Joining hypergrowth startups 😬

Jun 21, 2021 · 8 min read · 15,612 views

I am writing this for a friend joining an early-stage breakout startup (year 2; $200M+ valuation). I wrote it as bullet points as it was meant to have an audience of one. He suggested that I share it here as well so that it is more widely available.

About this format: Normally, people write multiple paragraphs with stories and repeating examples to drive home “a point”. In contrast, the format of this blog post is a bit more “raw”. So please feedback me and let me know what you think.

Disclaimer: The advice is meant for anyone joining the early stages of a hypergrowth team (15-150 people; multiplying in revenue, investments and/or headcount). Usually in the first 1-3 years of a startup. Most of the advice I would not give in larger, more established teams. I also did not try to sugarcoat nor glorify things. It’s just a download of my “recommendations” i would give in a 1on1 discussion.

Who am I

As always: Everything is IMHO & YMMV. 🙏

My advice to people joining hypergrowth startups

Your mindset

Say; Do

  • people rely on you; don’t drop; don’t backtrack
  • before you make promises take time to think about stuff if needed
  • speak up if there is an issue

Don’t think in “roles”; but understand problems and apply skills

  • be the person everyone wants to ask to fix something
    • go in; fix/create/setup/improve; hire someone better; move to next
    • first in a weekly rhythm; then monthly; then quarterly; then yearly
  • Example: In my first startup, the job title on my business card was “CWTFO” because my job was to establish or fix areas of the company.
    • In reality, every job in a fast-growing company is – with different degrees of variance – a CWTFO role.

Everyone is in every role interim

  • the best early people will have ten defacto roles in 2 years
    • sometimes titles will sound lower; don’t worry
    • hire better people than yourself; find something else you are impactful in
  • Example: Leaders should avoid throwing around titles but instead use comma titles
    • Instead of “Head of XYZ” – do “Operations Lead, XYZ”

Solve problems

You are hired to fix problems; not to point them out

  • most problems your company faces are not hard
    • there are just lots of them
  • you are not hired to point them out but to solve them

A half-fixed problem is a not-fixed problem

  • it’s easy to implement the 20% of the solution
    • don’t drop stuff there
  • make sure stuff gets adequately finished either by you or someone else
    • it’s done when it’s solved
  • Example: I frequently worked with people who were good at spotting problems, coming up with a solution, but then not pulling through.
    • You can barely reuse a 20% approach if the originator isn’t leading it. You start from scratch
    • Nobody is hired to “point out obvious solutions” - most problems we face are not that hard - just too many.

Have default solutions

  • have a solution for every problem you bring
    • don’t hand over problems upwards
  • bring solutions you want feedback on

Stress and Chaos

Stuff is stressful

  • but remember
    • stress is you losing control; not you working too much
    • you can burn out, barely working at all
  • being overwhelmed is ok; temporary; if you can stay in control
  • Example: managers frequently burn out people by letting them face the consequence of rapid changes without shared control over reasoning nor impact on them
  • Example: when you feel stressed:
    • regain overview/control
    • or decrease boundaries of authority/responsibility

Build order and structures

  • early stage can be chaos
    • bring process and structure
    • just as much as needed; not much more
    • improve as it’s needed later
  • Example: Processes are not chains of bureaucracy.
    • They are expectations made explicit. It can be 1-step actions.
    • Processes allow you to scale as you don’t need to discuss continuously one-offs.

Stuff is urgent, important, critical, stressful

  • know the differences and how/when to handle differently

stuff will go wrong; that’s normal

  • risk mitigation is important
    • have paths to fix things
    • move forward
  • compare the cost of waiting
    • to how much better
    • or less risky
    • the future solution most likely will be.
  • Example: Can you revert your change? Can you avoid brand damage if it goes wrong? Is the potential damage manageable?
    • If yes: move forward

Your goal is not to work “a lot” but fast & effective

  • extra work time won’t compensate for you not scaling yourself

Find ways to recharge

  • family, sport, hobbies, passions
    • whatever works for you
  • actively make time for those
    • fast-growing work and related problems will otherwise use up every crank of time you have
    • establish boundaries

Scale your work

Never wait; never get stuck

  • switch quickly between issues if stuff is stuck
    • make sure balls don’t get dropped
  • never “wait”
    • consider if you can do a good-enough solution by yourself
    • consider what alternative thing is most impactful instead

Get autonomy through transparency

  • be publicly transparent in what you will do
    • docs, posts, tasks, etc
  • to make sure people don’t need to feel they need to check-in
    • it creates trust; this creates autonomy

Acknowledge sync; solve async

  • people are nervous
  • acknowledge stuff asap; even on the weekend (early on)
  • do it async whenever you can fit it in unless urgent

Scale yourself

  • automate
  • hire
  • empower

Your Team

If you lead teams

  • hand problems downwards in your team to share authority
    • but you are responsible
  • every success is the success of people in the team
    • every fail yours
  • treat people like adults
    • give them information
    • trust them to make decisions
    • trust them even if you feel they make mistakes
  • ensure people have a fair setup
    • keep information and power differences in mind
  • [Sidenote: Management advice will be a separate blogpost]

Hypergrowth teams compensate half-done products with effort

  • no balls dropped when it comes to customers
  • extra effort whenever possible
  • early on, that’s required
    • later on, you want to establish process, automation, and solutions to avoid those one-offs

Differ between frustration with a situation and a person

  • treat those separate
  • by default, you are frustrated with the situation even if it doesn’t feel like it
    • typical exception: situations that happen repetitively

Your coworkers are not your therapists

  • never load your stress on “people below you”
  • avoid loading stress/frustration to people “beside” or “above you”
  • telling/sharing is ok
    • but “handing over to solve” is typically useless
      • they don’t have the time nor competence
      • most likely, they just end up frustrated too
      • most likely, they do this the first time too
    • if you share also have a default solution to avoid “passing the burden”
  • get a coach

Your career

Do a tour of duty

  • you won’t be there forever
    • people who fit in well early don’t fit well later unless they level up a lot into top management (most don’t)
    • most founders don’t want to work for large bureaucratic companies
    • so they “instead” end up creating large bureaucratic companies by themselves
    • but it’s a large company they have power in and can stay longer term
    • other early people not necessarily
  • plan 1-3 years of a strong learning experience

Optimize for equity

  • not because it’s worth more
    • that too
    • but because its easier to get a salary boost later on
    • equity increases are hard as the company valuation increases
  • Disclaimer: This is only true for early-stage companies

Have fun

  • don’t take yourself or anything else too serious
  • never sacrifice long-term health
  • never sacrifice family-time
    • you can’t get back, neither

I hope this is useful to others as well

✌️ Andreas