I’ve worked at two high growth startups over the last six years. I’ve done everything from affiliate marketing, business intelligence, paid media, lead generation, user on-boarding, and lifecycle email campaigns.
I was initially hired to do only one of those things, but as I was recognized for performing at a high level I was handed more responsibilities. Those lead to big promotions, raises, and equity grants.
I more than doubled my salary over that time. Come along as I share what worked for me on how to be a great start-up employee.
Master your tools
I was hiring for a junior position that required knowledge of Vlookups and Pivot Tables. The job posting specifically referenced those skills. I consider them basic excel skills and this candidate needed to know them well.
In my interview, I asked candidates to do a Vlookup for me. I wrote out a prompt and provided them a sample data set. Despite all of them saying they could do a Vlookup, everyone failed except for one person.
Those who failed didn’t get the job. The one who passed got an offer the next day.
Excel skills weren’t the only requirement for the job, but saying you know a skill when you don’t is a red flag. I don’t want that kind of person working for me.
Don’t lie on your resume. If you get asked to prove it and fail then you’ve just ruined your chance at landing the job.
If you spend a lot of time in Excel, learn how to automate your common tasks with macros. Learn how to Vlookup by heart, and better yet, learn how to use Index/Match instead, since it’s more flexible and faster.
If your company uses a CRM like Salesforce or Hubspot, master it. Become the go-to person to troubleshoot and fix issues. Get certified in your spare time.
Eventually, you’ll build up a reputation as the Excel-person, or the Salesforce-guru. If that person already exists at your company then start learning from them too.
Once you master one tool, move onto the next one. You’re learning how to master software, the specific tools don’t matter as much as your ability to quickly pick up and become an expert in whatever tools your company uses.
Becoming a master learner is an invaluable skill at any company, especially a start-up.
Always raise your hand
Start-ups move quickly. Goals typically aren’t set more than 6 months away if you’re growing fast because priorities change all the time. You have to learn to be nimble and embrace the idea of wearing multiple hats.
Often the job you’re hired to do evolves as you take on additional work. If there’s a new project coming up, volunteer to work on it. Contribute to areas outside of your main responsibilities.
Once you get faster at completing your daily tasks, ask your boss what else you can help with. I guarantee they have a massive to-do list that never seems to get smaller. By taking things off their plate you free up their time and also get more exposure to the business.
But you have to complete the tasks you take off their plate. Don’t volunteer for more work and then fail to deliver. That’s a sure-fire way to get the wrong kind of recognition.
Be the person who gets shit done. There’s always room for that kind of person, and often they’re the ones who get promoted faster.
Volunteer for more work. You’ll be rewarded for it.
Take time off
I know this is a weird one. The key to being a great start-up employee is to take a vacation?
Not everyone is cut out to work at a start-up. It demands a lot from you. I watched many co-workers burn out as they worked overtime for months on end.
You need to know when to step back and take a break. Many start-ups offer unlimited vacation policy, which unfortunately is just an excuse not to offer a defined amount of PTO each year. Employees with a “use it or lose it” PTO policy often end up taking the full amount of time off, whereas employees with “unlimited PTO” take less time off. On paper, less time off equals more work done for the company.
Don’t be that person who takes pride in how little PTO they take. I’ve known people like that, and they burn out fast.
Take a long weekend every once in a while. Take a week off in the middle of the year.
It’s important to recharge your batteries because there’s always more work to do. It never stops. But you’re only human, and there’s only so much you can do before you crumble under the mountain of work.
Your company will figure out how to operate while you’re on vacation. They existed before you were hired, and they’ll continue to exist after you leave.
Before you leave for vacation, spend time documenting your tasks. An easy way to do that is to track your time every day for a week. Start by writing out what you’re working on each day. Who do you interact with? If something breaks, who’s the first person you go to to help fix it? Are there any important vendors or contacts you email with often?
Write everything down, organize it, then share it with your boss. Walk them through it and see if they have any questions.
This shows that you’re detail-oriented and don’t want anything to slip even while you’re on vacation.
This will also be helpful if you’re ever promoted and need to backfill your role. You’ll already have a list of tasks and responsibilities, which you can send to HR to build a good candidate profile.
Easier said than done.
If you take the time to master the tools necessary for your job, volunteer for more work, and take time off when appropriate, then you’re on the right path to not sucking.
At the end of the day, you need to add value to the company. Those who add the most value get recognized, promoted, and grow their careers faster.
Those who suck, don’t.