Startup cultures have changed a lot since I wrote this list for the Quizlet team in 2010. We had a young and awesome team, mostly in their early 20’s, and in their first jobs. I’m proud to say they followed a lot of this advice, most of which still holds up with a couple cringey exceptions (music and texting):
Use your judgment. Listen to your gut instinct, and what the little voice inside is telling you. It’s probably right. Remember the stuff your mother told you (“do unto others…” etc)
When in doubt, ask. Two heads are usually better than one. Ask your manager, ask a colleague, ask a customer or ask a friend. Just ask.
Act as if your reputation (and the company’s) is at stake in everything you do, because it is. The company’s reputation (and brand) are its key assets and competitive advantage. Only by doing the right thing in every situation – doing right by the world in every possible way – can we grow and succeed. Act professionally. Act like what you’re doing and creating will be seen (and relied upon) by millions of people, because it will. We’re in the spotlight and under scrutiny from users, partners, customers, influencers, media, and vendors. Wowing and delighting them in every possible way will help the company, as well as your own career. QUALITY is the only word in all caps in this document.
Push relentlessly for greatness, and think big, because it’s a big world. “Good enough” won’t be enough to make a meaningful impact. Do the extra work to get things really right. Sweat the details, and keep pushing and raising the bar on success – whether in content (depth, accuracy, authenticity), site ease of use and page load speed, marketing interactions, customer support, etc. Do your homework, be prepared. Use data when possible. Don’t take no for an answer. There is no limit to achievement. Obsessively identify and solve user and customer problems, exceed their expectations. Rid your emails of typos before sending. Say thank you to people. The world looks at small details and forms quick judgments.
Be creative, take risks, make mistakes and learn from them. We value creativity and experimentation, because our success depends on continued experimentation and learning. Question authority. “The way we’ve always done it” is a lousy reason. Constructive disagreement is good. Challenge and question assumptions, don’t be an order-taker; the boss (or the marketing department) isn’t always right. What problems are we really solving? What problems shouldn’t we try to solve? How do we seed experiments that could become our next breakthrough idea, product, or feature? How do we do a good job of learning from our mistakes?
Think leverage and productivity: small team, large impact. Take maximum advantage of cheap or free technology to do cool, scalable, useful things. Help each other to continually improve our work processes and productivity, rather than adding people and resources (smaller is more productive and fun, bigger is meetings, politics, overhead). Be frugal and don’t waste money – conserve it to spend on the stuff that really matters.
Be honest and direct. Don’t ignore issues and hope they’ll go away. Tackle the hardest things first, rip the bandaid off. If something’s bothering you or you see a problem, talk about it with your supervisor and/or your colleagues. Give feedback politely and respectfully, but honestly. If you’re not excited about what you’re doing, find something else to do. Good open direct communication is one of the keys to success in life, and in business.
Work hard at listening. The world is trying to tell you something every minute, but most of us don’t hear it. Force your mind open. Ask yourself: “what is he/she really trying to say?” Ask for feedback – make it as easy as possible for others to talk to you and be open to learning from constructive criticism even if the delivery isn’t very good. Listen to your colleagues and to customers. Listen especially to people who aren’t happy with us… behind every problem is an opportunity.
Don’t use email for important communications. Talk to people in person, or if that’s not possible, over the phone. Email and text are fine for routine and transactional communications, but lousy and inefficient for really communicating about anything important. Don’t use them because they’re more convenient, just talk to the person directly. Nothing beats the bandwidth of face to face.
Move fast. Life is short, and windows of opportunity in business are even shorter. Time is not on our side – we have to be faster and better than the competition, even if its not obvious who that is. They’re out there, working hard, and moving fast. Get complacent and we’ll get run over and never know what hit us. Don’t get comfortable. Your job title shouldn’t matter in our company. Work and accomplishment matter – what do we have to show for what we did last week? Execute – few people get paid in this life just for ideas.
