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.
Before 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.
It’s Saturday morning in Boulder, Colorado. I am sitting on my couch in my striped blue-and-white pajamas, staring at two emails in my inbox inviting me to speak at tech events–one in the Bay Area, where my employer is located, and one in Boulder, where I currently live. Normally I would be thrilled to accept these invitations right away. I want to accept them. “Say yes to challenge” has become my motto throughout my career. This motto has undeniably served me. Outside of the office, pushing myself to be more visible, do more public speaking and share my ideas with the world has led to incredible opportunities, promotions, and career upleveling. But today, I can’t bring myself to hit “yes” in the reply fields. The duo of invites sits there another day unanswered.
On the coffee table next to the couch sits a bottle of prescription medication, one of a few meds I’ve been taking these past few weeks to heal from an illness. Being sick has meant that I can’t currently drink alcohol or coffee, dine at most restaurants, and that sometimes I don’t feel awesome. Thankfully, I am still able to work at full capacity, read, write, and organize Flatirons Tech events (come to our next event at Google in Boulder!). But I’ve become less social while convalescing, and networking has taken a backseat. It wasn’t until I got sick that I realized how much of tech networking is organized around imbibing caffeine, alcohol, or being “on” at an event. I know I am not alone in abstaining from drinking caffeine and alcohol, but it can sometimes seem that everyone in tech is throwing back either a Nitro coffee or a craft beer siphoned from a keg.
Around when I first started feeling under the weather, I gave a brief talk at Twitter Boulder. During the talk I smiled, trying my best to seem warm and inviting. Immediately after I got offstage, I slipped out of the event. I normally would stay and mingle with the audience, but I simply couldn’t. You may have seen the picture I tweeted and Instagrammed at the event, but you certainly didn’t see the reality of how terrible I was really feeling that day.
And that’s just it: in our current social media-driven world, we see only what others allow us to see. I see my colleagues and peers “crushing it” online, speaking at conferences, being out there in the industry, and they likely see the same of me. I feel pressure, as I’m sure others do, to always be “on” and constantly grow, innovate, and become a bigger force in the industry. But I frequently don’t know others’ private struggles, pains, illnesses, and challenges. And they don’t know of mine unless I share.
Being sick has brought up a flurry of doubts: Who am I in the tech world if I can’t have a drink at a tech meetup or enjoy a normal business lunch? How long will it take before I’m back to “myself” and am able to say yes to every career opportunity? What if I turn down opportunities and then people stop inviting me to speak at events–and what would that mean for my career?
These doubts spring from a dominant startup narrative of “keep growing and crushing it at all costs,” which is harmful to all of us. The “crush it” mindset means constantly seeking opportunities to be in public–public speaking, networking, conferences, as well as taking on so many challenges at work that we’re burning the midnight oil more often than not. Where does the pressure to “crush it” come from? Perhaps it is from the illusion that everyone else is crushing it, and if we don’t too, we’re going to miss out. For some of us, being a minority in tech adds another layer of constantly feeling a need to prove ourselves.
Tech is an incredibly important part of many of our lives, but it isn’t our whole lives, and we need to remember that when we’re feeling pressure to “crush it” no matter what.
My current health condition, I am told, will likely resolve within a few months. I know I am extremely lucky. Many people in tech silently deal with serious and/or chronic health issues, some of which take a long time to heal or will never fully heal. Others struggle with balancing careers and being a primary caregiver to parents, children or an ailing family member; dealing with a divorce, death or loss; a personal illness, or another significant life challenge. No matter our life situation, each of us will go through a period at some point that won’t enable us to follow the “crush it all the time” ethos. As an industry, we need to think about how we can build a tech culture that is more inclusive of everyone throughout the ups and downs of our lives.
Summoning my courage, I regretfully decline the invitations. I know there’s a lot more “crushing it” ahead–even if that isn’t right now.
Bootcamps 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.
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.
In 2017, lack of diversity in tech is still a problem. Google has spent over $100 million on diversity initiatives. Intel has allocated $300 million towards increasing workplace diversity. Yet while hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in recent years by the tech industry to increase diversity, the numbers remain disappointing. These initiatives are falling short.
