Joining a Startup for the First Time? 30 Actionable Tips From Folks Who've Been There
People & Culture

Joining a Startup for the First Time? 30 Actionable Tips From Folks Who've Been There

Top startup leaders and operators share their best tips for new startup employees, including hitting the ground running, how to prioritize what to work on, and growing your career.

You’ve likely heard that working at a startup is like building a plane while flying it. But Laura Behrens Wu, co-founder and CEO of Shippo, adds another layer that brings the metaphor to life more vividly: “Working at a startup is like building the jet engine while you're flying the plane. And likely there's also a fire on the plane.”

And while there are all sorts of success stories to serve as inspiration on the bumpy path (especially given the slew of IPOs recently), Plaid’s Head of People McKenna Quint points out that even headline-grabbing companies faced a road full of potholes. “Nowadays, people often equate startups with bell-ringing success, but seeing so many private companies go public at such high valuations is really a new phenomenon. It’s also not the typical experience, and certainly not what you should join a startup expecting,” she says. “Even in the best of times, startups are hard. They’re designed specifically for growth — and this comes with a set of unique challenges, risks and demands that you need to be ready for. Being motivated by the mission, customer delight and driving impact — those things will keep you going. Being motivated by structure and following traditional career growth paths will not keep you in the game.”

Quint's counsel is aimed at an important, yet often overlooked audience. Startup advice is often geared towards founders and leaders shaping new companies and functions from scratch. There's so much attention paid to the building blocks of getting a company off the ground — finding product/market fit, getting customer feedback, and raising that next round.

But what about the folks signing on to join those fledgling companies, buying into the founder's vision and boarding that still-in-progress plane as a crew member? There are fewer playbooks for those just getting into the game, whether they're shifting from a big co environment to a small startup setting, or starting out as a new grad. And when advice is imparted, it tends to be on the generic side — shared over and over again in those vaguely inspirational Twitter posts (think "Don't worry about titles").

Here on the Review, we've shared advice on how founders can fine-tune their hiring and onboarding process to set these new hires up for success. We've also previously written about the implications of joining an early-stage company — outlining hurdles such as the tough growth spurt from 30-50 people and the emotional side of scaling. But we've never put together a comprehensive manual for joining a startup for the very first time.

Whether you're making the leap from big to small or just starting off in your career, it's a huge change to navigate. As startup hiring ramps up and operators consider new opportunities, we spotted a chance to return to the starting line and pay close attention to those formative months in a new startup employee’s tenure.

To that end, we’ve spent the past few weeks reaching out to some of the sharpest startup leaders and operators we know for their take on this important question:

What’s your favorite unexpected tip for someone who’s joining a startup for the first time?

What we got in return was a fountain of advice that breaks the mold. What follows is an exclusive list of 30 can’t-miss frameworks and tactics that dives beyond the surface. These folks reflect on what they wish they had known in their early startup days and hail from First Round backed-startups like Labelbox, UserLeap, and Upstart as well as other top tech companies that are taking on the hard work of scaling like Plaid, Netflix, and Shopify.  Whether you’re joining a startup for the first time, or you’re struggling in the “messy middle,” there are plenty of tips to pull from to give yourself a boost and clear the hurdles that stand in your way.

Broken down by topic, they tackle everything step-by-step from how to approach your first 90 days and prioritizing a mile-long to-do list, to developing an owner’s mentality, and growing your career — with a particular focus on more tactical day-to-day actions you can lean on. Use the outline on the left to navigate the mega-list by each section (you’ll notice that we took the plane metaphor to new heights — apologies for all the flight-related puns coming your way.)

We hope it provides a detailed playbook for keeping your wits about you and a clear head when you climb aboard as an early employee. Let’s dive in.


You stuck through the interview process, did a happy dance when the offer came through and marked your calendar for your new job's start date. But for new employees used to architected onboarding processes at previous companies, startups may leave something to be desired on your Day One. Use these tips to direct your own onboarding to fill in any gaps.

