Startup Life – Not What You Think

This is a longer post about working for a startup. For those with the mettle for the job, I highly recommend it; however, if you’re looking for a 9-5, Monday to Friday with ping-pong and bean bag chairs, stick to the cubicle.

Startups are not for everyone.


An example of a typical conversation when I meet someone new:

“What do you do for a living?” asks the person I just met.

“Oh, I work for a startup that focuses on patient engagement in the healthcare field. How about you, what work are you in?” I respond, cordially.

“A startup, wow! That must be exciting! I just work in HR a large company XYZ. But, you, you work for a startup, you must have fun all the time, right?” the new person I don’t really know responds while smiling and digging for their phone so we can swap contact information and they can later ask me to recommend them for a job with a startup.

Inside my being, I die just a little bit each time this scenario plays out. It boils down to the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for”.


Okay, let’s get down to brass tax:

Startups are HARD!

Big surprise, right? Amazingly, due to the romanticism of the Silicon Valley startup scene, people somehow believe that working at a fledgling company is all late night parties, ping-pong, and bean bag chairs. A joyous celebration of collaborative work punctuated only by the exultation of success day after day. Bright sunlight bringing nothing but glory and success to the underdog.

Reality check, television and movies very rarely give you the whole picture – watch them with a grain of salt.

Working for a startup is hard. It takes a certain amount of grit, determination, and masochism to work for a startup. Oddly enough, once you do it once, it gets easier to do it again and again.

When interviewing for my current company (which I love and will continue to full heartedly dedicate myself to until after we achieve “full success”), the CTO (Chief Technology Officer for those unfamiliar with the acronym) asked me, “You’ve worked for one startup, why the hell would you want to go through that again?” My answer was simple, “I enjoy the challenge and don’t mind the workload – every day makes me better even if it comes with a bit of pain” (this is paraphrased, but you get the point).

To work for a startup, you have to be able to endure the pain. Now, pain can come in many different forms, such as:

  • Sleep Deprivation – Weeks, if not months, of 12-18 hour days to deliver work normally performed by 3-4 people before getting a respite of some kind (usually sleeping in for an hour or two).
  • Time away from friends and family – This one has never been too difficult for me (I love you Husband! You know I do!) but can ruin marriages and relationships in short order.
  • Unrealistic expectations – Near impossible deadlines, unrelenting operation’s tempo, and never enough resources to accomplish half of it all.
  • Minimal benefits – Depending on when you start with a start-up, the upstart may not have medical, dental, or vision insurance; definitely no 401k; sometimes a salary is dependent more on the risk you are willing to take than your actual skillset.
  • Never enough time – Speaks for itself.

I think I’ll write a series of separate posts about the myth of work-life balance and what it takes for an average person to be successful at a startup (not merely survive).


ME - ABQ Airport - Oct 2018
Ready to fly out for the 4th week out of the past 5 weeks.

Another old saying goes something like this, “Tomorrow is a better day”.

Guess what? Tomorrow, at a startup, will only be harder than today was and half as hard as the day after tomorrow. It doesn’t get easier until the big VC (Venture Capital) investment or, more likely, acquisition occurs – either can mean the quick end to your tenure with that particular company.

Rare is the day that you walk into the office (open floorpan, of course) or shared workspace or garage and say, “Awesome! I get to take it easy today!” If this is what you’re looking for, seek life elsewhere. Taking an easy day at work is the same as saying, “I feel like putting myself two days behind! Let’s do it!” There is no payoff in taking it easy.


One of the best (and scariest) things about working for a startup is the difficulty of hiding your weaknesses.

In a large corporation, a person can work for 20 years not having done many things. Living as a number in a system; collecting a paycheck every two weeks; always in the right place at the right time to avoid displaying a weakness to his/her coworkers.

Maybe a middle-manager pawns off their presentations on their employees so the employee can take the blame when it is fouled up. Maybe it’s a paperwork shuffle that pins mistakes on an unwitting scapegoat in order to preserve some pension that isn’t likely to survive 10 years. Maybe it’s gross incompetence wrapped up in a sycophant who avoids responsibility through sheer kiss-assery.

In a startup, there aren’t any walls to hide behind. Your coworkers and leadership will see every mistake and every weakness. You can’t hide behind someone else, you have to take responsibility. And in a startup, there is no lengthy HR process to save you – the end is typically abrupt and comes with a handshake.

Now, there is a huge positive in this: you have the opportunity to identify, create a corrective plan, and overcome your weaknesses.

