10 Essential Things I’ve Learned From Working at a Startup for a Year

Last year, I got an entry-level marketing job at a startup. And I learned so much more than I could've imagined.

Morgan Von Gunten
Morgan Von Gunten

Last year, I got an entry-level marketing job working at a startup called Crash (later rebranded to Career Hackers; yep, this one 😉).

I had no idea what I was getting into. But I was incredibly excited. My goal: to learn as much as I could about how business works—and build some valuable skills for my career.

I have learned so much more working at a startup than I could’ve imagined. In this article, I’ve written down some of the top lessons I picked up along the way that anyone who is thinking about working at a startup (or is about to work at a startup) should know.

Dive in below!

1. Be humble, and learn from your team as much as you can while working at a startup.

My first day on the job, my supervisor told me to ask as many questions as I could. So I did—and I found my team was more than willing to show me the ropes and get me up and running as quickly as possible.

Coming in, one of the best mindsets you can have is I don’t know anything. Absorb as much as you can. Ask questions, read, take notes in meetings, take on projects, try new things. (Whenever one of my coworkers asked, “Do you want me to show you how to do this?” I always said yes.)

Working at a startup, your team is usually pretty small—so use that to your advantage. See how they do their work. Even if you work remotely (as I have this last year), take them up on their offers to jump on a call—or ask them to teach you a skill they know.

2. Be quick to take tasks off your team members’ plates.

This one goes with the tip above: learning new things creates great opportunities for you to be able to take a task off a team member’s plate.

Be quick to do this. Jump on opportunities to try something you’ve just learned, then deliver the best work. Even if it takes you thirty minutes when it would’ve taken them fifteen, you’ll learn so much in the process—and you’ll be creating value for them and the company.

3. Be clear and honest about what you need from your team and when. (But if you can get it done on your own, do it without asking someone else.)

Be concise, clear, and get to the point when asking a team member to do something. This helps you get good at making asks—and it shows your team that you respect their time. A good format for this is 1) making the ask in as few words as possible, then 2) letting them know when you need it done by.

Something I’ve learned that goes along with this, though, is to ask yourself if you really need to bring someone else into it. If you can solve the problem without asking someone else to spend their time on it with you, then do so!

4. Write down all of your ideas. Then get comfortable sharing them.

I like using Google Keep or Things to keep track of the thoughts that run through my head. But it can be easy to think of a product idea, content idea, or something else that you think is valuable for the company—and then keep it to yourself. So get comfortable with sharing your valuable ideas and getting feedback on them—you never know what could come of it.

Even if your ideas aren’t perfect, you’ll begin to a) grow an idea-building muscle, and b) recognize good ideas sooner—your team will go for certain ideas, and a pattern will develop that you can use as a guidebook for when you share future ideas.

5. Don’t let perfectionism hold you back from shipping your work.

Isaac, our CEO, talked to me about this a couple of months ago, and what he said has stuck in my mind ever since. He told me,

I know you tend to want to ensure it’s perfect before sending. I’m guessing you’ve had it 80% done for a while. I’d prefer you shipping a rougher version faster than waiting on perfection. Shipping with a bit more imperfection will only make you more awesome.

This is hard for me, but it’s one of the most important things I’ve learned. Yes, do good work. Give 100% to whatever you work on. But if your project or task is at a point where it’s ready, and you’re just holding back because it’s not perfectly beautiful, then you should ship it.

It won’t always be as good as you wish—and that’s okay. Does it do the job it’s supposed to? That’s probably as perfect as it needs to be.

6. Document what you’re learning publicly.

This is where a personal blog, a Medium account, a newsletter (like on Substack), Twitter, Facebook, and/or LinkedIn really comes in handy.

Documenting my work publicly kept my momentum going. It held me accountable and got me excited about what I was doing every day. And it helped me process what I was learning and create value for other people (some readers could learn alongside me).

It could be as simple as tweeting something you learn every couple of days. Or blogging weekly. Or writing a bi-weekly newsletter. Or posting something on social media. Showing your work helps you get better at that work—and it can create some cool opportunities, too.

7. Side projects are good—they can help you build skills that make an impact in your day job.

You’ll be really busy working at a startup — but make time for your side projects when you’re not working! One of my coworkers was known for building a kayak or blogging on the weekends (among many other things). Another blogged about his coding work and tweeted about it.

If your side project directly creates value for the company (for example, if it’s a project that your company’s users can use), that’s awesome! But even if it’s a project that doesn’t directly relate to the company (like a short story), you’ll build incredibly valuable skills while working on that project, and you will bring those skills into your day-to-day work.

8. While working at a startup, not every task will be something you love—but do what needs to be done to help the company succeed.

It’s true: I love it when I get to do the tasks that make me come alive. But it’s also true that in any role you have at a startup, you won’t always get to do work you enjoy. There are emails and gruntwork and other things that need to get done.

Do those things. See if you can learn something new or make the task more efficient or automated. You’ll build different skills, and ultimately, you’ll help the company get closer to its goals (a good thing to keep in mind!).

9. Under-promise, over-deliver.

This is one of the best things you can do for your career.

If you say you can do something by a certain time or date, make sure you finish it sooner (by minutes, an hour, a day). If you take on a task and promise a certain result, find a way to give it 110%—over-deliver in a good way. Your team will appreciate it—and you’ll become known as someone who always gets their work done.

However, startup time isn’t normal time. “Five minutes” could mean “fifteen minutes,” and it’ll probably take you a bit longer than you think to get some tasks done. So give yourself some grace, then come up with a realistic promise that you can follow through on given your workload and the time you have.

Accountability can help with this. Ask a friend to hold you accountable for finishing a project (something as simple as mentioning it to them and asking them to remind you about it at a certain time works), or let your team know when you’ll have it finished and use that motivation to follow through.

But if you promise it, make sure you can deliver it on time—and sooner, if possible.

10. Working at a startup is not just a job. It’s an opportunity to grow.

You’ll get to try things you’ve never done before. You’ll learn how to work alongside a team of different people toward the same vision, same goal. You’ll strengthen your skillset and learn how to use new tools and show your work and get feedback.

It’s not always easy, but it’s really good.

So have fun. Get creative. Ask questions. Experiment with systems and tactics and approaches. Bring yourself into your work and give it all you’ve got.

You’ll not only help the company grow by doing these things—you’ll grow, too.

Getting an entry-level job at a startup is one of the best things you can do for your career.

Startups are unique in that they’re often still figuring out how to achieve a big vision—and the entire team is in the trenches with you, even if you’re the newest hire. You can win opportunities at startups even without experience—and you don’t have to be a techie to do it.

It’s fun, it’s challenging, and at the end of the day, you’re a part of something big that aims to change lives.

I couldn’t be more grateful for this team and the work I’ve been able to do this last year — working at a startup, Career Hackers, has truly helped me discover what makes me come alive and launch a career I love.

If you’re thinking about breaking into startups, here are a couple of extra resources I highly recommend, even if you don’t have relevant experience (I didn’t!):

Fuel Your Mindset