1. Have a mind like water.

First, leave your preconceived ideas of how things ought to be at the door. “Notion’s Camille Ricketts says it best: ‘You have to have a ‘mind like water,’ which is a beautiful metaphor for communicating just how valuable adaptability and agility is in a startup environment,” says Claire Spangenberg, VP of Brand and Marketing at Alma. “If you come in with fixed ideas about what the business is, how the company should execute against its goals, and your place in all of that, you’ll waste precious time being stuck in old ways of thinking and constantly needing to play catch up — which is bad for you and the business.”

2. Cozy up to the customer.

Anne Raimondi, Board Member, Asana, Guru, Gusto & Patreon

“It doesn't matter what job you have — at a startup, every member of the team should develop deep empathy and understanding of the customer,” says seasoned tech exec and board member Anne Raimondi (check out her Review story and podcast appearance for her tales from the frontlines of the startup C-Suite). “Jump on a customer call, shadow a support team member, read customer reviews and NPS feedback, or join customer interviews. The closer you are to your customer, the more motivated you'll be, especially when you make a difference in their life. That customer love also makes the messiness and ups-and-downs (and there will be plenty of messes and loads of ups-and-downs!) worthwhile.”

3. Deeply understand the business model.

As you fill up your customer empathy reserves, start piecing together the bigger picture. “As consumers, we tend to focus on how the product or service impacts our lives. But as an employee, you need to understand how your company actually makes money (which is often not nearly as transparent as it would seem). You want to be able to say ‘We make money every time our customer Xs and it costs us money when they Y,’" says Matt Wallaert, author and former Chief Behavioral Scientist for Clover Health. (Read up on his Review story on keeping a clear head when things go awry).

4. Find the unsexy projects to drive impact fast.

“It's a delicate balance between showing right away that you can make a difference, and also being a sponge and soaking up as much information as possible and that you're hungry to learn from everyone. When you're juggling this tradeoff in your head, I'd err on the side of showing in the first week or two that you can make a tangible impact because startups thrive on speed,” says David Mok, Director of Content and Partnerships for Labelbox.

“If you work with your manager on strong goals, this should be baked into your onboarding — but startups also usually don't have a lot of structure yet. Actively seek out a few pockets where you can make an impact. Hint: it's usually found in the places of the business that are not fun or sexy. Examples could be spending some extra time to QA a feature, writing multiple versions of marketing copy to see what looks best, or creating a sensitivity analysis or quick spreadsheet model for a business decision.”

5. Align your personal values to the company mission.

McKenna Quint, Head of People, Plaid

To lay the groundwork for long-term success, look for where your values overlap with the company’s — you’ll need to return to those values when best-laid plans get thrown off course.  “Companies often have their mission and values on the website and interview for folks that align to them — but those values don’t show up in any legal agreement you sign when you agree to join a startup. And yet, they are arguably more important than what’s in that legal document,” says Plaid’s McKenna Quint. “Make sure you see your personal values reflected in the values of the company. Plaid has a principle ‘embrace openness and positivity’ and that principle is a direct quote from our founder and CEO and reflects what he wants our company to look like. That really resonates with me and reflects the kind of company culture I want to build.” (To learn more about Plaid’s culture and values, check out the Review story and podcast interview with its Head of Engineering.)


No startup is without its fair share of problems to solve on the path to scale, whether it’s narrowing in on your ideal customer profile, navigating complex markets, or putting out mission-critical fires. Armed with what’s likely a shoestring budget and limited resources, you’ve got to choose carefully what to tackle at any given time.

6. Relentlessly prioritize to avoid the wrong high-quality work

“Communicate clearly and regularly, especially these two items: 1) What you understand to be the current highest priority project and focus area, and 2) What you are currently working on,” says Dan Donohue, Director of Program Management for PatientPing. “Good communication habits linking the strategy and problems of the day to individual contributor work will make you more confident and efficient today, and pay massive dividends as your team and company scale.”

One of the biggest wastes at a startup is valuable people delivering the wrong work at high quality.

To contextualize your goals, Matt Sturm (Senior Manager of Marketing Ops for UserLeap) keeps tabs in specific increments. “Focus on the goals for the next 6-12 months. Those are high-level enough to stop you from getting too worried about day-to-day turbulence, and soon enough that you don't get carried away with ‘what could be.’ If no one can tell you the 6-12 month goals and where to find progress against them, ask relentlessly. It's good for everyone,” he says.

