Most young people working at a startup have aspirations of starting their own company some day. If you’re in this camp, I think its important to aspire to more than just being a great employee. Your tenure working for someone else is an awesome time to also familiarize yourself with the unique challenges of starting and executing on something. Gaining insight into what it’s actually like will better prepare you for the day you ultimately go out on your own.
As an employee you often have the luxury of:
⁃ Structure: your work starts and ends at a certain time at a designated place
⁃ Direction: an understanding of what you’re to accomplish and how to do that
⁃ Goals: some measurement of success to calibrate your performance with
⁃ Built in Accountability: goals, teammates, and a desire to keep your job keep you accountable to performing at a high level
⁃ A Warm Start/Momentum: you’re working off something vs. a cold start
⁃ Support: there are people there to give you guidance and assistance
⁃ Safety in Numbers: if you don’t bring you a game, hopefully your company is still going to push the needle forward today
When you go to start something you typically don’t have any of this. You need to create it. This can be extremely daunting at first which is precisely why you should not wait until you go off to start your first company to familiarize yourself with this scenario and the feelings that accompany it. A great way to accomplish this is by executing on side projects. Don’t worry non-coders, this is not limited to building your own web-app. Side projects can be all sorts of things. The important thing is that you familiarize yourself with what it’s really like “starting something” and finish once you’ve started.
Examples of side projects you could start:
⁃ A meetup
⁃ An event
⁃ An app
⁃ A blog
⁃ A painting
⁃ A book
⁃ A community
⁃ A non-profit group
The first side project of mine was an event I put together with my friend Matt Shampine called “Startup Breakfast.” We’d get together 8 different people every other week working on different things to collectively talk through each other’s greatest challenges. It was more or less a peer mentorship/networking group. It was awesome.
I had the idea a couple of months after I started working for my first startup. I wanted to meet more people and hated having to wait for events at night to do this. Aha!
From an execution standpoint, I had to send 7 emails twice a month, buy bagels, and wake up 45 minutes earlier than I normally would. The fact that I wasn’t reinventing the wheel here didn’t matter. I was damn proud of my little breakfast and it felt amazing to call something my own. Though I did a pretty crappy job of keeping this going after a few times, I learned a lot about taking the initiative to start something and in retrospect finishing it. Specifically I learned that when starting something:
- The needle doesn’t move unless you move it
- Creating your own gameplan is more challenging than following directions
- It’s easier to execute on something with an accountability partner
- Creating something from scratch is tough, but very rewarding
In addition to my learning, this was a great experience because it gave me the confidence to spearhead more ambitious side projects. My hope is that the more challenging each project is, the better off I’ll be next time I go off to start a company.
For young people content with their job situation, doing an excellent job for your employer should always be numero uno. But if you’re a budding founder, don’t stop there. Put yourself in a better position to succeed when you’re number is called by getting acquainted with what its really like to start something. It will serve you well.