20/20 Hindsight – Getting Your Start in a Startup
This is my site Written by Alora on April 23, 2009 – 2:06 pm

Jump StartingPeople who did not meet me until at or around my 25th birthday would never believe it, but in school, I was the Queen of Slackers. Truly. School was too easy, too routine and I spent too long doing it to be able to breath new life into the experience. I could dodge classes, do my homework at the last minute (assuming I did it at all), skip out on reading assignments and skate through tests in my sleep. As a result, I got very, very lazy. I couldn’t see the point of exerting effort on something, if by doing almost nothing I had nearly as good a result.

And then I got a job — that ultimately turned into a career — at a start-up. Pay dirt!

The transformation that sparked in me is still an endless source of amusement among my friends. It took me a while to realize why, but eventually it was clear: the problem with school is that there was an upper limit on what I was capable of achieving. It was an artificial cap on how well I could be scored. I found that inherently disincentivizing. In business, however, there is no upper limit. You can take something as far or as high as you can push it (given the right environment, of course).

And, even better, in a scrappy, entrepreneurial, risk-taking startup (especially one trying to survive an economic downturn) someone who is hungry, talented, teachable and willing to dive into the deep end of the pool head first has tremendous opportunity for growth. The first three years of my career were the most educational, exciting and energizing time of my life — all of my years of school combined couldn’t compare to those three years. Everything was new, everything was interesting and I never once had the slightest bit of doubt that I could conquer anything that came my way.

Ah, the hubris of youth!

Of course, there were downsides. Like many young people, I didn’t know my limits and was constantly pushing the envelope in ways that I probably shouldn’t have (and in ways that I’ve since learned not to do). Whereas many 26-year-olds may be more inclined to do that with parties, I did it with work. I ended up missing a lot of important events in the lives of friends and family because of that.

I was also still extremely idealistic about a great many things. Instead of The Pragmatic Contextualist, an appropriate blog title would have been something along the lines of The Snarky Idealist or Bring it On and Get Out of the Way! (Which, ironically, is still how some people tend to view me, though I have toned down considerably with age.)

But that idealism was invaluable to me, because it made me fearless: if anything is possible and I’m extremely capable, then what do I have to be afraid of? I don’t tend to be very risk-adverse in general, but I have become more cautious with age (though, not quite enough for either my husband or father’s tastes). Back then, though, it would never occur to me that I wouldn’t figure out a way to succeed at whatever I did — which meant I was a hopeless volunteer junkie.

My biggest rush came from fixing problems, and in a post-bubble burst start-up, there were plenty of things to be fixed. So I had an endless supply of opportunity, and endless confidence in my own success. Happily, I also had bosses who went from having nothing to lose by letting me try, to truly believing in my ability to make a positive difference.

As was inevitable, a few kicks in the teeth later, and I stopped being quite so cocky. The pragmatist in me was ultimately born of those experiences, and the eternal idealist retreated to the back, only to come out for the occasional political event.

One of the biggest, most valuable lessons I learned was how to deal with chaos. More recently in my career, I had a bizarre moment when a senior IT Director — who was easily 25 years older than me — groused that we were working in “the most chaotic environment” he’d ever experienced in his life.

I wanted to laugh and call him a weenie (I restrained myself — though barely). The environment we were working in at the time was easily the least chaotic environment I’d ever experienced, and his inability to roll with the punches made him a particularly weak and frustrating leader in my opinion, because he got frazzled very easily, whined constantly and was tremendously rigid. It never occurred to me until that moment that my ability to handle chaos was all that unique.

Naturally, one of the dangers of getting a bit too used to high volumes of chaos is that you can become a drama junkie. This did happen to me, and it took me a while (and outside circumstances) to curb it. But what I have seen of most drama junkies (and trust me, I wasn’t the only one I knew) is that, the older we get, the less tolerance we have for that same constant fever-pitch of insanity.

This is another reason that I have often recommended aimless twentysomethings seeking career advice to explore startups: because by the time people are settled in their career, married or have kids, startups can be a bit too rough on the lifestyle. So if you’re going to do them, best give them a shot while you’re young, energetic, single and have as few external obligations as possible.

But when I look back on that time now, I am profoundly grateful. I was drinking from a fire hose, and it never occurred to me there was any other way to work. I got to sample a spectrum of potential opportunities and figure out which ones held some appeal, and which ones didn’t. If I had found myself in a more stable, structured environment back then, I can’t imagine where I’d be now, because the lessons I learned there, and the all-you-can-eat-buffet of opportunities that I had available to me at the time are how I found my way into a career.

In the scheme of things, I look back on the most pivotal, impactful decisions of my life and the day I left the famed O’Reilly Publishing — which is where I thought I’d wanted to work for years — and went to MarketLive (at the time it was still called MultimediaLive) was one of them. And since then, I have found myself encouraging twentysomethings who do not know what they want out of a career to look at startups, because as long as they can develop a bit of tolerance for chaos (which I firmly believe everyone should do), they’ll usually find opportunities they never knew existed.

What do you think? Are startups a good or bad place to start out your career?