Startups 201 -- How Not To Crash and Burn In an Early Stage Company

06/03/2014 12:34 pm 12:34:14 | Updated Aug 03, 2014

We have all heard about or read about how cool it is to work at a start up company. Innovation, camaraderie, inventiveness, long hours developing new technologies or applying old ones to new products. But just being a part of a start up is not in and of itself "cool". It is the environment of a start up that creates the wow factor of the job. The idea that you hold such a large stake in the company's future, that everything you say, touch, or do is highly visible, for better or for worse. But many who have tried being at start up have crashed and burned horribly, leaving people wondering "how do you screw up at a start up company?"

There is a dynamic to start ups which is in some ways difficult to comprehend. It is a mix of personalities, varying ideas, and personal methods to name a few. Nothing remains still at a start up, or at least nothing should. Stasis at a start up equates to stagnation. Comfort zones do not belong at start ups, and have actually killed many of them. So how does one address these? With equal dynamism. This is where flexibility and creativity will save your skin.

Personalities can meld together, generating incredible innovation, or they can butt heads, creating a stalemate that eventually causes someone to quit or get fired.

Same goes for the myriad of ideas that come from team members, some more directed than others. Be creative in how to approach and leverage ideas before trying to shoot them out of the water.

Personal methods are an individuals "way" of doing things. Some people make a PBJ starting with the peanut butter, while others start with the jelly. In many cases, how you get something done doesn't matter, but in a start up, even the slightest variation can mean the difference between execution and failure, so methods should always be shared, discussed and agreed upon with all involved. No hiding your "secret soldering technique", or your dad's "special tool that nobody else has". Be creative in finding ways to combine people's methods into a "toolbox" for everyone to access.

The crash and burn in a start up comes when you find that you are unable to deal with all of the constant changes and varying personality traits. Start ups can be like living in a house with 20 kids, each one screaming and yelling, throwing things around, leaving lights on and doors open. It can and usually does feel hectic, unorganized, and hurried.

Let's remember, you only have a limited time and only so many dollars to work with, which in large part is the reason for all the chaos. But if you can learn to manage the stress and the constant changes and keep "riding the bull", a start up can become an "innovation engine" -- an existence that generates new ideas, and more importantly, creates solutions which ultimately ENABLE these ideas to become real products.

This is the difference between a big company and a start up. Big companies generate ideas, and spend time and money to turn those ideas into products. Start ups generate ideas, but leverage "idea solutions" instead of money to enable products to become real. This is the reason why start ups live or die by innovation and creativity -- they just don't have the luxuries of time and money on their side.

Finding balance in a start up requires creativity and the ability to deal with constant change. It also requires that you be creative in leveraging the positive while solving for the negative. Those who spend time shooting others down, covering their own butts in lieu of helping others, or being conservative with money or new ideas (we call them "big company people") eventually fall off of the start up map and become relegated to large company jobs.

Start up companies are not for the faint of heart, and they're not always lattes and comfy couches. They are environments for groups of people to create and innovate with little money and even less time. Be creative in managing yourself at a start up, and flexible in working with your cohorts - this dynamic will either make you or break you.

... which reminds me -- a PBJ sounds really good after a 17 hour day...