In almost every business magazine, you’ll come across terms like startup, innovation and entrepreneurship. When the stories of Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Jeff Bezos, Ariana Huffington, Jack Ma and Elon Musk dominate the news agenda every day, and it’s not difficult to understand the intrigue behind these words. But what does it really mean for someone to work at a startup? In this blog, Canva product manager Mike Williams shares this thoughts about what you need to consider before embarking on your very own startup journey.
Many of you reading this will likely be considering venturing into a startup or high growth environment from a larger or more mature organization. You will likely be wondering what the experience will be like, potentially hesitant of taking a risk into a newer venture, and intrigued on the differences between your current workplace and that of a startup.
A couple of years ago, I chose to join Canva, a then 70 person Sydney office (now 350 globally, with 30 new starters a month), to accelerate my own learning - something which it has definitely delivered on. Prior to that, I’d spent time in larger tech companies and professional services firms across insolvency, law and accounting.
Whilst I’ve personally loved my experience in startups, I would argue high growth companies are an avenue suited to a particular kind of person. Here are my 10 things to consider before joining a startup.
1. You’re adaptable to new and changing roles
In larger organizations, staff are typically more familiar with functionally defined career progression in speciality areas. In the past few years at Canva, I’ve had the privilege of moving around Canva in roles covering international growth, partnerships, product, and people operations.
Some of my various roles at Canva. From top left: launching Canva in Japan, attending Great Place to Work Awards whilst in the People Team, celebrating the launch of canva.com/careers with the Digital Design team with formal Fridays, and a team outing with Canva’s International Team.
Whilst some specialities at Canva such as software engineering or product design are less subject to variance in core responsibility, other folks can experience role scope changes and growth more regularly.
The founders of Canva are less worried than their counterparts at other organizations about whether you have “5 years of experience doing X”, and more concerned about whether you can solve problems and have proven ability to get a job done. This is validated by my teammates here who have moved from SEO to Product Management, from Finance to Operations, and from Vibe to Paid Growth, to name only a few examples.
My primary point here is that you have be open to and enjoy this kind of change, as role changes can occur more frequently in startups. I personally see it as a blessing. If you’re the first to be concerned when your role deviates from your original job description, startups mightn’t be the right option for you.
2. You crave challenges and doing things you’ve never done before
Ask yourself, do you want to be on a rocketship, or a cruise ship?
Similar to the point above, your responsibility levels can grow very dramatically in fast-growing companies. As I mentioned, Canva has basically doubled each year since I’ve been at the company, meaning individual team sizes grow commensurately and your learning curve is a typically lot steeper than in larger company environments. You’ll be solving problems and facing challenges that you would frankly not be doing for another 10, 20 or maybe 30 years in a bigger organization.
I often hear Canva newbies mention when receiving a new task, “at my old company, there was a whole team for this!” Chances are, you are that team now, or you might have to build one up from scratch.
It’s important that you’re excited about these accelerated growth challenges that will come your way before taking the leap into a high growth environment.
3. You embrace the traits that makes startups successful
I’ve thought carefully about the kinds of traits and attributes that make people successful at Canva and in startup environments more broadly. Some of these are not unique to startups, but the utility of many of these attributes are amplified in high growth company environments.
Here is my shortlist:
- Initiative: Startups are places where hundreds of problems exist at any given moment, and building solutions creates even more new problems to solve. The best people in my view identify these issues, and proactively come up with thoughtful solutions to solve them, and then respectfully work with others and teams to action and implement them.
- Adaptability: This hits closely on the first topic. In startups, your role might change, but also the product you’re building or the company structure might alter, sometimes on a quarterly or monthly basis. Being adaptable and flexible in these situations is imperative to enjoying a role at a startup.
