Lessons Learned from Working at a Startup

I graduated from the Startup Institute in late December 2013. Since then, I got married, welcomed my first child into the world and finished my first full year of work at Vsnap. It’s been a pretty wild ride. And as much as I learned this year from books and blogs, the most profound lessons came from the people I worked with. Here are my top lessons learned from working at a startup in the past year:

Embrace your inner salesperson.

I’m a marketer, but the area I developed the most over the past year were in sales (thanks to Bill, Vsnap’s VP of Sales). And I’m not just talking about cold calls and product demos, either. Selling includes a wide range of skills that play a role in prospecting, negotiating and closing deals. Specifically, it’s helped me:

  • Communicate value quickly and efficiently.
  • Understand a potential buyer’s needs and perspective.
  • Introduce myself to strangers and start conversations.
  • Forge mutually-beneficial relationships and partnerships.

Sales isn’t about tricking strangers into giving you their money (as my know-it-all philosophy major self used to think). It’s about helping others solve their problems and ease their pains. That’s a noble pursuit, and it’s a set of skills every startup employee can benefit from.[bctt tweet="All startup employees can benefit from strong sales skills @willthefrench http://goo.gl/i7yhMk"]

Customer support is everyone’s business.

A startup is a business hypothesis. As such, you don’t have many customers in the beginning and those you do have are super valuable. So treat every customer interaction with the utmost care and attention (thanks Trish!). Respond quickly, empathize with their situations and always offer to help, even if your product/ solution doesn’t make sense for them.[bctt tweet="A startup is a business hypothesis- give customers utmost care @willthefrench http://goo.gl/i7yhMk"]

Culture is everything.

I used to think culture was about foosball games, a well-stocked beer bridge and flexible hours -- not the things that impact your day-to-day job or your long-term career.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. As I learned from Dave McLaughlin, Vsnap’s CEO, culture is about values -- you know, those sappy-sounding principles that are so easy to scoff at. At Vsnap, these are visible to anyone who walks into our offices (just look at the posters prominently placed on our barn door). And they have an immediate impact on our jobs.

When we say that we “Celebrate Questions,” it means it’s OK to interrupt the CEO and ask him one. When we say “Be Human,” it means passionate opinions are meant to be voiced, not kept to yourself. When we say “Only Help,” it means you never think twice about lending a hand.

Culture is the contract everyone in the company has agreed to adhere to. It helps resolve disagreements, keeps the team together, and ensures we stay true to our mission.[bctt tweet="Culture is the contract everyone in the co. agrees to adhere to @willthefrench http://goo.gl/i7yhMk"]

The devil is in the process.

It’s tempting to think about startups as a bunch of amateurs sitting around an apartment cobbling ideas together. And to an extent that’s true -- the plane’s being built in mid-air. But you still need a process, a way to organize your tasks and execute them accordingly. My CTO, Chris Swenor, taught me this. Otherwise, critical projects get delayed, priorities confused, and mission-critical objectives missed.

Any sizable development team works according to Scrum or some similar methodology. But it’s helpful for people in sales, marketing, and support, too. I’ve been experimenting with HubSpot’s Agile Marketing process and have seen a marked increase in my productivity, as well as greater alignment with company strategy. So, don’t wait for management to tell you how to grow. Study your habits and see how you can make systematic improvements.[bctt tweet="Don't wait for management to tell you how to grow @willthefrench http://goo.gl/i7yhMk"]

Give back. Then give back some more.

This is another lesson which was abstract to me twelve months ago, but is now clear as day: a community is only as great as the people who belong to it.[bctt tweet="A community is only as great as the people who belong to it @willthefrench http://goo.gl/i7yhMk"]

I learned this one from SI Boston Program Director Allan Telio. Over the past year, I’ve benefited from introductions, business advice, mentorship and everything else in between. The best part? It was all free. No one asked for a dime. There was only an understanding that I’d pay it forward.

So, never turn down an offer to meet or speak with someone. Connect people who need to be connected. Share resources and give constructive feedback. And always stay humble -- you never know where the next opportunity will come from.[bctt tweet="The startup community is about paying it forward @willthefrench http://goo.gl/i7yhMk"]