Skills That Thrive in Start-ups (and in life)

by Jack Cohen in The Ascent on February 1, 2019

So You Want To Work at a Startup? Hone These 11 Soft Skills First.

“How do I get a job at a startup? What skills do they look for in an employee?”

These are probably the two most frequent questions I’m asked about my time at a startup. After spending my first ~3 years out of college working at a startup in New York City, I’m finally taking a step back to reflect and share my thoughts on what skills* are most helpful to hone and to have if you’re interested in working for a startup.

*Skills in this post only refer to “soft” skills, not technical or “hard” skills.

But let’s back up for a moment.

I joined Blue Apron in August of 2015, a time when the meal-kit startup was growing extremely quickly — at our peak adding 5 to 10 new corporate employees weekly, easily. Not to mention the thousands we were hiring at our fulfillment centers across the country. Needless to say, I had just stepped onto a rocketship headed straight for an IPO and all I was trying to do in those first few weeks was hold on.

By the time I left in mid-2018, I had successfully grown their online community over to two million people, created an internal project that morphed into the 2018 national TV campaign, and much more.

But the full story of my time at Blue Apron is for another post — today, I want to share my answers to the question I started this post with.

What are the most important skills to have if you’re interested in working for a startup?

Below, I’ve listed a number of skills that I think are a great start and, wherever possible, I’ll do my best to provide context around why one particular skill is worth having in startupland.

That being said, this is my plea for those of you reading this: if you work at a startup (or have in the past) please don’t hesitate to jump into the comment section and add your thoughts as well.

1. Initiative

If you take away nothing else from this post, remember this: there is no skill more important to have at a startup than taking the initiative. Every business works to achieve its goals with scarce resources, and often times at startups the most scarce resource for quite some time is human labor — that’s you.

What this ultimately boils down to in the early days is that every employee must be a bit of a Jack-of-all-Trades.

If you take away nothing else, there is no skill more important to have at a startup than taking the initiative.

The more you can take the initiative, i.e. anticipate where problems or opportunities might be and take calculated actions to address them without needing your hand held at every step, the more you’ll find yourself in the good graces of your superiors.

2. Resourcefulness

This one is related to the first, but it takes a slightly different angle. Often times at a startup, you won’t have the time, manpower, or budget to have the high-end software you want or time to perfect the ideal process for any given project. That’s completely normal and if you’re looking to provide exceptional value to your team, learn to be resourceful with what’s available around you.

3. Comfort with Chaos

If a startup is anything, it’s chaotic. But that’s part of the fun of it all. See #10. Whether you’re racing against the clock to get your product to market, firing on all cylinders to hit growth targets, or reactively figuring out how to explain to your customers that their box of dinner may not make it through the latest polar vortex, it’s a whirlwind of unexpected twists and turns. See what I did there? 🌪

If you join a startup already better equipped to expect these chaotic moments, the wild wins will feel even more euphoric.

4. Scalability (10x)

Never do a tedious manual task twice if you can automate it in some way. Being scalable means knowing when you should take the time to build yourself a tool that can help you achieve that same tedious task 10 times faster the next time. This can also be referred to as the 10x skill.

If you do this right, you can 10x your output with the same level of input.

Caveat: Of course not all manual tasks require automation or a more efficient tool. This exception is especially relevant for creative work. Don’t rush that.

5. Flexibility

I don’t remember a roadmap that didn’t look drastically different from where we started just a short time later. That’s no dig at my fellow BA-ers, it’s just the reality of fast-paced startup environments. Things change… constantly.

As someone wise once told me: try to “design your system to expect an enormous change in the future.”

Being flexible let’s you avoid the feeling of constant whiplash when the plans suddenly change. And they will, believe me.

6. Enthusiasm

Nowadays, the power of enthusiasm in the workplace is vastly underestimated.

Whether it helps you rally a team member to produce higher-quality work, or simply put a smile on a friend in a slump, startups need these enthusiasts to keep the morale high on the rollercoaster ride.

7. Curiosity

It’s no secret that I’m a curious person. And despite my own post, it’s a great skill to have at a startup — especially if it’s your first experience working at one.

If you’re fortunate enough to score an interview at a startup, always ask about the level of transparency at the company and the number of projects that include multiple departments.

One of the absolute best parts of working in the marketing department at Blue Apron was that I was exposed to virtually every single discipline at Blue Apron. And, for those areas of the company with which I had less day-to-day contact, my curiosity led me to meet members of those departments during lunch or during company outings.

By the end of my time there, I can safely say that I knew what every part of the company did, how it functioned in the grand scheme of things, and what big goals it was working towards.

What better way to learn about an organization than by being curious about how it all works together in symbiosis?

8. Aspiration (#whynot)

As a small fish in a big pond, your startup will be going up against bigger industry players… much bigger, better-funded, lots-of-people players.

You’re going to need a heavy dose of lofty aspirations if you hope to succeed in that world. By bringing that “sky is the limit” attitude, you never know when your #whynot idea might become a reality.

At Blue Apron, for example, in the early days when we heard that Michael Phelps (yes, that Michael Phelps) cooked with and loved our product, we thought, well what the heck, #whynot try to do a campaign with him?

We reached out, he agreed, and it was one of our highest-performing influencer campaigns we ever ran. Shoutout to Christine Fu!

9. Self-Improvement (5% better)

Small steps upwards make a difference. It doesn’t always have to be leaps and bounds, but startups only benefit from self-improvers.

No matter whether it’s a brief without any typos or a presentation with proper formatting, make it a habit to improve every part of your professional persona.

Just try to be 5% better each time.

10. Humor

Guys — let’s cut the didactic crap for a second.

If you aren’t having fun at a startup, what the heck are you even doing there?! Yeah, yeah, building the future. Innovating like never before. Disrupting the world. That’s all well and good, but HAVE YOU SEEN THE SNACKS? Or, I don’t know… how about the puppies running around? Ping pong anyone?

Startups aren’t all just scarcity and grinding, there are genuine moments of pleasure, happiness, and ROFL-ing that are only elevated if you yourself can bring a bit of humor to the workplace.

11. Patience

It won’t work the first time. It probably won’t work the second or third or fourth time either. But that’s ok.

Well-run startups keep iterating and don’t see failure as a setback, but rather as an information-gathering experience about the end user.

Patience is key in a world like this. Take up meditation. Learn to face the fails.

Success will come, or sometimes it won’t — sometimes, even your grandest ambitions will be squashed in the most public settings possible. But if you’re patient, you will reap the rewards of the situation no matter the outcome.

I will never regret my time at Blue Apron. Regardless of its fall from grace, I have never learned more about myself and the world of business in a shorter time. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

I hope this was helpful to those of you looking to find jobs at startups. If you’ve read this far, first of all, thank you. Second, like I mentioned up above, please share your thoughts in the comments below — especially if you’ve worked at or managed at a startup.

Good luck with your jobs, these are great skills to hone in any professional environment!

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