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.

Advice For Founders: Stop Running Your Startup “Like A Family”

Before joining the amazing company I work for now, I spent several years doing marketing consulting for various stage B2B startups. As a result, I’ve been granted insights into many different startup cultures ranging from the excellent to the mediocre to the occasionally crappy.

Even if you sell the most incredible product in the world, if your workplace culture isn’t great, you’re not doing it right. Since recently (finally) reading The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, I really agree with his perspective that a great company culture is essential.

To make your company culture great, your most important values must be lived by you and your team. After all, company mission statements are only as strong as how well they’re operationalized.

On this topic, I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend where well-meaning founders make the mistake of deciding to solve the “values/culture thing” by declaring that their startup is going to run “like a family,” especially during early stages. Here’s some thoughts on why “running your company like a family” is a really bad idea.

Saying you run your company “like a family” is extremely vague, and by doing this, you may create confusion among your team.

More often than not, when a CEO says to her team that she wants to run the company “like a family,” what she really means is that she wants to run the company according to her definition of how a family runs. After all, no two families are alike. How Jack the CEO’s family operates may be vastly different than how Jane the VP of Sales’ family functions. This leads to terrible and avoidable miscommunications.

Let’s say Jack the CEO calls his executives into a meeting and tells them that the company will now run “like a family” and that he expects leaders and their teams to act accordingly.

What if in Jack the CEO’s family, it’s common to call people out on their mistakes in public settings. After all, a little public shame is how people learn to correct their mistakes, right? So, without explicitly verbalizing any of these assumptions about what family means, Jack expects that when telling his executives to “run their teams like a family,” they’ll align with his understandings.

When Jane the VP of Sales heard Jack’s speech about “family,” she would have likely unconsciously applied it to her own understanding of family. Jane’s family does not behave like Jack’s family. Jane’s family only delivered criticism in private. People are praised in public, and given constructive criticism in private. Period.

When Jack the CEO sits in on Jane’s meeting with her Sales Development Reps (SDRs), one of the SDRs, Carl, reveals that he’s very behind on his numbers for the quarter. To Jack’s surprise, instead of tearing into him in front of the other SDRs, Jane centers the discussion around best practices and what everyone can work on as a team to improve processes. Jane plans to address Carl’s individual issues with him after the meeting in private and to review his performance improvement plan then. But Jack butts in, “Carl, why is everyone else outperforming you? Do you take this job seriously?” Jane goes beet red and after the meeting feels unsettled and confused. Why would Jack  undermine her authority in front of her team, and why he would blatantly go against their stated values? After all, wasn’t this company supposed to run like a family?

This is a pretty simplistic example, but you get the point. If you think a family should behave a certain way, chances are someone else disagrees. So don’t run your company “like a family”. State your explicit values instead.

Your experience of family is inherently subjective, but you likely won’t see it that way—and unchecked subjectivities are a big problem.

Perhaps in your family everyone was supportive, so you think running a company like a family means supporting each other. Great. But what if being supportive in your family also meant that while men in the family worked, women were expected to work only until they had children and then stay at home? So when your VP of Product comes to you announcing she’s going on maternity leave, will you treat her “like family”?

Some families are toxic, and you may unwittingly turn your company culture toxic if you run it like your family.

This is a point I’ve been intimating along the way in this post, but a lot of families are, simply put, dysfunctional and toxic. Maybe in your family you “just don’t talk about” the alcoholic gambling father in the family, so when the CEO’s personal problems start affecting his performance, or he does something unethical, it’s understood no one is to confront it lest they be breaking the family code. After all, you’re family! This is a really big problem and it’s surprisingly common in companies that run this way.

You can’t easily fire or lay off your family.

As Ben Horowitz shares in his book, as CEO or leader, you’re going to have to lay off people, many of whom are really, really great but who just aren’t the right fit anymore or because you personally failed them in some way. Depending on what stage you’re at in your company, it’s not a question of if this will happen—it’s a question of when. And running “like a family” will make it much harder for you and your executives to do this. Because it’s really hard to lay off “family”. Startups aren’t, and can’t be, families.

