer. If your company introduces yet another kind of cereal but fails to offer a sane parental leave policy, then that perk may be a distraction from a real benefit. If a startup offers annual lavish trips to the beaches of Mexico or skiing in Tahoe, but has a cutthroat culture and doesn’t allow employees to actually enjoy their PTO undisturbed (at least most of the time), then that perk may be a distraction. User onboarding expert Samuel Hulick calls this “getting drunk off our own kegerators.” If your company has a luxury massage chair onsite but offers crappy health insurance, then there’s an issue.

Final Thoughts

You are the only one who can determine which benefits are truly essential. If you’re considering working for a startup, think about the benefits as they relate to the total compensation package, as well as your experience at a company.  Don’t overlook startups that don’t offer tons of fancy perks, as long as they offer the essential benefits you care about. By re-framing the lack of flashy perks at a company as potentially a commitment to invest in essential things, you could find a work opportunity you really love that you’d otherwise overlook. Ensure the essential benefits you care about are covered in addition to things like alignment with the company’s core values, or risk missing out on an otherwise awesome startup work opportunity while you’re beelining it to the nearest nap pod.

Finding A Startup Aligned With Your Values

people-woman-coffee-meetingAccording to a study reported in the New York Times, “One of the most important dimensions of job satisfaction is how you feel about your employer’s mission” (Source). Robert H. Frank, an economics professor at Cornell University, reports that equal incomes may produce significantly higher life satisfaction if the person aligns with the mission and values of his or her workplace. “When most people leave work each evening, they feel better if they have made the world better in some way, or at least haven’t made it worse.” (Source)

Where we work and the nature of our work greatly impacts our life satisfaction. We owe it to ourselves to find a startup that aligns with our values and will enable us to produce our best work.

Company decisions are driven by values. These values impact everything from what the office looks like on Friday afternoon to how customers are treated. When evaluating whether a startup is right for you, you need to understand the company values and how they align with your own.

Startup Values: What Are They, Really?

Each startup operates within an implicit or explicit value system; this is the set of principles that guide every aspect of the business and will deeply shape your experience working at a company.

Values help companies orient and make decisions when they reach impasses. They provide the answer to the question: “does this align with what we want to achieve?” and should be consulted before proceeding with any major decision.

Company Values Drive Behavior

Whether implicit or explicit, these values shape company behavior. They encompass: hiring, firing, how employees are treated, the kind of office environments fostered, the formality of employee attire, philosophies towards customers, parental leave policies, the kind of products built, how products are marketed and sold, and…so much more. Companies’ values will shape every experience you will have at a startup. Here are a few examples of stated company values:

  • Talk straight. (ServiceRocket)
  • Results first, substance over flash. (Rackspace)
  • Focus on the user and all else will follow. (Google)
  • Deliver WOW Through Service (Zappos)
  • Respect for the Individual (Accenture)
  • Move fast and break things. (Facebook)
  • Take work but not ourselves seriously. (Kapost)
  • Feel Free (Twitter)
  • Judgement (Netflix)

According to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, “The actual company values, as opposed to the nice-sounding values, are shown by who gets rewarded, promoted or let go.” (Source) Netflix is known for its strictly enforced culture code, which is publicly available through their “culture manifesto” on the web.

Netflix’s culture manifesto highlights the relationship between values and behavior through a famous example of corporate fraud, Enron, which stated high-and-mighty values in their lobby like “integrity, respect and communication” that clearly did not translate into company-wide behavior. These values, as the Enron example and Hastings quote illustrate, mean nothing without corresponding action. In almost every case, unless you’re working with a very early company, the values will be explicitly stated.  

How can you tell if a company lives its values? A few questions you could consider asking before joining a startup:

“How are values lived at this company?”

“When has the leadership team had to make a difficult decision in order to stay true to company values?”

“When a team or individual strays from company values, what are the consequences?”

Many companies state values that sound great, but actually allow for toxic behavior. “Above all, win,” sounds nice, but it could leaves the door open for jerks to be gainfully employed–as long as they “crush it”. If there’s a stated company value that sounds fishy or nebulous, you’d be wise to ask questions. Don’t accept vague answers or leave without concrete stories and examples of how values are put into practice–or prepare to be disappointed.

It’s important to note that even startups that fail to define their values (again, most often very early-stage companies) have them; They’re just implicit. Any company that doesn’t explicitly state its values is more likely to operate under values that they would be embarrassed to put to proverbial paper. According to Netflix’s Co-Founder and CEO Reed Hastings, “Real company values are the behaviors and skills that we particularly value in fellow employees.”