7. Pre-product/market fit? Focus on reducing risk.

There’s a reason the article on Superhuman’s product/market fit engine is still a Review audience favorite — it’s at the heart of product success (or failure). “In the early days, the story crafted about the startup is more important than tactical execution. If you join a team that doesn't have product/market fit, the question you should ask daily is: How are you helping the team find it?” says Joseph Blau, former Sr. iOS Engineer at Uber.

Farhan Thawar, VP of Engineering, Shopify

Farhan Thawar, VP of Engineering at Shopify, echoes this idea that product/market fit reigns supreme in the earliest stages of startup-building. “Align yourself with the risks of the company. If you’re an engineer but the company is not acquiring customers fast enough, spend your time in marketing. Have range, and don’t try to be too narrow in your focus in the early days. Gain knowledge in a few different areas of the business so you can reduce the overall risks of the company.”

It’s a feat worth the sweat and tears, according to CEO and founder of RenoFi, Justin Goldman: “The best role in startup land is being one of the very first hires for an experienced founding team for a product you deeply believe in that is pre-product/market fit. Having a front-row seat to see how an experienced founding team zigs and zags their way to the other side is something you have to see first hand.”

8. Solve the present (not future) problems.

A healthy dose of optimism is critical when you climb aboard a startup, but Daniel Scott, Digital Marketing Manager at Kandji has also seen it go sideways. “What I wish I'd learned earlier is to choose projects more carefully. There are often a ton of good ideas and people can be overly optimistic about what can be pulled off. Better to tighten what you say yes to and then commit to it 100%, execute well, learn from it, and move to the next thing,” he says.

Patrick Gardner, CTO of Time by Ping has seen many folks get bogged down in the what-ifs, rather than anchoring to what’s true right now. “You have to enjoy the problems of the moment — really tune your approach to accomplishing what needs to get done now to survive. It is so easy to try to do too much at once or get ahead of yourself attempting to solve future problems that you can underperform in the present.”

9. Think MVP, not perfection.

Laura Behrens Wu, CEO, Shippo

Prioritizing is critical at any startup — from the founders to the most junior folks. Shippo co-founder and CEO Laura Behrens Wu leans on this formula to get it right. “80% of work should be focused on the no-brainers and projects that will lead to immediate growth in the core segment and 20% of work on future projects and crazy ideas that could be future growth levers,” she says. “Despite all of the things going on, it's an important skill to not over-complexify things. You should be able to dumb it down to one or two things that really matter because they fuel a flywheel.”

Andrea Spillmann-Gajek, Head of Growth and CS YOU at SV Academy, agrees that when it comes to startups, simplicity is almost always best. “Strip everything down to its basics (or MVP), especially for super early-stage companies. Constantly ask how you can simplify and speed up. If it will take you three weeks to roll out a new program, feature, or newsletter, how can you simplify? What's a hackier solution to test it out?” she says.  (For more on getting closer to your customers with Minimum Lovable Products, check out this Review fan-favorite article.)

What can be squeaked out as an MVP at 60%? What actually needs to be done closer to 90%? Get super comfortable with things not being perfect, while continuing to hold high standards for yourself and the team.


Within your small-but-mighty startup team, at some points, you’ll feel like the Blue Angels — individual jets flying in unison. Other times like you’re skydiving alone with a malfunctioning parachute. Don’t put these critical relationships with teammates on the backburner — invest in building rapport from the start.

10. Be ready to learn and teach in equal measure.

“Consider a startup like going back to school — you're going to be surrounded by other brilliant minds and you're all in a state of learning. Be ready and willing to learn from your colleagues, but also be ready to be the teacher to those same colleagues. Everyone in a startup brings with them their own valuable experience, and it's up to you collectively to make it a success,” says Fabian Eckstrom-French, Head of Partnerships at stensul.

11. An underrated question to ask in your initial 1:1s.

Steven Dorcelien, Customer Success Manager, Remind

“Invest heavily in establishing relationships, establishing your credibility, and learning to navigate the organization. Spend the first few weeks mostly in 1:1s asking questions, listening attentively and taking good notes,” says Jim Patterson, Chief Product Officer at NEXT Trucking.