Better Alternatives Exist

On the surface, running your company like a family sounds like a nice, cozy idea. Family can be a source of a lot of joy and community for many people. But I’d argue that even if every single one of your employees right now consists of your actual family members, still don’t run it “like a family”! Instead, create company values that are specific and actionable. Some examples from leading companies:

  • 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. (Kappost)
  • Feel Free (Twitter)

Note that these values have nothing to do with “family” but may overlap with how some families operate.

Final Thoughts

I implore you, startup leaders: stop running your companies like a family. If you have that written somewhere in your mission statement or on your website, take it out right now–or at least be very specific about how you as a company actually define operating like a family. Instead, think about all of the good things you see in family and write those down as values that your company should embody.

Special thanks to Daniel Nelson, Founder of Food On A Truck, for his feedback in an early draft.

Why You Should Hire A Marketing Consultant: A Rebuttal To Neil Patel’s Post

Why you should hire a marketing consultant

A recent post on Neil Patel’s blog suggests you shouldn’t hire a marketing consultant. The gist of the article is that, despite having been a lauded, successful marketing consultant himself, Patel argues against hiring marketing consultants.

Before launching into my rebuttal, I feel it necessary to point out that Neil Patel offers paid online marketing courses for entrepreneurs to teach themselves how to do marketing. It’s in Patel’s best financial interest to convince entrepreneurs not to hire marketing consultants and instead pay him money for his products and e-courses. It’s likely he wrote this just to get people to click the controversial headline and convert (aka buy his instructional products).

So, knowing this article is likely just click bait to sell his own products, as a professional digital marketing consultant, I feel it necessary to respond. I respectfully disagree with Patel’s sweeping claim that hiring marketing consultants is never a good idea. I think he’s doing a disservice to his audience of entrepreneurs in a lot of his misguided, if well-intentioned, advice.

We’re going to go through Patel’s post line-by line, reader, to point out where his words are false. I’ve used Patel’s original article subheadings to organize my critique.

Consultants aren’t miracle workers

Patel starts out his troubling post by letting us know how in-demand he was and is as a marketing consultant. It’s not empty bragging; we all know Patel is skillful businessperson, which is why we all read Quick Sprout. Patel even says he still gets a thousand inquiries or more per month, despite no longer running his marketing consultancy. Patel tells readers that he received rave reviews and got great results for his clients while running a multi-million dollar marketing consultancy. He then goes on to say that hiring all marketing consultants is a bad idea. If you’re having trouble following the logic, you’re not alone.

“I’m telling you that you shouldn’t hire me, or any consultant for that matter, to help you with your marketing.” – Neil Patel.

Patel’s first reason you shouldn’t hire a marketing consultant is that consultants aren’t “miracle workers.”

He says: “If you have a bad product, a low converting site, or an offer that just doesn’t make sense, driving thousands of visitors to your website won’t fix your business.”

I absolutely agree with Patel on this one. No marketing consultant should take on a client  they think has a bad product or broken business model. But for every entrepreneur who hires a marketing consultant thinking it’ll be a panacea for their broken business, there are those who do have viable products and just need to figure out how to tell the right stories about them to the right audiences, aka marketing. Marketing consultants are not doing their jobs correctly if they don’t manage expectations from the outset.

I’m not sure what Neil claimed to be for his clients, but I personally care about a lot more than clicks and site traffic. There may be marketing experts who are just focused on bringing in visitors, but I urge against categorizing all marketers as single-minded in their approach. Perhaps his article should have been called, “Why You Shouldn’t Hire Someone Just To Drive Traffic To Your Site If Your Site Is Terrible And Your Product Needs Work.”

You can’t build a skyscraper without laying the foundation

The next point Patel makes is that entrepreneurs should “build their foundation” instead of hiring a digital marketing consultant. “Even the best marketers can’t turn around a shitty business, which is why you need to focus on creating a great product or service before you talk to a marketing consultant.”