For example, among their nine values, Netflix explains that their value “Judgement” looks like this in practice:

Judgement

  • You make wise decisions (people, technical, business, and creative) despite ambiguity
  • You identify root causes, and get beyond treating symptoms
  • You think strategically, and can articulate what you are, and are not, trying to do
  • You smartly separate what must be done well now, and what can be improved later

(Source)

Early-Stage Startups

As previously mentioned, early-stage startups are the least likely to state values but are, of course, still guided by values–they’re just implicit and/or default. A company made up of just two co-founders, for example, may not be mature enough to have created a fancy deck like Netflix, but perhaps they created the company in order to perpetuate the good ol’ days of University where they met.

If you’re thinking of working for a very early-stage company, encourage them to discuss their values among the leadership team (ideally including you, especially if you’ll be joining the leadership team) and ensure there’s alignment before going all-in. Also, expect early-stage startups to pivot quite a lot, and as a result, to potentially re-align their values when they pivot. If a startup starts out serving bankers, but then pivots when they realize their real customer base is high school-level educators, the values and culture will likely change as a result (though, of course, not necessarily).

If a company doesn’t claim values around something you care about, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t champion them. But it is less likely to be a priority. On the flip side, a company may state a value but not actually take actions that reflect it. Look for a startup that incorporates values you care about into their every decision.

If you’re considering working for a startup, inquire about their values during the interview process. Research ahead of time what values the company states on their website, and then ask about how they are actually lived at the company. What was a difficult decision the startup made in order to stay true to one of their values? Listen for stories that include plenty of details. You’ll quickly get a sense if the values hold meaning or are just there for show.

Year In Review: Reflections On A Spectacular 2015

From client acquisitions to speaking on several panels for the first time, to stepping away from my consulting business and becoming a full-time, proud Rocketeer, to helping grow the local diversity in tech group I founded in my home city of Boulder, CO, Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup, to over 225 people, plus hosting and participating in a dozen local events in Boulder and beyond, 2015 has been a year to remember. Best of all, I’ve also had the privilege of working with some truly amazing people, companies, and mentors. To close out this memorable year, I thought I’d share some of highlights.

Three of My Clients Got Acquired–And Then One Of Them Acquired Me

Hiking near Los Altos with ServiceRocket CEO Robert Castaneda and VP of Enterprise Ray Bradbury the day after joining the company.

Hiking near Los Altos with ServiceRocket CEO Rob Castaneda and VP of Enterprise Ray Bradbery the day after joining the company.

Perhaps the biggest professional news of my year involved the extraordinary success of my clients. Among this list of successes included three acquisitions: Learndot, a Customer Education platform for Customer Success-driven businesses sold to ServiceRocket in January 2015; Taxify (part of ShipCompliant), a Boulder, CO-based B2B tax automation SaaS was acquired by Sovos Compliance in April; and, most recently, Frontleaf, a Customer Success analytics platform was acquired by Zuora in May to become their Z-Insights product line. Read more about the acquisitions, and how thrilled I am to now be a Rocketeer at ServiceRocket.

Named One of MindTouch’s Top 100 Customer Success Influencers To Meet at Pulse 

Top 100 Customer Success Influencers at Pulse.

This year MindTouch listed me as a ‘Top 100 Customer Success Influencer to Meet at Pulse Conference.’ I was honored by the mention, and enjoyed connecting with others on the list as well as the uncounted numbers from incredible companies who deserved to be on here. Grab the PDF list of influencers on the MindTouch website.

Customer Success Twitter Chat Thrived

In 2014 I launched the first-ever Customer Success industry Twitter Chat (#CustomerSuccessChat) while consulting with Frontleaf (acquired by Zuora in May ’15). Frontleaf co-founders Tom Krackeler and Rachel English were totally on board, and together we launched the chat back in 2014, and in 2015, it really took off. The monthly twitter chat brought together Customer Success enthusiasts and practitioners to talk shop, share best practices, and discuss overcoming challenges.

The chats consisted of lively real-time discussions including a series of questions on one topic (onboarding, sales and customer success, etc.) leveraging the #CustomerSuccessChat hashtag Twitter. We asked subject experts to mark their calendars to guarantee a high-level discourse, and others from the world of software adoption and customer success were also invited to weigh in on. After the chats, the Frontleaf team and I compiled chat recap blogs highlighting the gems from each one. This one on Customer Success as growthhacking is my favorite. At the moment I’m not running the chat, but maybe some form of it will return in the future.

