Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup: Help

Why does help matter at a startup?

At a startup there’s a lot to do, you’re under-resourced, and you’re all in it together. You'll need help from your team and they'll need help from you.

"That's not my job" is not something that anyone wants to hear when a milestone is looming. "How can I help?" has a much better ring to it, and is much more likely to lead to success at a startup. Having said that, knowing your own limitations is fine. A willingness to help is what's important.

One of my favourite emails at Primal Fusion came in the days after we launched our product at DEMO. The influx of users led, inevitably, to issues that needed to be addressed. My manager and I dived into answering emails from users who encountered problems. We had good fun, and at one point he sent me this email: “All these years of professional services and you and I have finally been promoted to help desk ;)”

I'm pretty proud of that, even though it really had little to do with my job.

Finally, two things to keep in mind regarding your willingness to help. First, help isn't about stepping all over your team mates. Remember, “How can I help” is a question to ask, not a directive to interfere. Second, make sure that the work you’re actually accountable for gets done, or negotiate something else.

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This is one in a short series of posts called Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup. The thoughts started life as a presentation I made at VeloCity residence at the University of Waterloo. While they're far from definitive, and aren't a top ten, they've mattered to me in my software startup experience.

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