- A patient, yet persistent mindset: This is paramount. Stealing a recent observation from our Canva CEO Melanie Perkins, Jeff Bezos was quoted saying, “When somebody … congratulates Amazon on a successful quarter… I say thank you. But what I’m thinking to myself is… those quarterly results were pretty much fully baked about 3 years ago”. Results are not immediate in projects you’re undertaking or products you’re building, so maintaining a patient yet persistent mindset is key. This doesn’t mean to take it easy whilst numbers are down or stagnating, but constantly work on solutions and know that outcomes might take months or years to materialize into results. For example, our recently launched Canva 2.0 product was years in the making and required the entire team to be highly patient through a huge rewriting process.
- Openness to feedback: This trait is valuable everywhere, but plays an important role in startups in particular given the speed at which things move. Being fixed in one’s own mindset or viewpoint can be dangerous in a work setting that favours speed and agility. Regularly invite feedback from peers, and be open to taking on reasonable feedback so you ultimately perform better with your team. Coming from an accounting and legal background many years ago, I was trained to make things “client-ready” before sending them for review. One of my earlier feedback points at Canva was to share initial ideas and strategy documents before they were fully-formed and felt perfect, so we could gather input faster and course-correct earlier to find the best solution more rapidly. This is echoed in another recent post on this blog - don’t wait for perfect data before making product decisions.
- Passion and ambition: Whilst it can look like startups are smooth sailing from the outside, in reality they can be highly tumultuous. To enjoy these environments, you need to care deeply about what you do (passion) and set the bar as high as you can (ambition), otherwise you won’t enjoy your time nor be successful.
- Collaboration: Often the attainment of goals requires a huge amount of cross-functional or inter-office collaboration. For example, you can’t launch a product at Canva without the support and input of QA, legal, finance, infrastructure engineering, product design and leadership. This means you need to be collaborative to be successful and enjoy working in high growth organizations.
Interestingly, a lot of these attributes map to our own culture and values at Canva, such as pursue excellence, empower others, and set crazy big goals and make them happen.
4. You’re able to ruthlessly prioritize, everything
In a larger company with huge resources, the organization might be able to take on a multitude of venture bets at the same time. The harsh reality is that a lot of startups are competing against some pretty big and formidable players in the market with more constrained resources, so there’s a huge need to be highly selective on where resources (i.e. engineering time, financial capital) are allocated, and in what order they are allocated.
I’ve learned that the question, “is this is a good idea for us to work on?” is not the right question to ask. The better question is, “is this the highest impact thing Canva can be working on right now, relative to all other possible goals?”
The latter is a higher bar to satisfy and requires deeper and more comprehensive thinking from the concept’s originator, but is the way for a startup to get to their north star goals faster.
When I joined Canva, I was introduced to Sean Ellis’ ICE Framework which allows us to prioritize product and growth initiatives on the basis of which initiatives are most likely to prove a growth hypothesis, and optimally balance ease of implementation with high impact on company goals. The example below illustrates initiatives we could undertake to grow our user acquisition in non-English markets:
ICE in practice at Canva
Goal: growing user acquisition in non-EN markets
Landing Page CRO
These figures are historical and don’t reflect Canva’s current thinking .They are though illustrative of the process our Growth team would undertake to prioritise ideas. The highest impact idea would win.
Joining a startup, you’ll have to be comfortable saying no to the shiny new thing, in favour of the high impact thing - that’s how you’ll best position your entire organization to succeed in the long-term. Defining what you won’t do, or what you will do later down the track, is just as important as defining what you’ll do now.
5. You need to execute, not just love strategy
In some companies, the roles around formulating a plan of action or approach to a problem, and the thinking around how the doing of that plan will happen, are sometimes isolated and independent from one another.
In startups with smaller teams, you need to be able to do both.
A tangible example here is in product planning. One can draft the best plan in the world on what we should build and why we should build it, but I’ve seen it to be equally, if not more important, to flesh out how that project will actually get done, with questions to ask such as:
- Who is the core team who will be delivering each part of this project?
- Where does this work sit in their current priorities, and what else are they currently working on?
- Which other teams will need to be looped in, and when do they need to be looped in (Localization, Customer Support, QA, Analytics)?
- Can each of the tasks on this project move in parallel to others, or are they dependent on or blocked by other things?
