From Big Tech to Startup: Adding Value From Day 1
19 January, 2022
Differences Between Major Tech Companies and Startups
Recently I transitioned from a large tech company to a small startup. This was my first opportunity working at a startup in my career after working for big tech companies for ten years.
The main problem I faced when transitioning was that many of the rules and structures that major tech companies put in place don’t apply to startups. While both types of companies work towards a vision, priorities may change much faster in startups, and you have to be more flexible. Especially in the period between creation and finding Product/Market fit, when you may need to pivot aggressively a few times. Due to that uncertainty, I found that when I joined I had to define certain priorities from scratch, and build processes to put a sense of structure in place.
Another challenge I encountered was wearing multiple hats and making room for tasks that weren’t my responsibility in a large tech company. These tasks included creating a hiring process, building the data infrastructure, and having to coordinate user research end-to-end.
Lastly, I needed to change my mindset from being mainly data-driven to insights-driven. Thanks to the large customer volumes, in my previous roles I was always able to develop a very data-driven culture, quickly testing and measuring hypotheses and every single change we made in the product. In my new setup, I would need to wait for weeks to obtain meaningful volumes of data, or even months to achieve statistical significance in A/B tests. This made me rely on much more qualitative research and ultimately made me invest much more time in talking directly to customers (which is good!).
How to Adjust to the Startup Culture
Add Value From Day 1:
The largest difference that I noticed between working at a startup and a well-established company was that the startup felt like a race against the clock. There was no onboarding process or planning stage. Simply from day one, you are expected to be delivering and adding value to the team. In a large organization, you normally have a period ranging between 30 to 90 days to get onboarded and up to speed. In the startup I had to pre-board myself, investing time before I officially joined in observing, learning about the landscape, meeting the team, and testing the product, so I could start delivering value from the very first day.
I created my own pre-boarding document based on the method described in the book “The First 90 Days” by Michael D. Watkins. The document and process helped me to apprehend the needs, health, and mission of the organization before I even started.
Start to Develop Processes:
In terms of developing processes, my method was that if I did a task more than twice, I developed a process for the future. I did not create too many processes - a startup still needs to be agile and change priorities quickly. Specifically, when I created processes, I found that it added structure for my team and sped up the task in the future. Processes are important as long as they help to work more effectively, but do not add rigidity so they block creativity and spontaneity.
Leverage Your Network:
Coming from a big tech company, I had a large network of coworkers and managers that I connected with to help me and my team. I used my network to help mentor, research, and teach my engineers and designers technical skills. Bringing outside knowledge uplifted my team and helped them gain new perspectives from within the industry.
The Value of Third-Parties:
When I started working at the startup, it was vital to decide what processes could be outsourced and what needed to be done in-house. As a rule of thumb, anything non-core for the business can be outsourced. Investing time and resources in something not directly driving business results means burning time and money, both scarce in a startup.
The same applies for basic UX decisions. It’s important not to waste time on basic questions that may have been tested and validated elsewhere. We may not have time to develop our own knowledge on user experience around microinteractions that are not part of the core customer journey. Other companies may have a similar user experience, and we could learn from that. It is important that we keep our resources focused on developing knowledge on what gives us competitive advantage, on what makes us different. Anything else can be a distraction. This is very different from large organizations that tend to have resources to optimize the tiniest element of their user experience.
Being Successful in a Startup
Finally, two other lessons that can apply to both large companies and startups, but that I found especially valuable in a small setup context:
- Be careful not to recommend major changes while you are still new to a startup. By doing so, you will create major resistance, especially when the founders are still very invested in the current direction of the product. Use data and insights to prove your points, recommend that change is the better option and minimize resistance.
- Focus on team relations to impact delivery. In startups, priorities change fast, and as a manager, you need to keep the team aligned with the vision. To increase the motivation with many changes in action, keep the team aligned towards a single vision, rather than around parts of the product or specific features
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