It's been over a month now since I joined Cockpit365, a startup where more or less everything is in flux: The product, the organizational structure, the market, the ecosystem, … So I didn't know what to expect - except to expect the unexpected. In fact, I wasn't sure if I would even survive the first month, given both the personal, professional, and economic dynamics at play. But here we are: One month in, and hopefully many more to come. I've learned a lot this month, and in this post I'd like to summarize some of the more surprising aspects of my "startup life".
On working hours
Needless to say, the hours I logged this month were crazy compared to an ordinary 9-to-5 job, but the curious thing is: It didn't feel that way at all. We're a remote-first company, so most of the time I'm working out of home and have full flexibility about when and how I chose to work. I found that most days I've settled into a weird, but oddly satisfying rhythm: I'd get up around 5am and be at my desk as early as 6am some days. Those early hours, say 6 to 9am, are the ones in which I find my concentration to be at it's peak - especially if I'd been out for a run before starting to work. Keeping at it until about 11am, I've already put in a ton of quality work before most people even settle in at their desks. Around 11:30 or so I feel my concentration waning and hunger rising, so I'm headed out for lunch, usually with friends or former co-workers. Those lunches can take up to two hours, but keeping up social ties is extremely important in a job where you don't have the comfort of a stable peer-group you meet every day in the office. Also, they're extremely refreshing. By the time I'm back at my desk, say 1:30pm, we'd have our daily standup meetings with the rest of the team, and then maybe a couple of customer or partner calls. Depending on what else is on my todo list I'd be actively working until 4 or 5pm most days - some days longer, of course.
On work/life balance
If you poll university graduates nowadays about what they're looking for in a job, "work-life-balance" usually comes up as one of the top answers. Nevertheless, I think people tend to misinterpret what that means. I often hear people thinking of work-life-balance as a permission to slack off whenever they feel like it, regardless of what's happening in their company at the moment. The opposite of that spectrum is what corporate lobbying organizations like to call "work time flexibility", by which they mean permission to drag employees to work whenever demand is high, and send them back home when it is not, without regard for the employee's personal situation.
Both of those things are not "work/life balance", they're selfish ways of trying to squeeze more out of a professional relationship. The kind of "work/life balance" that I've experienced during the past month is a different one: It's one where I'm happy to work on a rainy Saturday morning, because I want to get a certain feature done, and because I know getting this done matters. But it's also taking a beautiful Monday afternoon off to climb a mountain because I know that that's going to be one of the last chances to do that this year, and I know that I'm not missing anything important at work. And, of course, I've told the rest of the team that I'll be off in advance.
In his book Extreme Ownership, author and former Navy SEAL instructor Jocko Willink states that for him, "discipline equals freedom". That sounds a bit like a motto out of George Orwell's 1984, but there's an interesting truth to it if you think about it: The discipline of not eating candy every day breeds the freedom to indulge in an awesome chocolate cake every now and again, without having to feel guilty. The discipline of running regularly breeds the freedom of truly enjoying an autumn hike in the mountains without constantly gasping for air. And, the discipline of putting in high quality work on a regular schedule breeds the freedom to drop work for the enjoyments of private life on occasion.
On building on what's already there
I'll let you in on a secret: We're actually not a startup in the truest sense of the word. What we're doing is transforming a founder-run one-man-company into a professional software product organization. That means that we're not starting from scratch, but with a lot of pre-existing functionality, and existing customers. That's of course both a blessing and a curse: On the one side, we know exactly what our customers want and need, and what changes we therefore need to make to the product. That gives a lot of clarity of purpose, and eases the question that so many startups stumble over: "Is this the right problem to solve?" On the other side, it can lead to a limited field of view, that can culminate in what Clayton Christensen termed "The innovators dilemma": The fact that focusing too much on what your current customers want, you may overlook trends in the market that can ultimately lead to disruption. Also it can lead to a too narrow vision, where you only see existing customer use cases as worthwhile pursuits, instead of thinking about how your company can help make the world a better place.
On discussion culture
Building on a pre-existing one-man product can be hard, especially if you're not that one man who built it. Essentially I'm the one coming in and criticizing a lot of what our founder built over the years, a position that's quite tricky to navigate in ordinary circumstances. I'm extremely lucky though: I think partly due to our personalities, but also due to personal discipline, we managed to establish a discussion culture in which feedback and criticism are not only allowed, but encouraged. Of course, this works both ways: The things that I'm now working on are not only open for discussion as well, but more than that I actively encourage everyone to rip them apart, tell me why they suck, and help me make them better. (Side note: For someone who has a track record of being terrible at receiving feedback - especially of the negative kind - this is one of the hardest aspects of my job and my life. But: It's an area in which the smallest progress compounds into huge gains over time!)
On the future
That past month has been one of the most exciting and fulfilling times of my life so far. We've made incredible progress with our product, as well as with our marketing, sales, and channel building efforts. I've also learned a lot about technology, leadership, markets, customers, and economics. The most important things I've learned though, are about myself: Some of my preconceptions, both positive and negative, about who I am have been reinforced, others have been overthrown.
So where do we go from here? Personally, I've gained a lot more clarity about who I am in my new role, who I want to be, and how to become that person. Professionally, there's only one way to go, to quote our founder: "On, to world domination!"