Joining a startup comes with risk.
The company might not exist in a year let alone in 6 weeks. But you know what you’re doing is going to be cool, even if you don’t know exactly what it is that you’re going to be doing. You’ll have the glamour of flexible work hours, energy drinks in the fridge, and a great team environment with an enjoyably low amount of hierarchy. As a new employee, these are all compelling perks. They make the risk worth it.
Once you reach a year in, you’ve learned more than most people will learn in three or four years in more traditional positions. You’ve probably had some new people join your team, and reached a point that you’ve started to identify what we like to call “opportunities for growth” — for both yourself and the company.
At a larger company, this would be a time to seek out growth through a promotion or formalized additional duties. But at a young startup, often the roles to grow into are not predefined. When you’re ready to move up in a small team, how do you create a job that doesn’t exist yet?
Let’s take a look at how to navigate when you’re ready for change:
1. Define how your desire to grow lines up with an area for improvement on the team.
Once you’ve seen the area of improvement, it’s hard to unsee it. Don’t be the person that says nothing or just complains — that person won’t work at your company in another 6 months. They’ll stew and stew, become resentful, and then they’ll bail, poisoning the whole team on the way out.
Be the person that identifies a problem and takes ownership for the solution.
When it comes to your team, do you see, deadlines slipping, people focusing on the wrong work, or spending too much time on small features, decorations or bonus content rather than overcoming real roadblocks? Be the person that creates a project management process and talks about it with the team to build buy-in, helping people see how great it is for life to be less chaotic.
When it comes to product, do you see that it’s time for a product facelift, know that no one is really owning that, and have a big personal goal to develop your UI/UX skills? Be the person that does the research and asks for the opportunity to take a course or attend a conference that will help you grow these skills. Bonus points if you have the pros and cons prepped, bring the budget ask to the table and have a plan for how this will impact your work and accelerate product development.
Whatever the situation, think about how you can position the team for growth, while taking into consideration your own career goals, to make it a win-win.
For the Managers: When you have a small team, the organization tends to be naturally flat. People know what they need to work on and they get that done. When they need help, they just ask the person next to them. While this works early on when everyone is in the same room, it isn’t building good communication, collaboration, or ownership behaviours. Make the time to create a growth timeline for your team members. Take a look not just at the individual’s skills but how they line up with upcoming work or strategic goals for the company. See how you can align upcoming needs with skill areas and start scaffolding the experience for team members to grow into new roles before it’s crunch time.
2. Line yourself up for future opportunities by owning what you do.
You’ll often hear things from founders like “titles don’t matter” or “everyone is on the same team.” While this may be true inside the company, you’ve probably found yourself saying something like, “Well, my title is this, but I wear a lot of hats,” to someone outside the team.
“Wearing a lot of hats” doesn’t translate to, “This is what I know how to do and what I am held accountable for.” If we’re being honest, it translates to, “I am really hard-working, but we’re a small team and there’s just a lot to do and I’m doing whatever it takes to get things done!”
Being able to clearly communicate who you are and what your responsibilities are to the outside world is important. Whether that comes when networking to meet potential new hires, building relationships with customers, or planning your next career move to a new company, your job title is what you take with you. Make sure that it matches what you do today, not what you did when you started three years ago. If it still says “Software Developer” and now you’re leading a team of three and own responsibility for the delivery of a whole product, it’s time to get yourself an upgrade.
For the Managers: Out in the “real world,” title changes usually are connected to a compensation increase. In the startup world, we don’t always have that luxury, so we avoid giving out well-deserved promotions. What are the other things that the employee values? Some examples include an opportunity to go to a conference, more equity, or a happy hour that is all about celebrating them. Maybe it’s just the recognition and the title change itself. You’re good at making something out of nothing, so get creative with what you can pair with a title change, even if a salary increase is not an option.
3. Have the conversation with your manager or a team leader.
Be your own advocate. While “move fast and break things” is a well worn startup mantra, when it comes to people development, it most often translates to, “I don’t have time to think about that right now. If there’s an issue they’ll say something.” When everyone on the team — including your direct report or the CEO — is constantly stretching their own skills and resources, making time to strategically identify growth opportunities for team members often gets bumped to the bottom of the pile. That’s not because your professional development isn’t important or because you’re not valued, it’s because you are not on fire. Whatever is on fire goes to the top. Over and over again.
So instead, you have to be the person that asks for time. Not at an annual review, not once a quarter, but once a week. Keep lines of communication open about your goals. Own your skill gaps and articulate what you are doing so to achieve your professional development goals this quarter. Ask for help being held accountable. Doing so not only shows your commitment to the company, but demonstrates your maturity as a team member and leadership potential.
For the Managers: Hold 1-on-1s that are led by direct reports. Not by you. It’s not your time to deliver assignments; it’s their time to be heard and get your guidance on what is important to them. No one who reports to you should ever feel like you don’t have time for them. By creating protected time and giving them ownership over that time, you’ll never be blindsided, because you’ll have a real-time pulse on where their head is at.
No matter where you are in your startup journey, it never hurts to be thinking about what’s next for you. It’s not selfish; it’s strategic. It doesn’t mean you’re not committed; it means you want to be more. Being a constant advocate for your professional growth inside and outside of your company will not only make you a great team member, but it will help mitigate the risk of getting involved in a startup in the first place.