How do you do this? It’s pretty simple: be vulnerable and talk it out with your peers and leadership to develop yourself for the betterment of the company. Of Course, the learning curve is steep and expectations are real so don’t take this opportunity to improve lightly. Dive in and commit to change and you just might make it out the other side.


Would you like to see more posts about startup life in the real-world? Drop a comment below and let me know. Also, feel free to share your startup stories with me on Facebook or Twitter (the links are on the right!).

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September 11th – Our Day of Infamy

At this point, you’re social media feeds have been packed with #NeverForget, #NeverAgain, #AlwaysRemember, and American flags all day long. Good! Events like September 11, 2001 should not be forgotten for fear of history repeating itself. Anyone who thinks the evil of this world is suddenly going to throw their hands up and quit preying on the innocent is a bit naive.

I am writing this post while flying from Portland to Los Angeles then to Albuquerque on an American Airline’s plane. I’ve seen a number of threads on social media asking “Where were you when…” or “What were you doing when…” and it felt appropriate to share in a post written while flying.

At the time of the attacks, I lived in Midland Texas and was a stereotypical rebellious “goth” teenager. I made a point to play devil’s advocate whenever possible and bucked against the establishment simply to test boundaries. I balked at the military and shared my far-left anti-establishment politics with anyone around me (whether they wanted to listen or not). I was a senior in high school and felt more than ready to take on the world.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 I found myself in bowling class (yes, bowling class, the alternative to traditional P.E. – because, goth). We had just arrived at the bowling alley when the second plane hit the South Tower. The class took notice and paused all conversation, trying to figure out what movie the alley was playing. It only took a few seconds to realize it was all too real.

No one rolled a ball that day; no cheers for a strike; no smiles could be found on the two dozen kids in that class nor the three adults who worked at the lanes. Any talking was hushed whispers as all eyes were glued to the television screens which normally showed repeats of past bowling tournaments and advertisements for bad nachos and over-sweet sodas. Life felt like it had stopped.

It was fairly obvious to me that the world changed that morning. America wouldn’t be the same, the world wouldn’t be the same, , my generation wouldn’t be the same, I wouldn’t be the same. Having grown up in relative peace (all American conflicts had been low-grade combat operations that hadn’t lasted all that long – the Gulf War being the exception), I knew it wasn’t impossible for a full-scale war to occur in my lifetime, but it did seem unlikely until that morning.

At the appointed time (after all civilian air traffic was grounded, the Pentagon had been hit, and Flight 93 had crashed in Pennsylvania), we all loaded the bus and returned to school. I remember going to my parked truck instead of my next class and another student walking by and asking “Why you pissed off?” I couldn’t believe it, I wanted to ask him “Why aren’t you pissed off?” I couldn’t really reply other than to tell him to watch the news.

I left school shortly thereafter.

The attacks of September 11th weren’t a primary influence in my decision to join the Army nor did I suddenly hate all Muslims or form a negative opinion of an entire region because of the actions of a few, but, I can say it helped push me to be an Infantryman. Male pride and ego played into this decision as well, but knowing that we were attacked as a nation that day sure didn’t hurt my motivations.

I can only hope that we, as a country, never have to experience an event like this again; however, history is bound to repeat itself when we forget the lessons we have learned in the past.

Where were you? What were you doing? How did you respond to these attacks?

6 Tips for Getting Through Airport Security – FAST

This morning I flew from Albuquerque New Mexico to Portland Oregon via a very brief layover in Phoenix Arizona. I was astonished when, in Albuquerque, two people in front of me in the security checkpoint (it’s not the largest airport) held up my progress for longer than when I stand in line for an hour tryng to get my boarding pass checked.

It is 2018 and commercial aviation has been in full swing for nearly a century, yet when you are in an airport, people don’t seem to have any clue what they are doing. Confusion abounds at the security checkpoint, milling individuals and groups block pathways, and loading a plane sometimes comes across as a disorganized disaster. How can this be?

The security checkpoints, run by the TSA (love them or hate them), have a purpose – attempt to prevent any lethal or damaging objects accessible to a passenger into the airport or the airplane. Granted, some of the restrictions on allowable items are a head scratcher (finger nail clippers and tweezers come to mind as past examples), but learning which objects are banned is pretty easy.

Let’s start with some resources. When you book your flight online (as a majority of people now do) there is a screen that lists out all the banned items you shouldn’t bring to the airport, let alone try to take on the plane in your carry-on luggage. This page has pictures and words and requires you to acknowledge their existence. Okay, so most people breeze through this page without reading it. Fair enough.