At this point, Patel is saying you should consider hiring a digital marketing consultant, just after building the foundation of your business. We’ve already touched on the hypocrisy of this claim, but it warrants further exploration. It isn’t clear why Patel doesn’t just stake the claim that you should wait until hiring a marketing consultant until you’ve built a business foundation. Why throw all marketing consultants under the bus, per the title? Part of my job as a marketing consultant is to not take on any clients who I think lack the foundational elements of their business. This includes: solid value propositions and at least awareness and plans for ameliorating things like lackluster websites and social media presences.

You need to walk before you run

In the next point, Patel seems to be firmly changing his position that you shouldn’t hire a marketing consultant. He says he recommends trying to market your business by yourself before hiring a consultant. Again, that sounds rational–much more so than the title and thesis claim that you should never hire a marketing consultant. Just as many advise doing sales, customer success, and other business aspects before hiring, I think advising CEOs to do their own marketing first is a great idea. A CEO especially needs to have a strong grasp on the market positioning of his or her product. Patel recommends things like optimizing SEO, speeding up your site, starting a blog, interacting on social networks, etc. as things leaders should do before hiring. Again, Patel and I couldn’t agree more.

But then Patel loses me yet again. He says, “If you aren’t able to do all of the things above, you can always hire an intern or a college kid to help you out. Again, don’t look for a consultant.”

This part is especially troubling to me, and I believe is the worst advice given throughout the piece. I am all for lean startup business models, but hiring inexperienced help early on can seriously sabotage your startup and sap your energy. It’s a shame that Patel advises this, because hiring an amateur always leads to wasting time and money, undoing mistakes instead of reaping the benefits of a seasoned professional who has helped numerous other startups solve similar problems. Imagine if Patel had advised hiring a designer who is still in school learning Adobe, or a developer who just finished reading a book on Rails.

There’s nothing wrong with startups hiring interns to help with marketing, but that should be no substitute for expert marketing strategy and implementation. At the least, a marketing consultant can hire and manage a less experienced team to ensure all efforts are aligned and goals are being met. Patel laments that marketing consultants are “expensive,” which is another worrisome claim. What’s expensive is your business never getting off the ground because you’ve hired someone who has never done startup marketing before. Do you really want to hire someone who has little experience in your market and have them spend your time and money doing trial and error? Imagine your product never taking off because you’ve become burnt out trying to redo your website copy without the help of a professional content marketing expert. Do you really want to go the “cheap” route?

When to hire consultants

In the penultimate paragraph, Patel finally admits that hiring a marketing consultant is actually a good idea.

“Once you test the waters and try to grow your business on your own, you can consider hiring a consultant. Make sure you hire him or her for specific tasks instead of all your marketing needs.”

This is great to see, but I wish Patel had been more upfront about his perspective that someone should hire a marketing consultant after they’ve done the necessary work instead of not at all. He suggests the cases in which hiring consultants who meet specific needs has really helped his business, and advises not to look for “one-size-fits-all marketing consultants.”

I absolutely agree with Patel on this. I am sometimes asked to do things outside of my core competences, and I am always upfront about where my strengths and weaknesses lie. For example, I will not run and/or optimize clients’ PPC campaigns. It’s just not what I do.

Final thoughts

I completely agree that a lot needs to happen before you can bring on a marketing consultant or team (just as a lot needs to happen before you can hire a sales team). An excellent consultant can and will work with you to identify and build out assets you need, and/or advise when you need to improve other aspects of marketing than those they specialize in.

In my experience, startups and marketing consultants are often perfect matches. Many great startups can’t afford to hire full-time marketing experts, but they can afford to pay for an expert marketing consultant who can work as an “in-house asset” to strategize and deliver on measurable goals. A great marketing consultant can be agile and meet the unique needs of a company. S/he can work directly with CEOs and other consultants, and act as if they were an employee. Delivering measurable value should be their primary concern. Like any field, there are top performers and those who under-deliver and underwhelm. A great marketing consultant would never charge clients for what Patel calls “thumb twiddling”.

The right marketing consultant—one who works with you as if they were an employee, who has already worked with dozens of other startups and helped them accomplish their goals across various market segments—is a fantastic choice. They can also help you build out the foundation elements that Patel mentions in the post. Hiring an “intern” or “kid” can waste a lot of time and money. It’s far better to find a marketing consultant with reasonable rates who will get it right the first time.

