Joining an Early Stage Startup in 2022? 5 Tips to Get Off to a Great Start.

New year, new you, right?! After putting off meetings, projects and interviews “until January” for the last six weeks of Q4, Q1 is a great time for big career transitions. Layer that yearly cycle on top of the “great resignation,” “great reshuffle,” “great reflection,” or whatever we’re calling this moment in work+life right now and it’s fair to assume that many of you are getting ready to start a new role.

I’ve helped hundreds of people find and ramp up into new positions in startups and these are my top 5 tips to set yourself up for success. If you haven’t found the right role just yet, keep these tips in mind as you search, sign, and get started.

1. Wind down before you ramp up

There is truth in the saying, if you give an inch, they will take a mile when it comes to startup life. High growth companies will take anything and everything you have to give them if you let them. Interestingly, that’s often part of the appeal–you want to see the impact of your work and accelerate your career. 

While you gear up for the inevitable roller coaster rocket ship ride, I want you to protect the period of time after you accept an offer and before you start. Once they’ve found you, hiring teams are eager to put your talents to work and might directly ask that you start working before you wrap up your current role or might subtly suggest that you do so by setting up your accounts and adding you to meetings. 

Resist the urge to log-in and show up just because they’ve unleashed the access (even if it’s the CEO who did so). Take time to thoughtfully complete your transition with your current team and company, to reflect on what worked (or didn’t) and what you want, and to let go of what won’t suit you in your new role. Then, take a few days or week or two to refresh and reset.

But how?! I’ve sat on both sides of this situation and failed to make sure my own time was protected and also put the pressure on for someone to start as soon as possible. The best way to ensure you can make this work is to set a firm and proactive buffer while interviewing. For example, if you’re interviewing in mid-January, ask them how long they anticipate the process will take and when they’d like someone on the ground. If they say the process takes about 2 weeks and they’d have someone in tomorrow if they could, let them (both the recruiter and the hiring manager) know you’ll do what it takes to accommodate the interview schedule but have to give notice and have personal commitments that make a late February start date the soonest possible option. That way, if interviews conclude at the end of January and you accept an offer and give notice in early February, you have some flexibility to select an end and start date with some downtime built in. There will be a moment when they’ll try to push, and you’ll potentially feel guilty, but stay firm with your decision. While a hiring team might act like a week makes a world of difference, we all know, you blink and they’re over–the work will still be there, but your rest and recovery won’t be.

2. Take a day (or two) to spark creativity before you start

The job search and interview process can be exciting. Often, you’re pursuing a new company or role that offers something your current employer and position doesn’t. You’re meeting new people and talking about projects and products and that leads to new ideas and enthusiasm about what’s to come. Interviews are exercises in optimism–they bring out the best in both sides with a healthy dose of sales built in. Execution, of course, is not as shiny. Once you get ramped up, your ability to focus on those big ideas and innovation opportunities fades little by little or sometimes all at once. 

But those sparks, those new connections in your brain, matter! As you interview, keep track of what energizes you, whether it’s the industry, a tough challenge that someone mentioned or a new technology you’ll get to explore. 

Since you took the chance to create and protect downtime between your two roles (wink! wink!), save one day to focus on the aspects of the role you’re excited about. Subscribe to newsletters or follow leading thinkers and companies in the space, write down the work that you hope manifests over time, and the questions you’ll want to dig into. Start to connect with fellow team members and engage with their posts. Keep an open mind, see what sparks, and follow where it leads you.

We all think we’ll find and save time for deep, creative thinking, but then the long days become fast weeks and we’ve pushed through what’s necessary but not what’s new or what renews. Set these foundations before you start so that they’re easier to pick up along the way. 

Help others help you! You’ve seen them, you might have even written one over the past few years, those “some personal news” posts. Once your transition is public and imminent, make a personal news post highlighting where you’re going and why, as well as what you’d like to learn. Ask your network for tips on who to follow, what to read, and where to explore and the prep for your day of creativity is set in motion.