Confused about what you need to do at the security checkpoint? Confused as to what your children need to do at the security checkpoint? Here’s a lovely 2-minute video for adults and a separate 2-minute animated video for kids – if you are confused, scared, or just don’t know then take the 2-minutes to save yourself some time and hassle while reducing the frustrations of everyone behind you. Slowing down the process because of your own ignorance is one of the most irritating experiences for the people around you.

I typically travel with two laptops, an iPad, cell phone, Apple Watch, Bose Bluetooth Earbuds Charger (lithium battery requiring removal from my bag), and all the standard items that go in one’s pockets. Left to my own devices (and barring an issue caused by a passenger in front of me), I can go from having my boarding pass and passport checked to all my items in the bins and through the full-body scanner in about 45 seconds. That’s less than a minute. Less time than it takes to order a pizza or smoke a cigarette.

How do I accomplish this amazing feat? It’s simple, I do the following:

  1. I remove my belt and everything from my pockets BEFORE I get to the security checkpoint. Since I travel with a single carry-on (most of the time), I put my belt, wallet, keys, change, cell phone, Apple Watch, and wedding ring in my bag. This means I don’t have to fuss with it while being pressured by a long line of fellow travelers waiting for me to push my bins down the pass.
  2. I have my boarding pass and passport ready for inspection BEFORE I get to the person who needs to check it. This is a simple one, you need both these items in order to get into the checkpoint, don’t bury them in your purse or bag.
  3. I don’t chit-chat with the TSA agents beyond a friendly “hello”. Some of you out there are genuinely nice people, got it…stow it until you’re on the far-side of the checkpoint. Travelers are trying to get to their aircraft and the TSA agents have a job to do so be polite but keep the process moving along.
  4. I know how many bins I need to accommodate all my belongings. This one is a bit more difficult for first-time or infrequent flyers so it is probably the most forgiveable delay in security. Here’s a hint: ONE bin for your electronics (assuming they all fit without any overlap), ONE bin for shoes and everything else you may be wearing + toiletries (again, assuming it all fits in a bin without overlapping). Bags (briefcases, purses, backpacks, rollers, etc.) don’t need to go in a bin!
  5. I follow the directions provided by the TSA Agents. This is a no-brainer for most people, but some travelers want to argue a point (as if that is going to help anyone) or give an attitude to the Agents that is typically unnecessary. I worked security for many years, sometimes in environments similar to( but much lower volume) an airport security checkpoint. It’s a thankless job but vitally important to safety – deal with it and get to your plane.
  6. I make sure I don’t have any food or drinks in my bags! I get very irritated when people hold up the line to ask a TSA Agent, “Is this liter of water okay to take through, I mean, it’s only water?” No, no, NO! It may be water or it may be something else that looks like water, toss it and let’s move forward. “Wait, do 12 bars of Toblerone count as food?” Yes, yes, YES! It is food, toss it or don’t get pissed off when you have to stand around for 20 minutes while an agent wastes their time wanding every bar.

In closing, remember that you are not the only person in the airport, you are not the only person stressed out about catching a flight, you are not special when going through the airport security checkpoint. We are all trying to get somewhere, try not to be “that guy” – it’s not funny and no one is laughing when you muck up the system.

Here’s a picture of a pretty fountain at my hotel, I hope you enjoy and safe travels!

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A pretty fountain outside the Portland Airport Radisson Hotel.

Expect the worst and hope…you planned enough!

Just about anyone who has met me, worked with me, or is a friend of mine would likely describe me as “negative” or “always pointing out the worst”. To be honest, I won’t deny such claims. I do focus quite a bit on those things that can go wrong and less on the things I hope go right. It’s also accurate to say that I am not quiet about voicing my concerns.

Am I just a pessimist who can’t be happy with any given situation? Do I have this need to shit on other people’s ideas or potential opportunities?

In short, the answer is a resounding “NO” to both those questions. So what’s up with the bad attitude?

I learned a long time ago, before the startup world, before contracting, before the Army, before I moved out of my parent’s house to expect the worst possible outcome and plan to counter any hurdles that can be identified at the start of an idea, change, or action.

The classic saying goes something like this: Hope for the best but expect the worst. Here’s the thing, if you are hoping for the best then you are likely not putting as much effort or thought into the worst. This sets you up for failure before you even start. In the end, you could probably look back and identify multiple issues that arose which could have been headed off from the beginning with better planning.