Steven Dorcelien, Customer Success Manager at Remind, agrees that you’ve got to carve out this time early before your to-do list grows even longer. “Grab a coffee (or a quick Zoom meeting) with as many of your colleagues on different teams as you can in the first 90 days. These interactions will go a long way in showing how much you value them, the company culture, and your success at the startup,” he says.

To kick off these conversations, Zack Fisch Rothbart, Head of Operations and Legal at Pequity, leans on a simple question:

Ask your team members, “What’s the one thing you wish more people would ask you?"

12. Everyone shares Chief Culture Officer duties.

Whether you join sales, marketing, engineering — each piece of the org chart weaves together to form the startup’s cultural fabric. “Not everyone that joins a startup is aware that you are not only responsible for building the business together, but you are building the culture together at the same time. You only want crew members who are aligned to the success of the business — no passengers allowed,” says Brian Duffy, Director of Sales for Suki.

13. Don't bemoan the growing pains — embrace the bigger pie.

Cindy Smith, VP of Partner Strategy & Ops, Upstart

“Don't expect your job or company to stay the same for too long. If the company is growing then things will change — people, systems, process and even product,” says Cindy Smith, VP of Partner Strategy and Operations at Upstart.

Change is hard for all of us — especially when it’s happening in rapid succession. Shippo CEO Laura Behrens Wu reminds us that growing pains are often a good thing. “When a startup grows fast your role might change and initially it may feel like it’s changing for the worse because people are getting hired above you and your scope shrinks. However, that's normal as startups go through hypergrowth. Startups often start with generalists and then bring in specialists. That is a great opportunity to be learning from the best,” she says.

It's much more exciting to have a smaller scope of a high-growth pie that keeps growing to be a bigger pie than to own the entire pie but have it stay small.

14. Pause and give thanks when the going gets tough.

Plaid’s Head of People McKenna Quint spends her days thinking about the people engine powering high-growth startups, so leave it to her to make this all sound so poetic: “Along the way, pause and appreciate your people. I can’t begin to describe the wondrous feeling of being around folks who are unrelentingly optimistic and have endless wells of energy to throw at complex problems. You know that feeling when, at the deepest part of your gut, you are smiling?” she says. “While you’re experiencing the ups and downs of a startup, being around people whose vision for the world and whose values align with yours is a soulful experience. You are building an incredible community at the same time you’re building a product. Don’t get too busy that you forget to stop and relish in the relationships you’ve formed along the way.”


Several years ago on the Review, repeat founder-turned-VC Angus Davis shared an email he sent to his company, comparing the lessons he learned from becoming a pilot to working at a startup. One particular teaching from his flight instructor still sticks with us: “Takeoffs are optional, but landings are mandatory. Delaying or canceling a flight is annoying at best, and often painful, with real negative repercussions for your goals. But it’s always, without exception, better to delay a takeoff than to fail a landing.” Keep that takeaway in mind when trying to keep up with a startup’s breakneck pace.

15. Embrace the art of slowing things down.

Warren Lebovics, Co-Founder, Pequity

Warren Lebovics, co-founder of Pequity, unpacks a critical difference between large and small companies. “At larger companies, one of the most difficult parts of your job is to move projects forward through a series of approvals. At startups, one of the most difficult parts of your job will be to help slow things down enough to ensure you're being thoughtful about projects flying out the door. Don't be penny-wise pound-foolish. By all means, save runway where you can — but don't pass on software that costs $100/month to instead spend the equivalent of $1000/month on inefficient processes,” he says.

Remember — you likely can’t copy/paste from a larger company’s playbook. “Don't over-engineer and don't try to mirror a process that worked for you at a later-stage company. Whether it's systems or processes, not everything you build today will scale 10x, and that's okay because you'll be continually reinventing as the company grows. Better to learn and then pivot and adjust quickly,” says Sylvia LePoidevin, Head of Marketing at Kandji.

16. Find problems, but bring solutions.

“When there’s ambiguity, think through the issue first and sketch out a plan — even if it’s just a rough idea. Give the decision-maker an idea to respond to rather than always asking them to come up with the solution. It is both a way to learn more and challenge yourself, but also can actually help you get a response much faster from the decision-maker,” says Samet Gray, Manager of Product and UX Research at FairShake.