Tech companies, nonprofits and other organizations are currently driving initiatives aimed at attracting women, people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, and others from underrepresented groups, but these campaigns are almost entirely focused on how to get more minorities into technical roles. Reaching these groups and paving the way for them to succeed at tech companies is crucial. But as an industry, we are going to be unsuccessful in our mission to increase tech diversity if we don’t also think about creative ways to engage and retain minorities in non-engineering roles. Perhaps we don’t think it’s an issue–and, admittedly, other departments are often more diverse than engineering. Yet, recent statistics from NCWIT show that engineering isn’t the only area where minorities are underrepresented. For example, only 25% of tech salespeople are women. Women represent only 12 percent of sales leaders. Thirty percent of 450 tech executives surveyed by Reuters reported that their groups had no women in leadership positions.
Many tech leadership positions are non-technical roles, and many are paths to the C-suite; focusing on inclusivity among non-technical roles will be key to improving the diversity in tech leadership
In 2017, tech leadership is still predominantly white and male. This problem isn’t exclusive to our industry; according to CNN Money, only around 14% of the top leadership positions at companies in the S&P 500 are held by women. Inability to see oneself in a leadership role contributes heavily to churn among women and minorities backgrounds. Women are more than twice as likely as men to leave tech careers. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows U.S. women working in STEM and tech are 45% more likely than their male peers to leave the industry. NCWIT research reports 48% of Black women in tech feel their careers are “stalled” without promotion opportunity. Lack of representation in leadership absolutely plays a role in this flight from tech jobs. Increasing leadership diversity in each department helps every department.
Engineers can and do become leaders at tech companies–but we should also focus our inclusion efforts on cultivating leaders from underrepresented groups from all roles. This diverse leadership can more effectively drive towards, and sustain, a diverse industry.
It is not all bad news
Some companies like Atlassian pay particular attention to company-wide diversity initiatives, ensuring diversity isn’t siloed in one department, and companies like Twitter offer inclusive benefits such as parental leave policies, gender reassignment surgery, partner benefits, and more, while other companies host employee resource groups and other inclusion efforts that do help retain diverse talent across the org chart. Lesbians Who Tech organization puts on an event called “bring a lesbian to work day” where LGBTQ people and allies can help queer women shadow us and learn what it’s like to work in tech. These efforts are laudable, but overall in the tech industry, we don’t do enough to explicitly attract and retain minorities in non-engineering roles. Here are some ideas for extending tech diversity initiatives to the entire company.
Immersion programs for aspiring engineers are great–we need similar programs for non-technical roles, too
The diversity initiatives that have been shown to work for increasing minorities in engineering roles can also be applied to non-technical roles. For example, to help address the gap between the tech pipeline and hires, Girls Who Code offers immersion opportunities so that girls who are learning how to code can get a glimpse into what it will be like if they work at a tech company. Coding bootcamps now help people from all backgrounds gain the skills they need to be successful in programming and data science roles. These bootcamps, immersion programs and “pipeline cultivation” for programming can work for attracting diverse talent in non-technical roles, too. The assumption may be that these aren’t necessary for filling non-technical roles; after all, coding is a specific skill, and many non-technical roles don’t require additional training for candidates to be successful–but I would argue that’s untrue.
There are candidates who are qualified skill-wise for non-technical roles but who don’t know how to break into tech or don’t think the industry is for them. In addition, many minority candidates who have experience working in tech in non-technical roles aren’t getting hired or promoted. Organized immersion and training programs targeting non-technical fields could build the confidence and exposure needed to be successful in tech’s unique environment.
Identify cultures within your organization that are disadvantaging women and minorities, then set goals around, measure and publish diversity stats for the whole company
Inclusivity is key to retaining talent; recent studies reported in the Harvard Business Review suggests that diversity “doesn’t stick” without inclusion. ShareRoot COO Mischa McPherson developed and executed a plan to create a more inclusive tech sales teams. At the time she joined ShareRoot, the percentage of women on the sales team was 25%. She knew before she’d reach her goal of increasing diverse talent, she’d have to work hard as a leader to show a career path for underrepresented team members.