In sum, I’m grateful for Patel’s dialogue, and would love to continue the discussion here. Have you ever hired a marketing consultant? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Boulder Startup Week 2014 Recap: Hacking Diversity And Growth

This year, I was fortunate to attend Boulder Startup Week (May 12-16, 2014), an annual celebration of all things startup-related in this beautiful Colorado mountain town. I’ve lived and worked in other startup-filled metro areas including NYC, LA, and the San Francisco Bay Area, and after living here for almost a year, I’ve discovered that Boulder has some pretty unique tech culture that isn’t typically found elsewhere (as far as I know).

Why is Boulder’s startup scene so unique? I think it’s because “giving before you receive, without having the expectation to receive” is exemplified here (for more on this check out Brad Feld’s Boulder thesis). So many companies and individuals in the community are committed to this, which I believe is why magical things happen within our startup community.

I’ll touch more on this idea of giving back to the community later in the post, but first, here’s a recap of the events I went to. I should note that I tackled a full client workload this week while fitting in events, and so I chose to prioritize attending diversity events and events on startup growth.

The first event I attended was the Startup Crawl, in which ten offices in Boulder opened up their spaces to meet and give out booze and refreshments to entrepreneurs and community members. The offices that participated: Simple EnergyShipCompliantPivotal LabsGalvanizeSendGridPivot DeskMobileDay/ JumpcloudKapostMocavo and Slice of Lime. I didn’t get a chance to visit every office, but the ones I went to, Mobile Day/Jumpcloud, SendGrid, and Galvanize, were a blast. I loved meeting awesome new people, and walking into noisy, sometimes raucous, rooms filled with great people laughing, talking, and toasting to our work and our community.

It was snowy when Boulder Startup Week 2014 began.

It was snowy when Boulder Startup Week 2014 began.

SendGrid's beautiful view. I got to see their awesome new office during the Startup Crawl.

SendGrid’s beautiful new office view. Photo taken during the Startup Crawl.

Amazing vegan lemon gelato served at new coworking space Galvanize in Boulder. Enjoyed during the Startup Crawl.

Lemon gelato enjoyed at new coworking space Galvanize in Boulder.

SendGrid's brand new swinger lounge was a star of the Startup Crawl.

SendGrid’s brand new swinger lounge.

The next event I went to was a discussion of a new book soon to be released by Foundry Press, Jane Miller’s Sleep Your Way To The Top* And Other Myths About Business Success. After holding leadership positions at food industry giants like Heinz London, PepsiCo, and more, Miller stepped in to helm Boulder’s Charter Baking Company, bakers of Rudy’s Organic and Rudy’s Gluten Free. Miller’s book, and the lively discussion, focused on the lessons she learned during her career. Miller also discussed how she became involved with Unreasonable Institute, leveraging her vast corporate management experience to help make a difference in the world. Peppered with advice and anecdotes, the talk was definitely entertaining and informative.

Sleep Your Way To The Top: * and other myths about business success

Brad Feld and Jane Miller discuss her new book on being a successful female CEO.

The next morning, I attended coffee hour/ talk on “Controversy of Diversity,” which focused on strategies for increasing diversity in technology startups. This was probably my favorite event of all of startup week. While enjoying Ozo Coffee and BronutsTara Calihman and Julie Penner kicked things off, followed by Ingrid Alongi, CEO of Quick Left, who talked about the big data behind the issues and Dr. Wendy DuBow, a NCWIT research scientist, shared tips on becoming a male advocate. I learned some startling statistics about how gender inequality around technology starts super young, as girls are often conditioned to think computer science is more for boys. Over time, the numbers of women angel investors have increased, and there are more women in tech, however startup management positions are still 96% male, according to Alongi in her fantastic, statistic-filled presentation. I was inspired by Alongi’s mission and company, as well as her passion for increasing diversity in the startup tech world.  

