I recently had the amazing opportunity to go work for a startup (PokitDok). This startup had everything I could possibly want in an opportunity: a great team, a lead investor who was a personal friend, an amazing mission/vision (which is what really drew me to them). And it was a gut wrenching decision to leave my position at Limelight Networks where, for all intents and purposes, I had an extended family and had just help pivot the company to new messaging and direction. But I did it.
No risk, no reward, right?
Well, four weeks later, I’m back at Limelight writing this personal reflection because I hope that people can learn from my experience.
The truth about startups
Everyone sees the startup opportunity as a potential lottery win. Sure, there’s the possibility of a windfall financially but for every one that hits it big, there are hundreds, even thousands, that don’t.
There are three things that people don’t quite understand about startups (and that I had forgotten, unfortunately). First, they are very tight-knit. Even post series-A, PokitDok had 13 people who had all worked together at some point (everyone in the company had a relationship to the two founders). They were already like a family. So there is a lot of intimacy in a startup which, for classic introverts like myself, is very had to deal with. Second, they move fast. Everyone is doing a lit bit of everything at some point. When work needs to be done and there’s no one who is “responsible” for it, someone picks it up and runs with it (or they acknowledge they will get to it later if it’s not part of the focus). That can be a major cultural shock for someone coming from a public-company environment where roles and responsibilities are fairly well defined. Third, it’s all about focus. There are limited resources (time and money) and in order to be successful enough to garner more investment (or, heaven forbid, revenue) the company has to remain focused on the tasks that lend themselves directly to proving the company’s business model. That can have significant challenges for introverts who are big thinkers and visionaries.
I got broadsided by all three of these issues. As an introvert (with some other mental challenges I won’t go into), I quickly withdrew. It was massive overstimulation. Every meeting, every “huddle up”, every problem I saw, every “lacking” element from the marketing function generated more mental output than I knew what to do with. I couldn’t process it quickly enough. It was overwhelming. Which, of course, led to another problem: I began to get manic. In my introverted mind, I wanted to get the minutiae tackled. I wanted to get all the processes and day-to-day stuff out of the way so that I could concentrate on what I was good at: thinking, pontificating, dreaming, exploring, examining. So I was producing a lot of stuff but not very deeply. I wasn’t very focused. Which is all great for brand and strategic marketing, not so good for day-to-day.
When the shoe drops…
So at the end of 4 weeks the CEO and I agreed that “it wasn’t a fit”.
It’s important to understand the implications of coming to this conclusion. It wasn’t a reflection on my skills or my ability to accomplish my work. It was all about my role (as a senior executive) and the current state/size of the company. In 3 or 4 years? Different story. But we didn’t actually part ways completely. I transitioned into a consulting arrangement. They still needed that strategic thinking. They still wanted me to help them “tell their story”. And I really wanted to do that. They just couldn’t afford the salary for me to do just that. They needed to get the tactical help that would enable them to prove out the model.
Some people might find this a massive blow to their ego. They might not hear the part about “it’s not a reflection of your skill, we still need you to help us.” Only I understand startups and so I applaud the CEO for her ability to make a quick decision. There’s really no way to hide a problem, like someone not fitting or a lack of focus, in a startup. That intimacy exposes everything. And because of that second thing about startups, things moving really fast, a problem can snowball completely out of control in a matter of weeks (where it might take months or years in a more established company).
Still, I did what anyone would do: I freaked out a little. I just lost my job (despite the consulting opportunity). I had no health benefits. Ruh, roh…
There really is a silver lining
Thankfully, I had left Limelight under great circumstances. I didn’t go to a competitor. I didn’t blast the company over their issues. I didn’t leave angry. In fact, I left sad (and I was actually still consulting with them because I still believe strongly in what they are trying to accomplish; heck, I helped get them there). So I reached out to my former boss (Kirby Wadsworth, with whom I was co-authoring a book for Wiley anyway) and told him what had happened. Long story short, I am back at Limelight for the long-term.
I know that a lot of people are excited by startup opportunities but going into one with eyes wide-open is critical to being successful which is why I impart this one piece of advice: The startup culture (fast, intimate, focused) has to fit with your personality. It’s probably not the best place for a classic introvert unless you are an engineer where it’s expected that you are heads-down in code.
Every experience, no matter how small, changes us
But I also learned a lot about myself. In fact, it gave me a new perspective on my role in helping a business be successful. That new perspective actually empowered me to come up with a role at Limelight (working for Kirby) that is perhaps the most exciting role I could have ever imagined. I’ll share more of that later. So what did I learn?
- That I’m not a “leader”. That’s not me. Worrying about leading takes away from my ability to do what I do best. When I played hockey, I was a go-to guy because I worked hard. But I was never the captain.
- That it’s okay not to be the best at everything. I’ve embraced what I’m really good at: strategy/vision, writing/storytelling, and speaking. Those are my three core strengths. Everything else…no thanks.
- That being happy with myself means recognizing #1 and #2.
Would I have liked the startup to work out? Sure. They really have a powerful mission and vision (which is why I am going to help them tell it). Yet I also don’t think that I would have had a “life changing” event if it had worked out. I might have continued to believe that I was good at everything, that I was a leader (and deserved the title to go with it), and that I was happy. So in a sense, everything worked out for the best. I got to go back “home” to my extended family (and an exciting new role) while making new relationships with the people at Pokitdok (who are all really awesome people, by the way) with whom I’ll get to work with for a long time.
My ultimate advice to everyone? Be truthful to yourself. Accept your weaknesses and embrace your strengths. Don’t try to make strengths out of weaknesses if it’s going to make you miserable trying. Understand that you cannot place anything above your own personal happiness. Because if you aren’t happy, you can’t contribute to other people’s happiness.
Image courtesy of saunderschroed.blogspot.com.