When Misha arrived at ShareRoot she set a goal to increase the proportion of women to men on the sales team to 50/50. In her first four months on the job she increased the proportion of women on the sales team to thirty-three percent. Misha was deliberate in changing the previous culture and moved the company closer to the goal she set by measuring progress and publishing stats around it for the whole company.
Final Thoughts: Why this matters to me
I’m passionate about this topic because I’m in a non-engineering role and I’ve seen firsthand that our group is often underserved by tech diversity initiatives. I am confident that this is not intentional; we’ve become so focused on increasing much-needed diversity in engineering departments that we’ve lost sight of the rest of the tech org chart. We need to do more to reach and retain minorities for non-technical roles, improving the industry as a whole. I recently participated in an interview with Inventing Heron aimed at encouraging young people to consider tech careers–including non-engineering roles, and also recently gave a talk at Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco this year on how to grow your career in a non-technical role. In 2014, I founded Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Meetup in Boulder, which frequently hosts events that are aimed at people in non-engineering roles.
As an industry, we need to develop and implement more intersectional initiatives aimed at helping minorities succeed in any role in tech; when we do this, everyone will benefit.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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:
TECH CO: how do we retain talent
WOMAN TRYING TO HOLD BABY AND LAPTOP SIMULTANEOUSLY: help
TECH CO: lets increase the free cereals to 37
— Casey Johnston (@caseyjohnston) October 28, 2016
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.
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.
According 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:
- 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
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.
This year I cultivated a community garden plot in Boulder, CO, for the first time. I had previously never gardened before, and this experience has been an immensely rewarding one due to both the bounty of fresh homegrown veggies that have come from it as well as other less-tangible rewards reaped. I made a lot of mistakes and have learned a lot from this process and those who have helped me through it. As the summer growing season winds down, I have noticed striking parallels between gardening and startup life. Many garden-variety lessons are very applicable to working at startup. Here are a few of them.
Lesson: You may be unwittingly cultivating a weed.
There were two big plants growing in the east side of my plot I convinced myself were eggplants. I tenderly watered them, weeded around them, and ensured they got plenty of light. Once the “other” eggplants in the west side of my plot starting bearing real eggplants, while the east side eggplants still remained barren, I asked a knowledgeable fellow gardener about the situation. My fellow gardener politely informed me that I had been spending significant time and resources on…weeds! I felt very silly. I didn’t know these were weeds when I so gingerly cared for them. And once I learned the truth, I had no choice but to pull them. Startup leaders: recognize that you may be putting a ton of energy towards a project, campaign or other resource you think is going to yield a return, only to realize down the line you have been growing a weed (or, in my case, two of them). The key is to remove that weed as soon as you find it; don’t let sunk costs of the various investments you have made in keeping this weed-in-disguise alive hold you back from removing it quickly once you see it for what it really is.
Lesson: Don’t be afraid to ask for advice.
I don’t think any of my plants would have grown without the help of incredibly knowledgeable and generous gardener friends. The same is true for startups: finding mentors (board members, dedicated accelerator mentors, industry peers, and other entrepreneurs) along the journey is crucial for success. Asking for help all the time is key–and ideally, you’ll help others with what you’ve learned, too.
Lesson: Unfortunately, many weeds are hard to identify until they are big.
Many weeds, when small, look just like the things you are consciously trying to grow. Or, they are just too small to notice. Is that a kale sprout or a vine weed that’s going to one day grow to suck the life out of your melon plant? Is that actually an insidious pocket of “bro” culture happening in your engineering department masquerading as playfulness? Is it going to grow into a full-blown problem? Pay close attention to things that may or may not be weeds, and then address them out at the root as soon as you realize what they are.
Lesson: Weeds are much harder to pull once they are mature.
Another reason to address potential problems at your company as soon as possible: once weeds have grown, they’ve got much deeper roots and are that much harder to remove. Suddenly, what would have been an easy fix two quarters ago now becomes a much bigger (and usually more expensive) problem. Fix problems early to save a lot of pain.
Lesson: Place many bets, then ramp on what is working and jettison what is not.