Helped Launch The World’s First Customer Success Podcast

When Frontleaf asked me to devise a new channel to reach their target audience, I researched and created a plan to launch the Customer Success industry’s first-ever podcast exclusively dedicated to that topic. In early 2015, Customer Success Radio, the first-ever podcast about all things Customer Success and the cloud, hosted by Frontleaf co-founders Tom Krackeler and Rachel English launched to great acclaim. The show served as a phenomenal source of leads and buzz for the company. The podcast archives are really worth a listen. While the podcast is currently on hiatus, Tom and Rachel tell me they will hopefully continue the podcast in some form at Zuora.

The experience of creating a plan for a podcast from soup to nuts was invaluable, and the lessons learned along the way have been very helpful in the creation of the brand-new podcast Bill Cushard and I will be co-hosting through ServicerRocket Media. Look out for “Helping Sells Radio” podcast in the first quarter of 2016.

Grew Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup

Flatirons LGBTQ Tech MeetupIn May 2014 I founded Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup in an effort to increase diversity and inclusion in tech in Boulder, CO and beyond. In 2015, with the help of epic co-organizers, we hosted a dozen local events, became a NCWIT Affinity Group Alliance Member, and continued to be supported by our amazing sponsors SendGrid, Pivotal Tracker, Galvanize, and more. We even got a shout-out in the Denver Post and hosted an official Boulder Startup Week event. I’m so proud of the community we’ve built and are continuing to build here in the Rocky Mountain region and beyond. I look forward to working with more local companies and organizations and to hosting and participating in more events in 2016.

Moderated ServiceRocket’s “Helping Sells” Webinar Series

Throughout 2015 I co-hosted the webinars in ServiceRocket’s “Helping Sells” series alongside ServiceRocket’s Head of Training and Director of Marketing, Bill Cushard. This year we interviewed industry leaders talking about customer education, customer success, software adoption, and more. Guests included expert GitHub trainer Peter Bell, Behavioral Design (Gamification) Expert Yu-Kai Chou, ClientSuccess Founder/CEO Dave Blake, and many other industry thought leaders. You can check out the archives and look out for more great webinars featuring all-star guests in 2016.

Spent A Month At ServiceRocket’s Office In Santiago, Chile

This year I had the incredible opportunity to spend a month working out of ServiceRocket’s office in Santiago, Chile. ServiceRocket is a major contributor to the growing startup community in Santiago, and it was a blast to join the team there to host and participate in events and work on projects together.

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Enjoying empanadas with incredible ServiceRocket team in Santiago, Chile.

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Hiking in the Andes near Santiago, Chile with ServiceRocket colleagues.

Was A Panelist At S-Factory Event In Santiago, Chile

In October, S-Factory accelerator, which is run out of Start-Up Chile, invited ServiceRocket’s Chief Operating Officer Erin Rand, accountant Noelia Rio and me to speak on a panel to discuss how we’re “rocking it”. I was honored to speak to the entrepreneurial audience about growth marketing, our company values, and how we approach software adoption and customer success. S-Factory Executive Director Patricia Hansen was an engaging moderator, and I enjoyed participating as well as listening to and learning from insights shared by colleagues Erin and Noelia.

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Speaking at S-Factory (part of Start-Up Chile) in Santiago in October 2015.

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Participated In NewCo Boulder Diversity In Tech Panel

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Speaking at NewCo Boulder “Diversity in Tech” panel in November, 2015

In November, I was a panelist on the “diversity and inclusion” panel at NewCo Boulder, hosted at Quick Left in Boulder alongside Quick Left’s VP of Engineering Chris McAvoy and Executive Leadership Coach Gerry Valentine, moderated by Rachel Beisel. I loved being a part of the discussion and getting to chat with people after who wanted to continue the conversations about “bringing your whole self to work.” I shared personal stories as well as lessons I’ve learned from working with Silicon Valley Women of Influence, ServiceRocket’s COO Erin Rand and VP of Marketing Colleen Blake, both of whom do amazing work to increase inclusion in tech. It was cool to hear that people enjoyed the panel and that QuickLeft may want us to recreate the panel again.Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 2.30.45 PM.jpgScreen Shot 2016-01-01 at 2.30.28 PM.jpgScreen Shot 2016-01-01 at 2.32.21 PM (1).jpg

Interviewed Hooked Author Nir Eyal With Bill Cushard

Sarah_graphic-05I helped crowdsource edit the book Hooked by behavior engineering expert Nir Eyal and have been a huge fan of his work for a while, so it was a big honor to get to interview him and Bill Cushard for ServiceRocket Media. It was an amazing discussion about behavior psychology, customer education and software adoption. Listen to the interview.

