Want to work for a startup? Stop being a prima donna.
Having worked for big corporate brand names, dealing with multiple stakeholders and board room presentations, it was a refreshing change to join a startup (a corporate backed venture). To prepare for the role, I talked to friends in the startup community, reached out to best selling author Sean Ellis of Hacking Growth to understand marketing in the startup. I enrolled in SCRUM courses to understand the agile methodology – a work flow that is common in startup and eight months before I actually connected with Jin King Moller, from the SMU Academy, who introduced me to the world of Design Thinking. This was a game changer for me as it changed how I solve business problems by thinking of customer needs first.
So by the time I joined the start up, I was under no illusion what’s like working in one. I was ready to roll up my sleeves. And boy I did. It was more than I expected and I was in for a ride!
The List would go on. That’s the best time for me to up skill, cross skill and deep skill. And in the process, I developed the learning agility that I know will take me far in my career.
The following sums up my adventure and I would do it all over again, this time hopefully with a product that is all ready to scale.
(1) Roll up My sleeves
If you are planning to join a startup, be prepared to roll up your sleeves. Even a well-funded corporate backed venture can pull off the plug if you cannot demonstrate progress. Be prepared to draft the own press release, build the own google campaigns, understand technology and regulations. If you don’t know how to do it, learn!
Mr Google is always there for you and technology has brought people closer, connect with them and ask for advice. If I can reach out to one of American’s best selling author on Growth hacking, you can too.
(2) Accelerated Cross-skilling
The beauty of rolling up my sleeves is I get paid to accelerate my cross skilling. Over a few months, I researched on the technology tools required to measure marketing performance, meet with the vendors, evaluated them along with my engineering team. Almost overnight, I have had to learn about Martech, Power BI. On top of that being part of a Global Financial Institute, I have to understand bank compliances and regulations to draft the marketing policies that adhere to PDPA and MAS regulations.
Learning skills from domains other than their core, to perform beyond existing responsibilities is termed as cross-skilling. Employees should be able to work on multiple technologies rather than having mastery over just one technology to do justice to the evolving job roles.
Cross-skilling helps me gain a better understanding of the process from start to finish.
(3) Intentional Up skilling & Deep Skilling
I had to intentionally up skill and deep skill. At the start, I requested to be sent for Human Centred Design (HCD) Thinking Practitioner Certification, because I know I will get to practice it. Good tools I used to conduct usability tests for the products “Think Aloud” test. There were also tools I used to facilitate brainstorming workshop with strategic partners, drawing out new ideas.
I deepened my coaching skills with team coaching skills when the bank subsidizes up skilling for internal coaches. That was especially helpful when we had circuit breakers because I used the tools to help build better team relationships and the team charter. Definitely very relevant post pandemic.
To prepare to move the product from 1 to 10, I made sure I deepened my knowledge in Growth by joining the Reforge Community to learn from fellow practitioners from Dropbox, Twitter, Uber, Coursera etc how they scale the business effectively. That’s where I got introduced to different ways to build growth loops, how I can monentise the products and increase their lifetime value.
While cross skilling is the spreading one’s skillset breadth wise, deep skilling is going in deep. Getting hands-on experience in technology while solving real-world problems under the guidance of industry experts has been the standard way of learning. A thorough expert means a project well taken care of. Experts in your core competency is seen as an asset to organizations.
Because of my depth of experience, I have been invited to teach part time at a local university on digital and social media marketing. Continuous learning is important, most important enjoy the process and pay it forward.
The best teacher in life is experience.
(4) Be Very Thick-skinned
Working for a start up will build up you resilience and ability to take rejections. Of course being backed by a Global Bank has its advantage to help open doors. But when you don’t have a ready product, doors gets slammed at you pretty hard. And worst still if there is no progress six months later. And of course this is the time to know who your “real” partners are. Those who truly believe in your mission will stick around for a while longer. While others politely decline and say come back when you are ready. In a startup, we have to approach our partners in good faith and ensure we deliver on our commitment.