I planted a lot of vegetables that did great this season—and a few that did not do so well. The melon plant only made one tiny, tasteless melon and then shriveled into a brown heap. But the cucumbers, eggplant, lettuce, and squash have done brilliantly. So I focused on those and tried not to worry about what did not work. I made sure to pull out the melon plant when it turned brown and clearly wasn’t working rather than let it take any more nutrients from the garden.
Startup growth is all about experimentation. You are placing many bets across many channels, and then need to ramp on what works well, and then cut the resources from what is not working.
Lesson: Recognize when something isn’t working anymore—and be willing to move on.
Related to the previous lesson, sometimes something is working well for a while, and then one day no longer does. I harvested lettuce from the same plants for much of the season. I cut back the lettuce leaves, and then, miraculously, they would grow back where the stumps were. Then one day, a fellow gardener came over to my plot and said, “did you know your lettuce has bolted? You won’t get any leaves from it at this point.” I had not realized this, but once I discovered it, I felt a little hesitant; was it really time to let these go? A flood of memories of the bounty from the summer came back. I had to face a fundamental truth about gardening and startups: sometimes things work amazingly and then, when the season or other conditions change, no longer do. So I pulled out those bolted lettuce plants and composted them. Lesson learned. What at your startup once was working but now longer is? Be willing to do what Ben Horowitz calls “the hard thing about hard things” and move on.
Lesson: Planning ahead is everything.
The importance of this cannot be overstated: you really need to plan ahead for a garden or a startup to function properly. On a startup marketing team, for instance, annual planning ensures the maximum number of sales-qualified leads are created by budgeting and allocating the right amount of resources. By planning what goes where in your garden, you can ensure the right plants work together, and know ahead of time when things will grow.
Lesson: Control what you can and let go of what you cannot.
You can put a fence up for deer. You can cover the leaves of your tomato plants with diatomaceous earth to prevent aphid attack. You can water and weed diligently and properly cage your tomatoes. And sometimes, though you’re certain you’ve done everything you can to create the right conditions for growth—you still lose. It happens. Control what you can, move on from what you can’t.
Lesson: Assemble a great team and embrace community.
It may come as no surprise that community is the key to a community garden. I travel for work sometimes, and throughout the growing season have gone away for multi-week stretches, leaving my sweet garden behind. Luckily, I have great relationships with fellow gardeners—in particular, my amazing neighbor Rachel, whose plot is perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Rachel helps keep my garden alive (and thriving) when I’m not there. And the times when Rachel has been out of town, I have been honored to help care for her beautiful plants, too. Our community garden team has taught me so much about how to care for the plants I’m growing. We share our knowledge and produce with each other, and help weed and water each other’s plots.
Startup leaders need to know that their team can back them up in case of absence or absence of attention. They also need to develop superb relationships with other companies, including their partners and customers, but also other companies within the ecosystem. Cultivate startup community and adopt what Brad Feld calls a “give first” mentality. That means watering other people’s plants without expecting them to do the same for you–knowing full well one day it all comes back around.
Lesson: Take pleasure in the process.
Many mundane garden activities have become a pleasure. I now look forward to removing weeds (obstacles), spending time watering (investing energy and resources), and deciding which squash blossoms to harvest when in order to maximize a few mature squash returns from the plant (analyzing the landscape and taking appropriate action). These basic tasks all bring me a lot of satisfaction. As startup leaders, we participate in and also get to watch our proverbial gardens grow—with pride. It is not always a joyful experience to be “in the weeds” of a startup, but there can be a lot of satisfaction gleaned from the effort. Where can you take pleasure in the process of running a startup?
Lesson: Share the glory
Arguably the best part about gardening is getting to share the bounty with those around you. Great leaders acknowledge how the efforts of their teams contribute to the wins. What are some fruits of your startup labor that you can share with your team, your customers, your partners, and your community?
It is important to note that I have been growing the garden for fun and supplemental food rather than for subsistence. Things may have been different if I had been counting on the veggies to feed me and/or my family and it hadn’t worked out. Many founders put everything into their companies, and it’s hard to cut losses when everything is riding on your company succeeding. I’d be really curious to hear if this metaphor resonates with others in the startup world. Thank you for reading! Sarah