The hidden story of growth at startups

Why would anyone join an early-stage company? Equity, excitement, "changing the world"? For me, it's about one word: growth. The kind that's rarely mentioned. When people talk about growth in startups, they often mean growth in revenue and headcount. But let's talk about a type of growth that's not discussed: your own.

I was the first employee at a tech startup and wore half a dozen different roles. I've been part of one to one fifty-person startup growth and from five hundred to one thousand-person scale-up growth. I'm grateful for how much I've learnt from these experiences.

And I get to work with founders and tech leaders at various stages of their journey. One recurring theme is just how much growth individuals in these companies experience.

So, here are a few things I've learnt about growing oneself in early-stage companies — what to expect, what challenges to look out for, and when enough is enough.

Outsized opportunities for growth

One of the best reasons to join an early-stage, fast-growing company is for growth. If the company's growing, so will you.

Young companies have loosely defined roles and teams too small for specialists. These companies optimise for generalists. If you stay long enough, you'll gain a greater breadth of experience than you would elsewhere. Early in my startup career, I worked on everything from AWS and authentication to responsive web design. And that was just the software engineering half. I also met with clients, recorded how-to screencasts, created slide desks, and pitched to investors. Hardly the standard job description of a software engineer, but that didn't matter.

Each day in an early-stage company will be different from the last. If nothing else, you'll learn how to adapt. When your team grows from three people to ten people, your previously working systems will be incompatible with the new reality. When your business model isn't working, you pivot. You hold on loosely to ideas and always seek the way that works right now.

You are responsible for your own learning

Startups can be a great place for learning, but the opportunities won't come handed to you.

Your leaders aren't often equipped to train you. It's rare to find veteran managers at a startup. More likely to manage you are founders or first-time managers. Founding a company doesn't equip you to be a leader, and it sure doesn't come bundled with management skills. Who can prioritise employee growth when the existential question of product-market fit is still unanswered? And as the company grows, it needs managers. Many first-time managers were promoted because they were strong individual contributors. This is a poor predictor of good management ability. Overall, your growth will be up to you.

L&D is only a priority if you make it a priority. It's easy to get caught up in the moment at a startup. You are constantly fighting fires and doing what needs to be done. As I've written, you'll learn a lot along the way. But you might not be growing in the ways you want. Rarely will someone else be looking out for your personal and professional growth. Pause to reflect on what's important to you, and whether you're getting it. Outside mentoring and coaching can help you get the growth you need.

At some point, it will be time to go

When you're in the middle of your startup journey, it can be hard to imagine anything but that experience. Yet at some point, it will be time to move on.

The startup I joined years ago no longer exists. There's still a company bearing its name, and many of the people I knew still work there. But I can't go back to the company I first joined. What you joined a company for might no longer be there several years later. At each stage of growth, a company takes on a new shape. And that shape might not be right for you.

Just as all companies change, so do you. At some point, your futures might diverge. Your career aspirations might require you to build your skills elsewhere. Or you might discover a new mission. Or you may need more stability to support a family. Whatever the reason, it's okay to move on.

If you join an early-stage company, learn everything you can from the experience. But remember that you might find your next level of mentors, leaders, and coaches elsewhere. Keep looking for ways to grow.

© Braden Moore.RSS