Mistakes are ok, but avoid surprises. Think about what people (colleagues, customers, supervisors) are expecting of you/us, and what might surprise or disappoint them. Give the team as much warning as possible. Mistakes are expected, even valued, in good startups – it’s necessary to take risks to learn. But talking about them openly and fixing them quickly is crucial.
Follow through and be accountable. Do what you said you were going to do. Keep your own to-do list, don’t rely on someone else to keep it for you. Take ownership. When something is a success, share the glory, praise and thanks – even if it was mostly you who did it. When something fails, make it right yourself. When the going gets tough, keep going!
Respect peoples’ differences, privacy, and dignity. People are the most important thing we have – without them, the computers are worthless. This means everyone, from co-workers and site visitors to the janitor and strangers on the street. Don’t violate or compromise anyone’s dignity or privacy. Treat people respectfully. Thank them. We as a company must value diversity, and different ways of thinking, communicating and solving problems. Two reasons: 1) It’s the right thing to do; and 2) It’s necessary to succeed in our business. Please report any concerns about others’ behavior or any issues in the workplace immediately to your manager.
Simplify and avoid clutter, both virtual and physical. We’re working with huge volumes of data and information, so it’s crucial to manage it efficiently. Design our systems and work processes with simplicity and scalability in mind, push back on shortcuts and special cases. Ask what the critical path is on every project. Try to be as organized and methodical as possible. Keep the office clean and your work area clean; try to avoid using paper… it just clutters up the place and is not scalable. Also please don’t leave food and trash lying around – recycle, compost, or throw it away.
If you see a snake, kill it. Don’t let problems linger to bite us next week or next year. Don’t patch up or smooth over issues, deal with the root causes. Force the assembly line to stop to fix a structural problem (defective bolts) rather than just patch the messy mistakes rolling off the end to keep things moving along.
Commit, focus, singletask. Really commit 100% to what you (and we) are doing. Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration and focus. Don’t distract yourself or others by multitasking. Avoid personal texting during work (go out in the hall, as with a personal call). Don’t listen to music while working, even with headphones (it sends the wrong signal to your co-workers); Help others focus by avoiding unnecessary disturbances and distractions (loud cell phone rings, etc.). Help us create a productive environment for everyone.
Work in the office. Unless you have a specific need to work remotely that you’ve cleared with your manager, you’re expected to work in the office. Please arrive before your start time, having previously done whatever prep you need to be ready to work (personal email check, food, web surfing). Be flexible about hours when the business needs you to work late to get the job done. Because we’re a small business, night and weekend work may occasionally be required.
Be good neighbors. We sublet space, so please be polite and neighborly in your use of shared facilities. Under no circumstance should you pick up or look at files or papers that don’t belong to us, as this can put the company at risk. Be conscious of excessive noise and disturbing others. Hold the door for people and say hi.
Observe building guidelines and be security conscious (incl. cyber security). No pets or smoking in the office. Physical safety is the most important thing. Be security conscious at all times and report any concerns to your supervisor or building security. Don’t do anything that would compromise our physical or cyber-security (e.g. leaving doors open that shouldn’t be). We’ll post specific cyber security guidelines elsewhere and we appreciate you taking them very seriously.
Use the cloud. Wherever possible, use the dialtone the rest of the world is providing for us – APIs, open source software, web utilities and hosted services. Do everything possible web based. It’s cheaper and more flexible. We don’t have (or need) an office network.
Support the team. Make sure everyone is set up to succeed. We have a steep learning curve, so help coach and teach people so they can climb it faster. If you’re sick, ask your manager about staying home so you don’t get everyone else sick. And take care of yourself too. Breathe. Stay healthy. Take a break when you need to. Talk a walk down to the water and decompress. It’s a marathon not a sprint.
Celebrate successes. Plan the party in advance, plan to succeed. But remember that success is a lagging indicator – it comes from what you did in the past. Try to enjoy every day knowing that you and the team created some success today!