Startup employees: judge your company on the high notes it’s hitting

There’s a great thread on Hacker News this morning which offers advice to a young developer trying to figure out whether he should stay at the startup he works at. The following advice from pfitzsimmons is spot on:

“My intuition would be that functional startups are visibly functional; they feel awesome.”

It is a lot more complicated than that. The term “sausage factory” usually applies – http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=sausage%20fac…. Even very successful startups can feel very dysfunctional in the heat of the moment. First, when you grow fast and do things that have never been done before, lots of things break. Second, very often management may be absolutely brilliant about some matters, but have giant gaping holes in other areas. A CTO may have figured out a breakthrough in machine learning, but have no idea how to run an engineering organization. A CEO may be able to sell sand to a Sheik, but have no idea how to do proper accounting. As a company matures, it figures out a way to augment the leadership and compensate for weaknesses of the CEO or founder. But there are always growing pains early on, as a startup has not yet identified and fixed said holes.

You really should be evaluating a startup by the high notes that it is hitting, not by the amount of dysfunction. So it should feel awesome at least some of the time. But the startup may very well feel dysfunctional most of the time. That is ok, the dysfunction can be fixed later, but if there is no market or technical breakthrough, then the startup is probably not going to do well.

I think this is great advice, but I’m wary of being misinterpreted. Ultimate success won’t come without good execution throughout the business, and that means eliminating all areas of dysfunction. But that can come over time. Success in the early days comes from doing one thing really well, and within the ecommerce ecosystem that means having product that wows customers. If the ‘wow’ factor is there and management are aware of the other gaps and working systematically to fill them then there’s a good chance of success.