Mark Kilens, VP of Content & Community, Drift

Upstart’s Cindy Smith concurs: “Take it upon yourself to own solutions to problems. It’s one thing to identify issues, there will be lots of them in startups, but what the company needs are owners and people to fix them!”

To get started, Mark Kilens, VP of Content and Community at Drift, suggests you look beyond your particular startup’s guardrails. “Folks that join startups need to become learning machines, taking elements from both internal and external forces to create and improve processes. We have to learn from external forces and use patterns that have worked for previous startups – and most importantly, try to keep things simple,” he says.

As an employee at a young and small company, you’re more than a 9-5 cog maintaining structure day-to-day, you’re building the functions that this company will use throughout its life. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so make the most of it.

17. Don't hoard your ideas.

“Don't aim for perfection before getting feedback. Do your research and have a point of view, but don't feel like it has to be perfect before you start to socialize the idea and get feedback. You'll waste a lot of time in your head and potentially fall behind if you try to get something perfect before gathering input from others,” says Christina Louie Dyer, Head of Social Impact at Lob.

As Alison Lee (Chief of Staff of Altitude Learning) reminds us, that doesn’t mean going in whichever direction the wind blows.

Anchor on the vision, but hold assumptions and plans more lightly than you think you should.

18. Avoid the headaches that come from "I'll fix this later."

Liz Fosslien, Head of Content, Humu

“Set yourself up to scale. I've fallen into the trap of hacking something together thinking, ‘If this works I'll just fix the setup later,’ and then spending months importing a CSV into a Google spreadsheet, manually reformatting it line-by-line, redownloading it as a CSV, etc. Once you know you're going to invest in something, spend a little extra time upfront to put the right tools, processes, and documentation in place. You'll save yourself a lot of headaches down the line,” says Liz Fosslien, Head of Content at Humu. (Her previous Review articles on embracing emotions in the workplace and leading through crises are must-reads for startup managers and operators alike.)

To combat this “I’ll fix this later” mindset, John Zanzarella, VP of Sales for PerformLine, relies on a simple rule: “Build processes and systems for anything that you end up doing twice.”

Even if there are processes in place if you spot an opportunity to make critical tweaks, by all means, speak up. “Most policies, procedures or methods are not as fixed as you think. That process you don't like? Someone probably threw it together in 15 minutes and then moved on to the next urgent thing. If you don't like it, offer a way to improve it,” says Nick Hurlburt, Director of Engineering at Tech Matters.

19. Use benchmarks as your guide.

Anuj Bhatt, Head of Integrations, Tesorio

“Always seek and bring data to the table. If you’re at a company that’s not data-driven, push the culture to look at data and make data-based decisions. Understand what good, better and best is based on data benchmarks for your industry, business model and company stage. Seek peers and mentors for more reference points and case studies to bring back to the CEO and leadership,” says Shirak Zakaryan, Head of Finance and Operations at Troops.

And if you find there are no benchmarks to grasp a hold of, keep your head up and remember you’re not alone, says Anuj Bhatt, Head of Integrations for Tesorio. “Embrace the unknown. As part of a startup, you are in the trenches with everyone else when trying to figure out what that next right step is. And the definition of ‘right’ will change over time. Priorities will change, pivots may happen, projects may be abandoned, your feature might succeed or outright fail. Learn from the mistakes, celebrate the wins and remind yourself that you're in it for the experience,” he says.


If you’re joining a startup for the first time from a background at larger companies, it can be an adjustment working so closely with the top brass within a flatter org structure, where even the most junior folks are expected to act like an owner. As imposter syndrome creeps in, keep these tips in mind.

20. Remember to pick your head up and look cross-functionally.

“Even if you lead a particular function, it's still so important to understand what every other function is doing and how you can help. If you don't lead a function, there will be many times you feel like you do. Speak up — things can always be improved, and your team should want to hear your ideas,” says Pequity co-founder Warren Levobics. He adds an important caveat: “But be mindful of bringing up ideas at the right time. If your team is putting out an all-hands-on-deck fire, it's probably not the right time.”