(5) Experiment and Pivot
Working in a start up has taught me one thing. Every idea is a hypothesis unless proven otherwise. We made many assumptions at the beginning but thanks to my “mentor” Sean Ellis, I set up the rigour of experiments which eventually gave us reasons to pivot. It also given us real insights on which channels work best and allow me to make informed decisions to scale (when the product is ready). This is an important strategy to de-risk the business – what the investors are looking for when you ask for more funding.
The same technique can be applied in how we navigate our own career too. Another word for it is “low cost probe”. Take lower risk to “test the water” before you take a plunge.
“Failure and invention are inseparable twins. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.” – Jeff Bezos
While I develop marketing strategy in more established organisations, working in a startup at the initial phase where everything is ambiguous, the best marketing strategy is to develop a experimentation approach.
(6) Building The Team From Scratch and Develop Inhouse Competency
This is probably the most difficult part. Most people I interviewed while excited to join a fintech they lack the right mindset. One senior executive I interviewed who was a Director of a Global Bank insisted there is no such measurements as Customer Acquisition Cost (only CPA – cost per acquisition), Conversion Rate refers to website conversion from leads to customer. Not entirely wrong but I thought the person coming to join a startup should have an open mind about the metrics in a start up.
I had to pace my recruitment to make sure that it is align with the product delivery. My first hire was a performance marketer from a media agency because I know we need to build in house competency. My next hire was a content marketer and product marketing person. They are all younger than me yet still very traditional in their thinking. A lot of un learn and re learning. It took me 3 to 4 months to shift my team’s mindset that in a startup where the product roadmap is shifting (pretty common for a Series A funded startup), there is no point in putting together a 12 month marketing plan. I know we do that in big organisations, but this is a startup. We have to be very agile in our marketing plan.
In a startup, it is irresponsible is to have a senior executive come in with an organisation structure and empire of team she or he wants to build, with no regards to the burn rate and the phase of the development and no clear understanding of the business strategy. Because when things are not going well, redundancies happen. In a startup, low morale is infectious. So build the team responsibly and always align the talent strategy with the business strategy.
(7) Put on a consulting hat
Ambiguity is the norm for startups. More than just rolling up your sleeves, you need to put on a consulting hat and ask sharp questions. Here’s where I apply my coaching skills. Understanding the problems to be solved, uncovering the “jobs to be done” by the consumer, developing hypothesis and testing them are all part and parcel of my job. The whole process is iterative. In a startup, every idea is a hypothesis until the data tells us otherwise.
Ambiguity and conflicts are the norm for startups. We have to embrace them and learn to ask questions when in doubt.
I have long stopped pursuing climbing the corporate ladder. Winning the rat race is still going to make me a rat.
My focus is continually learn and enjoy every adventure I am in. I decided to take a break because I felt I couldn’t value add when the product is no longer progressing. I wasn’t going to wait around. I create my own path. Now taking a break to share my experience of how I have reinvented myself for the future of work and yes, launching my book in NFT. I am not sure if this will work out. But I will experiment. Web3 is fuelling a new content creator economy.
On hindsight, I was really bold to pivot from traditional banks to a startup. I never knew I could do so much, because I used to call the shots.
“Success today requires the agility and drive to constantly rethink, reinvigorate, react, and reinvent.” ~ Bill Gates
Excited about the possibilities ahead and looking forward to joining an organisation with a product to scale.
About the Author
I am a growth catalyst and insights driven marketer with more than 20 years experience across top banks, telco and startups. A certified practitioner in Human Centred Design Thinking, I thrive in helping organisations solve problems, connect the dots to make things happen. With my depth of marketing experience, I pay it forward through adjunct lecturing at a local university.
I am also an ICF Certified Executive Coach (ACC) with more than 200 hours of coaching experience, and still sharpening my craft. I give back to the community through mentoring – I am a mentor to undergraduates at social initiative such as MentorsHub. And if time permits, I also mentor start up to help them identify strategic blindspots and create their value proposition.
Yes, I am a hybrid professional. The Future of Work.