CEO Ingrid Alongi of Boulder's QuickLeft

CEO Ingrid Alongi of Boulder’s QuickLeft spoke at the Controversy of Diversity panel.

The NCWIT presentation was another highlight; DuBow said in addition to adopting gender neutral hiring language, there are specific strategies companies can do once women are on board to help them succeed alongside their male peers. This includes mentorship across gender, which I found to be a very important point and something I’ve personally benefitted from. There was also a Q&A session that included more discussion about the subtle ways startups can either encourage or discourage diversity, including creating during-work social events to avoid penalizing parents who aren’t interested in building company community at a bar, and trying to call on women during meetings, as men are still statistically more likely to speak out.

The Controversy of Diversity talk held at Techstars during Boulder Startup Week 2014.

The Controversy of Diversity talk held at Techstars during Boulder Startup Week 2014.

Startup growth panel at eTown during Boulder Startup Week.

“Early Stories At Big Companies “panel at eTown during Boulder Startup Week.

The final event I attended was “Early Stories At Big Companies,” on the final day of Boulder Startup Week. It was amazing to listen in to founders and early employees of big startups like Github, Twitter, SendGrid, and more share some lesser known stories of how they grew, challenges they faced, and how they overcame adversities. Some of the takeaways: “if you aren’t unhappy with your product when you launch, you’ve waited too long to go to market,” “take initiative and ownership of what’s important to you and the company,” “focus on what you really care about and what you’re spending your time on, and correct any misalignment on an ongoing basis,” and “don’t have an air gun fight in a parking lot outside your startup unless you want local police involvement” (you had to be there).

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I’ve been really inspired by our community’s “give before you get” mentality. Startup Week diversity events solidified my interest in helping to build community and support around a community I personally care about and am aligned with, which is why, with ally Brad Feld and other startup community members’ blessing, I’ve started Flatirons LGBTQ Tech Startup Meetup. Our group already has its first event scheduled, and is open to all. We’re also looking for a business sponsor of the meetup.com dues and possibly some events, so please drop me a line if you are or your company is interested in getting involved.

Thanks for reading my recap of Boulder Startup Week 2014! I’d love to hear in the comments if others attended these or other events and/or what your impressions were of the week.

 

How Liberal Arts Colleges Prepare You To Work For Startups

Liberal arts grades can do very well at startups.

The Internet is filled with articles featuring college dropouts who’ve achieved impressive successes in the startup world. There’s this piece from Mashable, this one from Upstart, and this article from Forbes, just to pick a few. There have undeniably been those who do well outside of the confines of college as they prepare or launch their startup. However, while it’s certainly not the right choice for everyone, I’ve recently noticed how my liberal arts education profoundly prepared me for daily life working with startups.  I had some startup-relevant experiences through work and internship opportunities during college, but I’ve also found immense value return down the line even through just what I gained in the classroom.

Here are a few of the ways that I’ve found liberal arts colleges prepare you to work for startups:

1. You learn to go to the source.

source

My alma mater, Vassar College, has a saying, “go to the source.” This means getting to the source of an issue in order to find answers. It applied just as well in history classes as it did when solving issues as part of student groups or through community service projects. When you go to the primary source to solve a problem, you can often find new insights that you’d miss if you only checked out secondary or tertiary sources. My friend Cordelia, also a Vassar grad, wrote a fantastic piece on how she sees her role as a developer at Salesforce as that of an archaeologist. Cordelia writes that she often excavates old code, and must learn to understand it before she can build upon it in new code. This “go to the source” attitude applies to startups that are attempting to make an impact or disrupt existing industries by offering new value in the marketplace. Going to the source also involves questioning previously held beliefs about what will work best through doing multi-variate testing of landing pages, social campaigns, ads, and more. By being trained to get to the source to find solutions–including through understanding the experiences of your customer and his/her pain points–you’ll be many steps ahead of your competition.

2. You learn how to create compelling, data-based arguments–and, if needed, adapt them.

Using data to make arguments in startups.