Looking Forward To 2016

I’m grateful for the amazing people and companies with whom I had the privilege of working in 2015. Thank you to everyone who helped make this such a special year, and for being on this journey together.

I’m excited for what’s to come in 2016. In the first week of January, I’m headed to ServiceRocket’s office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for team building and to work on projects with our team in KL. ServiceRocket Media has some awesome projects in store including a brand-new podcast, epic webinars, and much, much more. Happy New Year! Thanks for reading. Sarah

Three Of My Clients Got Acquired This Year, And Then One Of Them Acquired Me

For the past few years I’ve specialized in digital marketing consulting for B2B SaaS companies. I’ve really enjoyed helping my clients build out their marketing programs to reach their target markets. I’ve helped bootstrapped and VC-funded startups define their positioning, increase their brand awareness and thought leadership in their niche, and generate increased leads and sales. I’ve learned so much. And, perhaps most importantly, I’ve also had the privilege of working with some phenomenal people and teams.

A Series of Client Acquisitions

One of my clients, a Google Ventures-backed veteran in the SEM space, famously shuttered this year. But most of my clients, I’m pleased to say, have wildly succeeded this year. Among this list of successes included three acquisitions: Learndot, a Customer Education platform for Customer Success business sold to ServiceRocket in January 2015; Taxify (part of ShipCompliant), a Boulder, CO-based B2B tax automation SaaS was acquired by Sovos Compliance in April; and, most recently, Frontleaf, a Customer Success analytics platform was acquired by Zuora in May to become their Z-Insights product line.

Joining ServiceRocket As Senior Manager of Growth Marketing

Hiking near Los Altos with ServiceRocket CEO Robert Castaneda and VP of Enterprise Ray Bradbury the day after joining the company.

Hiking near Los Altos with ServiceRocket CEO Robert Castaneda and VP of Enterprise Ray Bradbery the day after joining the company.

I had loved working with the Learndot team. I did some of the best work of my career at that point with founder Paul Lambert and the Learndot crew. One month after the Learndot acquisition (February 2015), ServiceRocket hired me to consult with them on a part-time basis to help promote Learndot, and we quickly ramped up to a full-time consulting engagement. In retrospect, my work with ServiceRocket was a bit like falling in love–slowly at first, but then all at once. I hadn’t realized it, but even before I was consulting with ServiceRocket full-time, I was thinking about them and our work together constantly, reflecting often on the amazing team with whom I was working and the really interesting and creative projects we were working on.

With the amazing ServiceRocket team at Gainsight's Pulse Conference 2015

With the amazing ServiceRocket team (and special guest SalesLoft) at Gainsight’s Pulse Conference 2015

I truly believe in ServiceRocket’s mission, leadership, values, and culture, driven by extraordinary CEO Robert Castaneda. ServiceRocket enables Customer Success for software companies and their enterprise customers through training, support and utilization. When ServiceRocket invited me to join the team as a full-time employee as Senior Manager of Growth Marketing, it was a dream come true. My work as a growth marketer is a fun and challenging blend of content, PR, social media, and demand generation, and is truly further extension of all of the work I’ve been doing in the Customer Success world all along. The team is led by VP of Marketing Colleen Blake, an award-winning Silicon Valley Woman of Influence and incredibly talented marketer and leader. I feel honored to work with and learn from her and the rest of the talented ServiceRocket team every day.

Final Thoughts

I’m so incredibly proud of my amazing clients who have “leveled up” in big ways this year, as well as the small but meaningful roles I got to play in their successes. I’m also prouder than I can express to be a full-time Rocketeer! I am still learning constantly every day, especially from leaders in our field who inspire me, and I look forward to continuing on that journey and creating valuable marketing experiences and content for ServiceRocket customers and the Customer Success industry. I plan to continue blogging here to share insights, news and ideas from the world of customer training, Customer Success and SaaS marketing. I hope you’ll stay connected and continue growing with me on this journey in the membership economy.

Thanks for reading. Sarah