Why Startup Experience is So Important….at a Startup

Hiring early employees with successful startup experience is exceptionally valuable — something I didn’t recognize the importance of until years into my journey as CEO. The startup doesn’t necessarily need to have become a monster, but the candidate needs to have thrived in that startup-like environment. Why? 

First- Employees with startup experience usually understand, and sometimes even appreciate, the rollercoaster. 

Startups are stressful, they are lonely, they are exhilarating, they are beautiful, they are creation and destruction and pivoting daily. At our company we had a running joke that “startups are French for ‘chang’”.  It was a silly joke but it was meant to remind teammates that change is constant at a startup. Startups are “like eating glass every day” (Elon Musk). They are 100 simultaneous fires with only time to put out 3. Startups are constant adrenaline, which leads to stress without the visibility of when that stress will end, which helps lead to depression. Startups are writing a roadmap for something that’s never been built — having no idea if it will work and trying to convince the world it will. 

For me an exacerbating issue — something that accelerated pain and loneliness — was when I not only had to manage the ups and downs of a startup, but also had to explain that they were normal to teammates with no startup experience. Particularly senior execs. Amid all the chaos and emotional pain, I hated having to explain that the world wasn’t going to crash just because a specific investor said no. Or that we weren’t going to collapse just because our VP of Product left or we lost a key hire to Uber. People that have worked at startups, *regardless* of success, understand the rollercoaster. They get it. They can be a listening ear for an employee who doesn’t have similar experience, and more importantly they can credibly talk about why the team shouldn’t worry. “I’ve seen this before, it’s ok,” is an incredibly calming thing for inexperienced colleagues to hear. Particularly when it doesn’t come from the CEO in the form of a rah-rah speech. A relatable peer can offer comfort teammates in ways a CEO sometimes can’t (though a CEO certainly has some comforting responsibilities). The presence of people with solid startup experience helps prevent emotional spin and limits unnecessary meetings to discuss problems with direct solutions. 

Second- Those with startup experience have already elected into the unique opportunities and limitations of working at a startup. They have some idea of what they’re getting into when they join. They understand the importance of building something bigger than themselves. They have been in environments where they, hopefully successfully, had to roll up their sleeves and not worry about a job description. They know they won’t get all of the resources they want, and for many that is actually exhilarating, not depressing. They are risk-taking, and they know that can come with big rewards or not work out. That repeat startup teammate often sees the opportunity to take on more responsibility at a startup, and takes great pride in that. They understand how to add value (and move up) at a startup. 

I am reminded of a few teammates that joined CircleUp over the years that didn’t have true startup experience (and many that did). By startup experience I don’t mean Uber a year before IPO. I mean sub-200 person, probably hasn’t found complete product/market fit, ‘there are a lot of things not on rails’, startup experience. Some were phenomenal and adopted quickly. Some, typically in the first 10 days, very quickly showed signs that they weren’t startup material. In those instances, every disappointment or rollercoaster was met with resistance, questioning and whispering. Each revision of the product roadmap was met with complaints about “changes”. Their concern, often outwardly expressed, typically led others to show more concern. It required meetings and sometimes even needed to be addressed at all-hands. It caused a lot of pain for very little upside. Those employees never lasted 12 months. 

The hiring traits that matter to me are integrity, work ethic, intelligence, pride and teamwork. I tend to prioritize intelligence over experience. But when I’m looking at early employees, having those that are familiar with startups helps erase a lot of pain.