Amanda Irizarry, Business Operations Lead, Clearbit

Amanda Irizarry, Business Operations Lead at Clearbit, echoes that the traditional guardrails between functions don’t exist when you climb aboard a startup. “Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. You may come across some uncharted territory and unfamiliar tasks — embrace that discomfort and see it as a learning opportunity. Having a ‘that's not my job’ mentality will not work. Be a team player and be willing to hop in on new things — again, that's where the learning happens!”

This applies even to more specialized roles, as Lob Senior Recruiting Coordinator Cecily Odiari learned. “My mentor shared feedback with me that I should try to look at how my work fits into the larger organization. In a role like mine, we can tend to be very detail-oriented and focus on a myopic view. It’s important to back up and learn how my work aligns with the organizational goals,” she says.

21. If you don't know who's in charge, it's you.

“Think like an owner. See the company as both a community and an asset, as your cause to fight for and your responsibility to protect — you will win the trust and respect of your colleagues. View working at a young company as an opportunity to create value across several different verticals. Be hungry to learn everything you can, and be brutally honest with yourself and your team about what skills you have, what skills you don't have, and what skills you're eager to learn,” says Kevin Caldwell, co-founder and CEO of Ossium Health.

Janna Biagio, Director of Customer Success and Community at Datapeople similarly advises a wide scope: “Being able to both see the gap and address the gap is the hallmark sign of an early-stager.”

If you're looking around the room to figure out who owns the improvement or scalability of processes, or has the responsibility of opening up communication lines between teams and team members — it's you!

22. Own the little things.

Ankit Gupta, Co-Founder & CTO, Reverie Labs

“Anyone in a startup is a critical team member (if you're not critical to your startup, your startup is hiring too fast and this is a red flag) and you should take ownership over the outcomes. For example, break out of the mold of ‘the timeline I was given is X’ but instead say ‘the timeline ought to be Y,’” says Ankit Gupta, co-founder and CTO of Reverie Labs.

John Zanzarella of PerformLine agrees that those little moments of ownership have an outsized impact. “Think of it as your own business. If there is trash to empty, empty it. At an early-stage company, little things can make a big difference and when you treat the business as it’s your own you put the appropriate level of thought in every decision,” he says.

23. Don't hold on too tightly.

"Startups can change direction and grow very quickly, which means the role you're needed in at any given time may not be the role you expected. The more you can adapt to the needs of the company, especially in the early days, the more likely you are to grow with the company. Growth at startups often isn't linear, and some of the most successful people I know changed roles five or more times in the early years of a startup because they were willing to go where they were needed. This also helps you develop a broad skill set that can open up other opportunities down the road," says Erica Galos Alioto, Global Head of People at Grammarly.

Another tip from Humu’s Liz Fosslien: “The moment you can, delegate. When you've built something from the ground up, it can be hard to hand over ownership of even a piece of it to someone else. You'll accomplish a lot more if you abandon your ego and let your team help you,” she says. For more here, head over to another ultra-popular Review article that launched a startup maxim: Give Away Your Legos.


Your emotions will run the gamut from the highest highs to the lowest lows — sometimes in the same week. And while folks are getting more comfortable embracing emotions at work or opening up about failure, often it’s approached from a retrospective lens, complete with a happy ending. In the moment, managing and harnessing your emotions before they get the best of you when chaos abounds is a tall order. Don’t just grit your teeth and white-knuckle it, take care of yourself and keep burnout at bay.

24. Find your edge

"Don't let imposter syndrome drag you down — you were hired for a reason. When I joined my first startup, I stepped into a newly-created sales strategy role, and I definitely had imposter syndrome. In my previous job, I had been on the other side of the table as a buyer, and I had no idea how to sell or support sales. But I did understand how buyers thought,” says Jon Zucker, PMM at ZEFR. “I found that chatting with sellers gave a great background on the roadblocks they felt they faced on a daily basis. By using my background as a buyer, I was able to help provide color to why those roadblocks existed and propose new solutions to solving them. I realized quickly that what I lacked in experience was far less valuable than what I had gained from my past life. You'll never totally fit a job description, and that's okay.”