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Clearing a drainage tunnel with a 9 MM pistol and flashlight – do you think I had a sunny disposition going in?

In the Army, my thought process was reinforced with life and death situations. When you are a leader taking X number of soldiers on a patrol, ambush, or overwatch, you don’t approach the task with a sunny disposition. The default position is along the lines of: “We are going here to do these things and this, that, and everything else is likely to go wrong…this is how we mitigate risk and reduce the threat preemptively”. Sounds pretty grim, right? Well, it is! Real world combat operations aren’t the party Hollywood makes them out to be.

With a few modifications, this mindset is easily translated to the business world. “If we don’t get Update X out by this date then a high probability of losing 50% of our customer base and having to lay off 75% of the workforce exists.” What do you do? Quit? Hang up your hat, have a fancy cold brew, and let it be? HELL NO! You work with the team to make sure the engineers have what they need to produce Update X; you get the team to volunteer additional time in an effort to extend the deadline; you prep your customer base by setting proper expectations; you get to work.

A lot of people accept the concept of quitting. Life was unfair, I quit. My boss was a dick, I quit. The client wasn’t nice, I quit. It’s too hard, I quit. Here’s the problem, you can’t quit life! Life doesn’t care that you are at rock bottom; life isn’t going to stop while you wipe your tears off your face; life isn’t going to apologize for hurting your delicate sensibilities. Life is going to continue kicking your ass until you realize it’s up to you to change it!

Expecting the worst will help set you up for success. Think about it this way: I’m ready for everything up to and including the worst situation possible, anything short of that is easy.

One last thing, try to tackle the worst possibilities with a smile – it always seems to help the people you’ll end up working with throughout your life.

 

How do you handle planning? Do you start with the best possible situation and work your way to the worst? How do you achieve the end goal? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. Don’t forget to like and share on your favorite social media platform. Thanks for reading!

Reflections on the past and a better tomorrow…

A classic time traveling sci-fi premise has been the ability to go back in time and change something that you did or happened to you in the past. Think the Butterfly Effect without Ashton Kucher.

Here’s the rub: you don’t get to change it back and you don’t get to try again.

Now, a lot of people will say, “I love my life, I wouldn’t change a thing.” That may be true, at least, until I point to the death of someone you were close to, that decision to go down this path instead of that one, or any of the flaws in your perfect life. I think the same people who say they would change nothing actually want to change everything (or close to everything).

Listen, I am happy with the person I have become, the people in my life, and the life I have lived thus far. I have done more in my first 34 years of life than most people will do in their entire lives. I have seen pure joy and innocence while internalizing the experiences of the worst parts of human nature. I have loved, laughed, hated, fought, and worked to become who I am today and I am immensely proud to have survived this long. 

However, it can be a good thought exercise to contemplate what could have been. It may motivate you to be a better person than you are today or to pursue that thing you passed on a decade ago or to make changes for the better (though, statistically, I guess it has an equal possibility of turning out to be a bad thing).

How many of you reading this would change something, big or small doesn’t matter, one decision, one action, one event changed?

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A lonely road littered with bombs (think life metaphor)

I won’t lie to any of you, I would make a change or two. The changes wouldn’t be for fame or fortune, a “better” life, or any obvious material gain. I’m not a Buddhist or some wannabe saint with no materialistic motivations, but I have already learned that money, property, and physical possessions come and go, who we are stays with us until we die. My modifications would involve slight improvements to me as a person. One less mean comment here, an extra hug for my father, or a more open mind at a younger age to things I hadn’t yet experienced. Small tweaks that could have a positive ripple effect across multiple lives.

Obviously, none of us can change the past and dwelling on the good or bad of yesterday will usually keep us from being better in the now and future. One of the reasons I have studied history throughout my life is because it was said “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana). I know I make a conscious effort not to repeat my mistakes (I don’t always succeed), but I also want to do more than I did yesterday. It sounds cliche, but I want to be better tomorrow than I am today.

Since I can’t change yesterday (or a night 16 years ago that I impulsively moved out of my parent’s house without a plan), I choose to remember the past for what it was and move on into the grey unknown of the future.

 

Do you find yourself thinking about the past more than you would like? Do you think you can make up for mistakes of the past with actions in the present? Share your thoughts in the comments below. Don’t forget to like and share AverageLuke on your favorite social media platform. Thanks for reading my ramblings!