3. Set up your systems

Yes, you’ll need to set up your access and tools, note taking, goal tracking, HR systems and desk in order to get to work, but here I’m focused on systems in the broader sense–the methods and frameworks that support how you work. 

  • As you wind down and explore before you start your role, think about the boundaries you’ll need to maintain in your next role. These can be about family–being present for dinner or doing pick up several times a week, wellness–protecting time for workouts or therapy appointments, or time off–when do you have plans or when can you proactively schedule a break? Once you identify these priorities, ask what the communication or approval protocol is and block your calendar. And don’t check Slack while you’re out running, riding or reading to a class full of kids! 
  • Review the benefit programs and plans and make sure you’re taking care of your future self. I missed saving for myself and my retirement for months one year, because I didn’t make time to enroll in my 401k and get my auto-savings deductions set up in the HR system. I’ve seen employees miss benefit enrollment deadlines or make a quick decision without reviewing which plans are best for their needs. Don’t deprioritize your financial or physical health! Take time to make sure you have connected the accounts and reviewed the health plans, costs and networks. If necessary, schedule time with your HR team or a financial advisor to ask questions.
  • Create a success tracker. This can be as simple as a Google doc where you can copy over kudos and accomplishments, where you can remind yourself of what you’ve achieved and of who recognized you when you’re having a down day, prepping for a performance review or collecting the bullets for your resume when you’re next on the job hunt. Set a small calendar reminder, say 15 minutes, each week to drop in updates. Your future professional self will thank you!

4. Channel your inner sponge–absorb, hydrate, and rest 

Until recently, I had limited myself to thinking about the “be a sponge” concept primarily to absorbing info, asking questions, and capturing ideas. All of that is very sponge-like and important while onboarding into a new role, but so are other spongy behaviors I encourage you to consider.

  • Squeeze out the excess water! Eventually, a sponge reaches its max capacity and you have to release the excess or you’ll find yourself making a bigger mess. I take a lot of notes, on paper, it’s part of my system. Ideas, to-dos, comments and context. Every couple weeks I sit at my desk and go through the pile to determine what I still need, what’s irrelevant or done, and what I can’t take on (even if it’s a great idea!). I consolidate, reprioritize, and then recycle the rest. I used to hold on to even the messiest and most mundane of notes until I realized those undone to-dos, those emails that I should have sent weeks ago were not helping me move forward, they were holding me back. In a new role, there is going to be so much that you could do, the squeeze and release exercise is about focusing on what you should do.
  • Hydrate. I mean literally, drink lots of water. When you’re in “absorb” mode, moving from meeting to meeting, catching up on history and context, learning new names and remembering passwords, you might forget to fill your cup. I remember getting headaches and falling asleep at 7 pm after starting a new role and realized that I had basically gone from AM coffee to PM wine. Once I got back on the water wagon, I was in better shape to listen, learn and take care of my health in the process.

5. Favor Progress and Patience over Perfection and Quick Payoffs

The desire to impress and achieve in a new role is strong for many of us, so we say “yes!” to all the things and agonize over font size in a presentation or word choice in an email. We think we have to do everything right, right away. The extra hours and the insecurity or anxiety are real and tough to navigate.    It takes months to fully onboard into a new position, to be operating effectively and adding value across all the bullet points in your job description. 

Remind yourself that you’ll get there, that the team wants you to succeed (that’s why they hired you!) and that work is about progress. The push for perfection or to get results before you’ve gotten integrated into the organization can lead to burnout and mistakes or damage relationships during the critical rapport-building phase. 

  • Make sure you have regular meetings in place with your manager and a simple structure to talk through priorities and projects. I love the important vs. urgent framework for categorizing where I should spend my time.
  • Ask for quick feedback, especially if you’re at a company where they don’t have formal channels in place yet. It doesn’t have to be over-engineered, it can be a quick question after a meeting or presentation or a preview of an important email. 
  • Set up “history” lessons with team members to learn about what they’ve tried and tested, what worked and what failed, and how you can help pick up where others have left off.
  • Continue to ask questions (check out my book for some ideas!). Who says the discovery process has to end with interviews?