Chaos: The Truth of Start-Ups
October 31st was on a Monday, so naturally we decided to celebrate Hallowe’en the Friday before… you know, make the most of it. The attendees looked amazing; Goku was proudly sporting his signature bright orange karate gi. Frankenstein loped around giving everyone a cheeky smile, his dark hair falling into a perfect mess over his large green face. Who was I? Catwoman. I didn’t quite look as good as everyone else, but I prowled around the office, admiring the efforts everyone had made. There was laughter and excited chattering. Spirits were high.
Then, I am unexpectedly called into a meeting room, “Lola… I have some news…”
“… Ok …”
“We’re not able to pay salaries on Monday.”
We never received the salary owed. Interestingly, the experience I had working at this company is one of the best I ever had.
We were ambitious and driven. We — worked — hard. We had high standards. We challenged each other to reach the best solution. We believed in the product and that we had the ability to make a significant and positive impact. We grew quickly and still managed to maintain and build on our close and inclusive culture. Even at 150 in our London office alone, we were a family; each member from a different walk of life, bringing our full selves to the table every day. Ugh — the memories still warm me.
There were also some ugly aspects, as with all things, but I personally found the good outweighed the bad. Our first office was uncomfortable. Cramped, freezing cold in the winter, and boiling hot in the summer — but we loved it, and this didn’t put people off joining. You could feel the buzz of energy from the team as soon as you walked in, even as you simultaneously felt your sweat seep through your freshly ironed shirt. Even more palpable, was the sense of realising a dream. There’s nothing quite like it, but the reality is, it was chaos.
According to Wikipedia, Chaos is “… the void state preceding the creation of the universe…” When we boil the word down to etymology, chaos means “emptiness, vast void, chasm, abyss.”
When you join a from-the-ground-up business, you are effectively stepping into chaos. Things will always be worse than you thought. Everything needs to be created (literally, EVERYTHING) and built from scratch.
Within this abyss, you somehow have to:
- take ownership and the lead wherever possible
- understand the priorities and know what and when to re-prioritise
- have a sense of urgency, but also know when to be patient
- be a proactive learner and participant
- understand and work closely with individuals and departments you may have never interacted with before
- speak your mind, yet achieve more than you say — regardless of your seniority
- be creative, solutions-focused, and implement these solutions… quickly!
- show results… quickly!
- be able to adapt… quickly!
- have the ability to learn from and overcome failure… quickly!
- persevere, often simply on belief
This doesn’t quite line up with the bright images of shiny offices the likes of Google and Facebook show us, does it? Well, Google and Facebook are no longer start-ups, but they would have had similar, and likely, more aggressive phases, considering their current dominance.
When you join a start up, you are joining a conceived idea. You are part of a dream, and you are there to make the dream a reality. If all goes well, big, shiny offices are the byproduct of sheer hard work, blood, sweat and tears… oh, and a piece of your heart and soul.
Before you join a start-up or scale-up, you have to be honest with and about yourself.
- What is your appetite for risk considering the odds are stacked against you? Most start-ups fail.
- What is your perception of Chaos?
- Are you able to build, to make something out of nothing — independently, with little-to-no resource?
- How do you deal with failure?
- Do you understand the concept of continuous improvement?
- Are you ready to work harder than ever before? To be stretched and challenged in extremely uncomfortable ways?
- Are you willing and able to be all in?
- Do you enjoy working in such an intense way?
Why do I love start-ups and scale-ups? Simply because I don’t feel entrapped by legacy. I love to create, and build, and make an impact and I want my impact to be visible. I want to be pushed to do more and to do better. To me, chaos is beautiful. Chaos births creativity. It is the opportunity to dip my hands in disorder, and help to create order. It is an opportunity to build something new, something better.
I have experienced a worst-case scenario in a start-up, but the overall experience that preceded that scenario was priceless. When everything unravelled, I asked myself whether it was worth it, whether I would do it again, knowing the outcome.
The answer is always, “Yes”.