Rules for Startup Survival

Rules for Startup Survival

I suddenly work for a startup. Weird thing to say, right? Well, if you’ve not heard, Aberdeen Group was recently spun out of Harte Hanks and is now a private equity backed company. With big aspirations and newfound independence to take the content marketing world by storm, this makes us a startup – seemingly overnight. And with these changes, of course, comes adjustment. Adjustment in process, Adjustment in systems. Adjustment in values and thinking. Adjustment in go-to-market strategy. And so on.

It got me thinking about the important things that our team – or anyone at a startup, really – should consider, PERSONALLY, as their rules for surviving and thriving in a startup. So, here it is: a few of the most important Rules for Startup Survival. While not exhaustive, it is a place to start…up (see what I did there?)

Startup Rule #1: Embrace Change

Startups are not for the faint of heart… you need to be open and flexible. The only constant in a typical startup is that change is afoot – building new processes, fixing stuff that is broken, running hard at lofty goals. Anyone in a startup should expect change to happen often. So how does one stay grounded when the world is spinning about?   Reflect back on where you’ve been and how the change you’ve been through has helped the company make progress. Celebrate the wins when they happen, especially if they were painful to get there.

Startup Rule #2: Bolster Momentum

Startups are nimble. They move fast and need to in order to keep pace with (or eclipse) more mature, entrenched companies. I think it is safe to say that we all know how slow businesses can be. I’m sure at some point, you’ve known someone that’s worked at one of those slow-moving behemoths that significantly reduce the metabolism of employees for as long as they are employed there.

A startup is the opposite. Without infrastructure, a mature brand, and lots of dollars, startups must take advantage of their smaller size (and lack of bureaucracy) and move quickly in order to shake up the marketplace. Every employee in a startup has a role in that, whether it is bringing a new product idea to market first or being the seller who is more responsive than the guy from the big company. Startups relish making progress and value employees that help drive this. I encourage you to ask yourself, “what can I do today to make things move faster?”

Besides, sitting idle makes you nothing but, well, idle.

Startup Rule #3: Eliminate Obstacles

As startups grow and build new processes, adopt new systems and add resources, it is inevitable that employees will encounter things that impede progress. Be empowered to make change happen. Identify problems and eliminate them, not just to satisfy an immediate need, but also to get to the root cause of things that impede progress as a company permanently. And, if you can’t make this happen on your own, escalate it to your supervisor or a leader in the business by sharing the problem, the impact and a proposed solution.

This will make you an extremely valuable asset to the team – one that does not back down from adversity, looking to make improvements for the betterment of the entire team. Everyone likes a team player – especially one that kicks ass and takes names.

Startup Rule #4: Own your Own Success

A startup, in all its “clean slateness” does not offer a lot of room to fly under the radar. Without process holding employees back, the spotlight shines brightly on progress.

As individuals, it is important to know what success for the business looks like. Ask questions, clarify and make sure you are a piece of the solution to move the company forward. Recognize that there are people working on different projects and, at some point, you’ll be asked to join one of them or provide feedback. Make sure you’re curious about what’s happening and, if you don’t understand or want additional information, you need to go seek answers from the leaders in the company.  Champion your own success.

The best way to advocate for yourself is by knowing how you have helped the company move forward. You should know exactly how your work has contributed to the goals of the company.

Startup Rule #5: Be the change you want to see happen

There are a zillion iterations of this quote and some debate about its attribution, but despite that drama, it should still be a rule to live by.

As a startup, a company has the ability to design the future based on experience gleaned from the past. Individual employees can help a startup get to a future vision by escalating ideas, solving problems and emulating for others what should be expected.  This is where an employee can really help put their mark on a company.

We should all be an example of what we want the business we work for to be. Not only is that a great step forward for an evolving business, but it is a fantastic way for you to present your personal brand to the rest of the company.

In life, being part of the solution is always better than falling victim to circumstance and nowhere is this more possible than a startup, where influence is embraced and rewarded and solutions are widely needed. While this list is not exhaustive, I hope it has given you some food for thought. What rules would you add to the list?

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About the author

SVP of Marketing at Monetate, and veteran B2B marketer. On Twitter @MaribethRoss. Read more at

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