😓 -> 😌 anxiety-driven work @ funded startups
Have you heard the phrase "future of work"?
People often picture robots working assembly lines and flying cars when they hear "future of work". It sounds scary and ominous, but to me the future of work is doing meaningful things (both individually and as a team) in an environment where you feel creative and energized, as opposed to anxious and panicked.
Work doesn't have to be like the group projects of our elementary school days. You can have a relaxed, creative, happy team that feels cared for AND ships a lot of value. You can have it all.
I've worked at a lot of startups of varying sizes and industries. There's one thread running through my career that I can't escape:
I get it. I really do. VC-backed startups are under immense pressure to grow constantly and deliver value in a way that their bigger competitors can't.
I have worked as a startup paralegal at a biglaw firm in Silicon Valley. I helped companies at all stages of the startup lifecycle from formation to exit. I also brought a horror-themed nanobrewery to market and operated the brewery and taproom for a couple of years.
I know that there's a constant barrage of emails, slack messages, phone calls, backlog tickets, standups, retros, notifications, dirty dishes, personal admin, hobbies, and loved ones battling for your attention.
I know that you very likely went from being a coder or operator at a company to a CEO/founder yourself in a short time and there's suddenly big money and big obligations on your shoulders.
I know you suddenly need to make vital decisions about legal, hiring, fundraising, accounting, product, marketing, ops, and a million other things, along with a ton of tiny micro-decisions every day. I know you're feeling the anxiety of not wanting to disappoint your investors, customers, employees, or yourself.
There's major pressure. You feel it. I feel it.
The anxiety flows.
I'm here to tell you I think there's a better way.
The tech industry is a difficult place to thrive. The reason I keep coming back is that I love change and improving things with tech and I know you do too. You want to fix a problem that you've seen or experienced with tech. You want to change the very nature of how something is done and help customers live their lives better or do their jobs better.
Our industry is built on disrupting everything. The future of work means whatever we want it to mean. It means that we can make better companies with happier employees AND make money AND grow fast AND have happy customers.
The good news is that you are not alone. You can ask for help. You can do things differently. You can be a positive change in the tech industry. You can make tiny changes in your company every day that add up to a healthy, creative environment for your team.
You can have a sense of urgency, ship value to customers, and do meaningful work without having a current of anxiety flowing through your startup. It's not an "either/or" situation. Be extremely kind, listen, and try to put yourselves in everyone else's shoes.
If you are a founder and you want your team to ship code/create content/hire employees/build products FAST, then you need to set them up for success and make that a continuous priority.
You can make your workplace better for your team to reduce anxiety, increase velocity and quality of code being shipped, and have a happier team.
You don't have to change everything today. Make tiny changes every day. Go tell your team thank you. Make sure people are taking vacations. Ask about their family/dogs. Smile.
"Have an informal cut the crap committee. These are rogue anthropologists that observe people working in the wild. They observe how people are working and come back in a month and report back on the crap that needs to be cut out." - Lisa Bodell of FutureThink
- Fix processes that are wasting their time. If you're saying SHIP SHIP SHIP but you didn't give them clear business requirements or agency to make decisions, it's your fault when they can't ship. Identify what processes are wasting your team's time or annoying them and fix them. This doesn't have to be a colossal overhaul--tiny updates to a process over time can be huge for time savings and morale. Schedule time every day to clear blockers or to delegate the clearing to a teammate. If you're constantly a blocker on something, give someone else the agency to make decisions on it.
allow space for deep work
- Have less meetings. If you have to have a meeting, make it a thoughtful meeting with an agenda. Everyone needs time for deep working. Constant context switching makes it so much harder to get anything done. Meetings at startups are often unstructured and end up being uncomfortable or feeling like a waste of time.
- Learn how to work async (esp if you have international teammates)--Bubbles and Loom can help you communicate better without having to have a meeting for every tiny thing. Meeting agendas sent out in advance are a must. Lisa Bodell suggests providing the main points of discussion well before the meeting so teammates can arrive with thoughtful input.
- Have timeblocks for meetings and leave the rest of the week for deep work. For example, have a policy that meetings can be scheduled between 9am-1pm with no meetings on Fridays.
overcommunicate & listen (then listen more)
- Listen to their complaints, suggestion, and feedback. This is extremely important. If your default is to ruthlessly shut down any input from your team, you're training them to not tell you when there's problems in your company. You're signaling that you don't value them. If you're hiring the most brilliant people and not making them psychologically safe, you're startup-ing wrong. I recommend listening to Adam Grant's podcast if you want to learn more about this.
- Communicate better. Learn how to listen, write, and speak better. Communication will help you in networking, customer acquisition, operations, managing your startup, your personal life, and in literally everything you do. Go to therapy. Read fiction books. Ask your friends how you can communicate with them better.
- Resolve conflict between teams or teammates. If you notice tension or notice someone is unhappy, take action to address it. If you don't feel equipped to handle this sort of thing, ask for help from an advisor or a coach. Don't do nothing.
- Don't let "rockstars" be assholes and get away with it. I'm not saying to fire them (although that is sometimes what needs to be done if they aren't willing to change), but if you let them stay and behave poorly, you're directly responsible for the toxic work culture that results. Get them a coach or give them feedback on their communication skills. Do something.
- Give your team clear requirements for success and priorities. Be extremely kind and understanding when they're having work or personal problems. Don't make artificial deadlines. Tell your team what you want to accomplish and what they should prioritize and then trust them.
- Signal to your team that everyone is important and valuable (not just the coders). Developer worship is the quickest way to having a startup with unhappy teammates. Everyone plays a role and code is NOT the most important thing--the most important thing is your product and the value you provide to users. Having a product person early on can help bring user empathy to a product and alignment to a team, but you make sure you signal to the developers that product is important and why.
- Set Slack/email expectations. Tell them that you don't expect them to be on Slack after a certain time. Don't stay silent and put them in a position where they're at dinner with a loved one and having anxiety while Slack notifications or emails stack up on their phone. Let them rest.
- Celebrate wins as a team. Acknowledge everyone's contributions.
Remember--you can ask your team to move quickly, but if you're not setting them up in an environment where they can do deep work, the lack of shipping is your responsibility as the founder. Don't let anxiety and stress power your startup. You're asking people to spend most of their waking hours every week working on your company. Yes, you're paying them, but you're also asking a lot of them. BE KIND.
Happier teams that feel their work is meaningful will produce much better work than teams driven by anxiety. Don't say "well we're a startup, things are messy" when your team brings issues to you. Fix them or tell them why you can't right now. Don't just listen and let it go. Signal that you care.
Thank you so much for reading and supporting me. -Molly @ goblin tech
- Confessions of a Recovering Jerk Programmer by April Wensel of Compassionate Coding
- Learn about empathy-driven development from Kelsey Hightower on Twitter
- Lisa Bodell Twitter & FutureThink Twitter
- Adam Grant's podcast
- Molly's Flow Club referral link (so you can skip the waitlist)
- Candor - authentic self professional profiles
- SuggestionOx - get anonymous feedback from your customers and team
- Worklife.vc - future of work VC fund
Goblin is a dreamily-designed collab app for teams so they can ship faster and happier (think: a minimalist, fun Jira/Asana). It's currently in development and the alpha release is coming soon. Please subscribe to this blog or follow me on Twitter to receive updates (and learn how you can get this sick mug).