5 Practical Skills to Bring to Your First Startup

by Heather Hansson - Director of Product, Docket

I am 5 months young into my first startup and proudly wear the badge of “employee no. 2.” My unusual and rewarding 20+ year career has brought me right where I feel I need to be at this moment in time, bringing with me a long list of skills and experience learned in previous corporate environments. However, I quickly discovered early that these skills required a different level of refinement to be useful in my new startup journey.

Flexibility

In larger organizations, your role is typically limited to the confines of a title. While there can be exceptions, typically when a role begins to cross a line into the next, conflict and competition take over: One department blocks another, a peer escalates frustration about another peer, and silos and walls begin to turn into strongholds.

In contrast, a startup thrives on flexibility. The team is small, so it is critical that everyone is willing to take part in anything that contributes to the success of the product or service. I have seen each person on our small team step into shoes that are not typically their own from our engineers taking customer calls, our CEO writing advertisement copy, and myself, a product manager, doodling designs in lieu of a designer (I never said they were pretty).

Flexibility in a startup means being ready to drop what you are working on at any time to work on something deemed more critical. Put that new hat on, whether or not it is within your comfort zone or job title, and embrace it as a learning experience.

Humility

We all want to feel special, necessary, and even critical. Sometimes when people (or egos) want to stand out in a large work environment, competition can be cut-throat. I have seen peers take on too much or be afraid to admit they don’t know something for fear of losing their job or not getting a promotion.

In a startup, no one knows exactly what they are doing because it is — a startup! Everything is new for everyone and while job functions, coding skills, or other factors may be brought to the table that help drive success, everyone is learning together, leaving absolutely no room for ego. I love overhearing my engineers debate a challenge and say to each other out loud, “I have never done that before.” It is so refreshing and transparent and allows others to feel they can be the same.

Humility in a startup means being able to admit you don’t know something early on and work together to figure it out. And when it comes to transparency with prospects and clients, be ready for rejection and reflection. Make it a goal to use the feedback to keep making your product or service better.

Creativity

In many work environments, unless you are in a department that is labeled, “creative,” it is typically assumed you are in a straightforward role that solves problems by a guidebook. But creativity is not just a designer or marketer skillset and can be extremely overlooked among others who come up with innovative ways to solve problems.

In a startup, creativity is more apparent as one works with fewer resources to accomplish big things. Our creativity came blaring one day when we did not feel right about the overall user experience of the product we were creating but could not yet afford a designer to fix it. This frustration became a roadblock, preventing us from feeling good about what we desired to accomplish. A few of us stayed in during lunch that day and, with a whiteboard and a bucket of dry erase markers, knocked out a new design that addressed all of our concerns. We copied and pasted the ideas into a Keynote (a.k.a. Not a designer tool) with images and components to piece it together. None of us have the title “designer”, but with our vision and teamwork, we mapped out exactly what we needed to overcome this challenge.

Creativity in a startup means being able to work together as a unit and then be prepared to be amazed at what you can do with fewer resources and lots of passion.

Agility

As a product manager, I have spent countless days pouring my heart into documenting requirements then seeing them sit on a shelf and collect dust while asking for customer forgiveness on the obvious lack of movement. After one or more jarring refinements, a robust project would be slimmed down to nothing. By the time it was released, the customers were unimpressed and my team and I were so over the project that the celebration was an afterthought.

In a startup, being nimble is a luxury of the small state you are in so you can work fast together as a team and deliver things the big guys cannot due to size, red tape, and silos. I have learned to scale down my requirements into smaller efforts to help make this process better for my team and with their coding magic, we have experienced more releases in a span of a few months than I had seen in several years in my previous professional universes. We then keep these projects on the whiteboard for a bit and when I go to ceremoniously cross them off, I can feel the entire engineering team watch behind me in the sweet silence of accomplishment.

Agility in a startup means to focus on small chunks of work together and see it through until completion so your customers can continuously see progress and your team can experience immediate job satisfaction and celebration of their accomplishments.

Generosity

I recall many times in a corporate environment, officers at the highest level did not get along, which translated down to the lowest ranks. Departments did not want to help each other unless there was something in it for them in return.

In a startup, receiving generosity is a means of survival. From my first day, I experienced many connections, my own and from my VC team’s inner and extended network, that were willing to help support us as beta testers and to provide feedback. This meant they were giving up their own time and resources without expecting anything in return.

Generosity in a startup is not only being humble enough to ask for it when you need it, but to be prepared to do the same and watch your product or service as well as your network blossom. Complete those surveys, try out some new beta products, and invest in others, and see the incredible impact giving back can make in your network and community.