- What are our weekly cadences for keeping this project top of mind for all teams involved and moving along?
- Who is the leadership sponsor of the project in case we need a fast decision made or extra resources allocated?
How are we going to celebrate interim milestones along the way?
These questions make sure the project actually gets delivered, and good strategy documents don’t end up as nice but unexecuted or poorly executed ideas.
6. You have a long-term mindset and appetite for risk
Startups take many years to turn into market leaders, with many never reaching that stage or returning very little results in earlier years. If you’re considering entering a startup, be mindful that to get the most out of the experience and see results, it’s generally not a short-term commitment. The founders of Canva spent many years in the lead up to founding the current company solving a yearbook design problem via Fusion Books, and have spent five years alongside an incredible team to build Canva to its current state.
From humble beginnings: our COO Cliff Obrecht and CEO Melanie Perkins working from her mum’s living room, to a billion dollar company with offices around the world. This wouldn’t have been achieved without a long-term view of building a company and a world-changing product.
Often the more mature the startup you join, the lower the relative risk-profile. If you join a small team with little funding that hasn’t achieved product-market fit, the risk profile is a lot higher. Determine where your comfort zone is here and look for companies that match the degree of risk you are willing to take.
7. You’ll likely feel some degree of imposter syndrome
Advances in the internet and technology have meant companies have been able to build products that reach millions or billions of people in any given day. It has also meant that organisations are now competing globally and must move with speed to capture market share around the world.
A byproduct of this need to move quickly is that team sizes can grow very rapidly and the goals you set need to be crazy big, as we say at Canva.
If you join a startup, it may very well be you setting those ambitious goals and also leading a team to deliver them. These responsibilities can come earlier in your professional journey than you anticipate, so may lead you doubt your capabilities to achieve them or question your accomplishments. Mike Hebron, one of our Frontend Engineers, talked about this in his article, Battling self doubt in high-growth startups.
Be aware of this when entering a startup environment and remember that people who have succeeded in similar context weren’t born with the answers to all the problems they encountered on the way. I particularly like this recent quote from Sam Altman, President of Y Combinator.
Having the self belief that you will be able to figure things out as you go along is critical to success at anything hard. Get started and trust yourself. No one has all the answers at the beginning. by Mike Williams
8. You strive for the highlights, but are resilient through the lowlights
It can be easy to look at media articles of high performing startups and think that success comes easily and often.
Behind every headline, be it a product-launch, fundraising round, acquisition or growth milestone, is always an incredibly hard working team who are busting their backsides to make it happen.
Certainly cherish the highlights, but realise that there’s often a lot of grit, effort, energy and persistence that is required to attain each goal with a huge array of people around the company.
9. You have to think (really) big in startups to realize your vision
Since joining Canva, I’ve had to reframe my default thinking to be a lot bigger. Growing 1 million users is nice, but what initiative could grow us to 10 million or 100 million users? What would it take to do the latter, and how can we get there faster? How many people do we need to hire, or what do we need to build, to achieve this?
Canva could have launched in 20 languages, but we didn’t - we are currently in over 100. That milestone wouldn’t have been accomplished without a wildly ambitious mindset, nor would many other recent wins we have had as a team.
When entering a startup environment, be prepared to couple elements of ruthless prioritization with thinking at a massive scale in projects that you undertake.
10. You make sure to look after yourself and your team along the way, and mostly have fun
Finishing on an important point, taking care of yourself and your team is critical. It’s important to focus on the goal, but make sure to achieve it at a sustainable pace and enjoy the journey whilst doing it. Athletes who win the 1500m Olympic gold medal strategically pace their running and sprinting throughout each lap to win, rather than try to Usain Bolt themselves the whole way.
They do this for a reason and the approach should be similar in growing startups.
As a side point, I’d encourage those going into, or contemplating entering, a startup to reach out to others who’ve successfully nativaged the challenges of high-growth environments, both inside your company and externally. Again, be honest with yourself as to whether this kind of accelerated growth is something you thrive in and enjoy.
For the right person, startups can be a truly transformative experience.
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