In liberal arts college, every thesis you argue needs to be backed up by supporting references and sources. Learning how to stake a position based on data is what I do all day long working with startups. Why should a startup post in LinkedIn groups at a certain of day? What is the optimal number of blogs to publish per week to fuel the inbound lead generation funnel? What budget should a b2b startup allocate for display advertising, and on and on. All of these questions can and should be answered by data. Additionally, data changes over time, and it’s crucial to be willing to go back to the data and continue to test your hypotheses to see if they still hold true. In liberal arts environments, we learn to question as new theories, studies and data emerge. This is crucial to being effective and agile in the startup world, as well as keeping up with the ever-changing digital marketing landscape.

3. Learning ethnography prepares you to study the experiences of your startup customers.

Learning how to address the needs of your customer in startups.

Many liberal arts colleges have an anthropology or sociology requirement that teaches you how to do ethnography, which Wikipedia defines as “research method designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study.” Ethnography training has helped me immensely in learning how to collect data and survey responses in order to understand and address my startup clients’ needs, fears, and goals, as well as those of their target customers. By studying ethnography, you can also gain valuable insights into bias and how we often project our own experiences onto others. When startups don’t assume what their customers want and instead actually take the time to truly understand their customer’s experiences, they are usually rewarded with customer loyalty and increased success in the market.

4. You gain an understanding of how to approach and deliver constructive feedback.

Constructive feedback is very important in startups.

In my college nonfiction writing seminars, we had a concept called the “feedback sandwich.” Structuring criticism with what worked, what didn’t, and what was good but could be slightly improved (sharing some negative feedback betwixt positive feedback–hence, the sandwich) is incredibly effective. Sometimes feedback has to be 100% constructive, but often, there’s great stuff mixed in with not-so-great stuff. When editing writers’ blogs, I try to always highlight what’s good as well as what needs improvement. It usually helps us all focus on the constructive criticism without taking things too personally.

5. You learn how to lead small groups that can effect big changes.

Tribes by Seth Godin.In college, student groups I was involved in rallied together small groups of students, faculty, and staff to organize service projects, bring speakers, plan events, and more. Learning how to mobilize small groups to effect change is an invaluable startup skill. Seth Godin calls this phenomenon of small, strong groups making an impact “tribes,” which you can learn about in his book and Ted Talk on the subject.

6. You learn to recognize and understand societal inequality.

Inequality still exists in startups.

The liberal arts classroom offers many opportunities both through coursework and class discussion to unpack and recognize societal privilege and inequality among diverse populations. In the startup world, there’s still an undeniable lack of diversity at the leadership levels. Being aware of inequality and why it’s existed throughout history through the lens of a liberal arts education can help us move towards embracing a more equal startup world. Brad Feld, MIT grad and local Boulder VC, wrote a powerful article about increasing the numbers of women in leadership roles in tech.

7. Liberal arts colleges teach you how to write well.

Writing well is crucial to startup life.

This is the single-most important thing I learned in college: how to write a damn sentence. It behooves each of us in the startup world to learn how to express our ideas through cogent, clear writing. I took it for granted that I could write during school, but after, I’ve found it is pretty much crucial to my everyday life: writing social media strategy plans and social media posts, website copy, client proposals, startup client blogs, creative briefs, content marketing maps and, of course, emails.

8. You learn how to think broadly in order to solve problems.

Businesses need to think broadly to solve problems.

Liberal arts degrees are all about interdisciplinary thinking, and you have to think across silos in order to be effective in startups. I really like this Customer Success Summit talk by Jeanne Bliss on how startups can solve problems across departments. In order to address your customers’ needs, you’ll need to think broadly and across your startups’ departments.

Concluding Thoughts

Nothing can replace real-world startup experience. That’s why groups like Tradecraft, which train smart people to work in high traction roles at startups, are so great for those starting out, as they immediately immerse participants in real-world startup work. And, of course, in technical roles, it’s crucial to find people with technical skills above all else. But, for anyone worried their liberal arts college education isn’t helping to prepare them to achieve their goal of making a difference at a startup, I’d encourage them to reconsider. I’d also suggest strongly hiring liberal arts grads for your startup!

Does your startup hire liberal arts grads? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.