25. Set your boundaries.

“There will always be more work, and it will fill 100 hours per week if you let it. That's not good for you or the company. Figure out your priorities outside of work, in collaboration with the key stakeholders in your life (partner, kids, etc). This means setting specific goals. For example, instead of ‘spend one-on-one time with my partner,’ agree to have dinner together at least five nights a week,” says Andrea Spillmann-Gajek of SV Academy. “Things will come up, it won't be perfect, but hold your boundaries as much as possible, and renegotiate with your life and work stakeholders if you find you're consistently unable to hold your boundaries. If something new comes up, does something else have to slip or get reassigned? Own that discussion and have it upfront. Do not just let things slip without communicating that. Own setting and communicating realistic timelines and priorities.”

26. Find a third party to share the load.

Howard Ekundayo, Engineering Manager, Netflix

“If you’re financially able, get a therapist immediately. There's a reason why the 🚀 emoji is commonly associated with all things startup, growth, VC and large rounds of funding. The journey of joining a recently-founded company is typically a season of concentrated growing pains, introspection and stress,” says Howard Ekundayo, Engineering Manager at Netflix.

“Don't get me wrong — this experience can be incredibly gratifying. With that said, the tested culture, best practices, regulations, and organizational structure that typically institutionalizes a healthy work-life balance is likely non-existent at a startup. To fill in these gaps, an objective, third-party source of support that encourages introspection, offers healthy coping mechanisms, and helps define boundaries can be instrumental in ensuring you're able to show up as your best self, confident and ready for whatever challenges come your way.”

27. Don't lose yourself along the way.

“Remember: your work won't love you back,” says Humu’s Liz Fosslien. “Yes, it's amazing to build something from the ground up. Yes, an IPO can change your life. But don't lose yourself in your work. Your family, friends, and hobbies still matter. Make time for your personal life.”

As Pequity co-founder Warren Lebovics reminds us, it’s a constant balancing act. Take advantage of the moments when you can rebalance the scales.

There are generally two operating speeds at startups: 1) busy as hell, and 2) quiet as hell. There will be times when you need to sprint. There will also be times when there are lulls — take full advantage of those lulls.


In the thicket of countless deliverables, milestones and sprints, setting aside time for career planning and personal development can quickly fall by the wayside. Keep your eye on the horizon — and consider the steps along the way to reach those goals.

28. Capture milestones in your captain's log.

Mariam Khan, Senior Technical Onboarder, Wonderschool

Both Mariam Khan, Senior Technical Onboarder at Wonderschool, and Alison Albers, Customer Success Director at Time by Ping, used their transition to a startup as an opportunity to instill new healthy habits.

Something I try to keep up (after wishing I had done the same at my previous job!) is a weekly log. At the end of every week, I make a note of one thing I've done and one thing I've learned. Startups allow you to wear so many hats and contribute at so many levels that it's fun to see all of the ways you grow and all of the parts of the organization you touch over time,” says Albers. “And the learnings vary quite a bit — some are just fun facts I pick up about the team or company, but other learnings come from mistakes I've made. I've found that jotting them down at the end of the week is a helpful way to recognize them and move along without dwelling for too long.”

Khan also keeps a weekly commitment to chart her path. “I started scheduling a weekly time slot for myself to self-reflect on my professional development. This was something I regretted not doing at my last company and I wanted to use the startup as an opportunity to change.”

29. Advocate for your career goals.

Andrea Spillman-Gajek, Head of Growth, SV Academy

One more tip from Andrea Spillmann-Gajek of SV Academy: “As companies scale, your role will shift. There's a ton of room for upside, but you may need to advocate for yourself. You'll likely start as more of a generalist and then will likely specialize. What matters to you? What do you want to own, what influence do you want to have? Think about this both in terms of business areas (PR, product management), but also in terms of the work you want to do (IC, manage, consult),” she says.

30. Take on projects with an eye for the future.

We’ll end with one last piece of advice from Liz Fosslien: “When there's a lot to do, it's easy to ‘wear multiple hats’ to such an extent that you end up spread too thin and never build up a cohesive skillset. Remind yourself where you want to be in a couple of years, and try to take on projects that will help you get there. I've found it useful to break that down even further by listing your top five goals for the month,” she says.

Part of working at a startup is getting pulled in a million directions. Feeling confident about your priorities can help you make the progress that matters — and more easily say no.