The 5 traits you need to thrive in a startup

Hawk flying

It’s no longer a given that the talented students from across disciplines – especially business – end up working in corporate world or government institutions. The generation stepping into the work force today often demand a profoundly different level of impact, responsibility and flexibility not possible to attain in many traditional enterprises. This evolution has sparked a massive interest in working for a startup, where nothing is certain but everything is possible.

Yet something not often discussed, is that the skills required to succeed in a startup are different to the ones you embrace in the corporate ladder. Certainly, the core principals such as providing value and helping others will work regardless of the environment, but I believe there are five distinguishable traits that you need to fly in a startup environment. If you do not possess these, you might find that the entrepreneurial environment isn’t for you – at least in it’s early stages.

1) Multidisciplinary skills

In a startup it’s very unlikely that you’re hired for a particular speciality area and you’ll focus on that every single day. More often that not, marketers are also placed in sales, back-end coders to do front-end work, and UX designers to draw the new logo. To really thrive in this environment, you’ll have to be a jack of all trades to a some degree. Nobody’s in a silo minding their own business, and you need to understand what other’s are doing in order to build into the same vision.

The good news is that today’s interconnected world is full of opportunities to pick new skills. Online learning centres such as Udemy contain a course on every aspect of human life from baking cakes to 3D modeling. Besides being fun, by learning a skill you also increase your value. In the end, the important part is being curious and ready to acquire new skills when need arises.

2) Heroic self discipline

When you lack the corporate systems to monitor your activities, the only monitor left is yourself. On a daily basis you have to make sure to focus relentlessly on the task at hand without wavering attention. We all know how easy it is to check the latest news on the plane crash, see if somebody’s posted any good cat photos on Facebook, or plunge into a conversation with a friend on WhatsApp.

A powerful force behind self discipline is motivation. If you feel like you’re working for something important and your work has a positive impact on people’s life, you’re less likely to put it off. Motivation can also be fuelled by the desire to succeed, please others, win against the competition, or a plethora of other reasons that drive us to go the extra mile. However, sometimes our tasks seems so daunting that even the best motivation is flooded by dread or uncertainty where to start. That’s why it often takes massive self discipline to take the first step even when we’re not able to see the other end of the stairs.

If willpower is not your cup of tea, don’t be discouraged. Recent studies have found that willpower is actually like a muscle. The more you train it, the better it becomes. Similarly, willpower can be depleted during a day and requires time for recovery. To further motivate us on this path, studies have also found that self discipline is the number one success factor determining future success of high school students – not IQ, wealth, or social prowess. The best way to improve the mind muscles is action in small steps. Instead of trying to take on a marathon, walk around the block. Then run for 5 minutes without pauses. Don’t focus on how much is yet to do. Appreciate how much is completed and how you’ve grown in the process.

3) Tolerance for ambiguity

There’s a great quote: “When nothing is sure, everything is possible” illustrating the endless possibilities in an early stage company. But there’s another side to the coin – failure. Indeed, statistically more than nine out of ten new companies fail and even a later stage startup is usually a much more risky choice of an employer than a larger firm with a track record of several decades.

How do YOU tolerate uncertainty? If you get sleepless nights from college exams or generally avoid risking anything, it’s very possible you should seriously reconsider working in a startup. It’s going to be a true roller coaster and the ride will be scary at times. The carriage may drop off with too much speed, the brakes might not work because of wrong tools, or the structure collapse like the 2008 economy.

4) Uncomfortable creativity

In a corporate environment there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Most problems you encounter have been already solved at some point and there are enough resources to take the traditional routes. There are systems in place and expertise in house. On the other hand in new companies with very scarce capabilities and thousand new challenges arising every day, a great startup employer needs to put forth new ideas to solve problems and utilise the resources to maximum output. This is where creativity comes in.

In the words of management guru Alf Rehn, creativity is not a pink, fluffy thing to embrace on every turn. Just the opposite is often true. It is messy, destructive by nature and often leads to conflict of interests. The most creative people are often the hardest ones to lead and manage. In addition, some of the best sources for true creativity are feelings like disgust and discomfort, where we’re taken away from the safety of how things have alway been.

“Transformation is difficult in the beginning, messy in the middle. And beautiful at the end.”
― R. Sharma.

By definition a startup is an organisation searching for the business model capable of scaling, so drastic innovation and elasticity are at the core of creating something successful out of nothing. Iterations and pivots are a result of listening to customer feedback and coming up with new answers and routes. The secret is tapping the source without drowning into the pool of chaos.

5) Endless Hunger

Working for the pay-check, doing the 9-to-5, and dreading the Monday’s are not part of startup vocabulary. This doesn’t mean that you have to throw work-life balance out of the window or that you shouldn’t enjoy weekends. Instead, it means that the reason for coming to work must be found way beyond the salary or social status. In a perfect world, we’d connect with the company mission so much that it would feed our hunger to succeed and help the startup reach the vision in the process. We’d be driven to find better ways of doing things and work our ass off to get where we need to go.

Sometimes you’ll find yourself in a situation where the mission and the values of the company don’t exactly correspond to your own and aren’t enough to draw out your passion. In these moments it’s good to evaluate if you really want to continue putting your heart and energy into something you don’t care about. If you manage to find the value but not inspiration from your environment, then the hunger to succeed must come from inside. Personally, I’ve found that the thirst for growth both on a personal and the company level gets me moving into the right direction. In your case the source might be pure ambition, craving excitement, making a dent in the world or something else, but you’ll need to find an internal fire to push you through the inevitable challenges, constant distractions, and eternal mediocrity.

Embrace these five traits, develop them, push you you limits, and you’ll find yourself capable of flying gracefully like an eagle wherever you decide to go and spread your wings.

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”
J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

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