3 Takeaways I’ve Learned From Working at Multiple Startups

By Martin Suter

Startups differ from mature businesses in some fundamental ways. Often, as it is here at ZX Ventures, the pace in a startup is faster, the goals are loftier, and there is much more at stake than in an established company. Through my work with ZX Ventures, in addition to the other startups I’ve launched over my career, I’ve learned many lessons about starting a company that I’ve used to refine my approach with each subsequent new business. Here are three takeaways that I’m using now to help advance ZX Ventures.

1. In startups, the only certainty is uncertainty.

Uncertainty is a hallmark of startup culture. Since startups are created to meet a consumer need in a new or better way, there will always be an air of uncertainty just over the horizon. Will the start-up be able to solve the customers’ problem? Will the customers’ need persist, or is it a fad? Will the company be able to properly plan and fund its needs and follow those plans? Practically every aspect of startup business is rife with uncertainty.

It takes a particular kind of employee to manage and thrive in this atmosphere of uncertainty. In my experience, the people who function best in a start-up environment are those who are willing to push boundaries and challenge the status quo. They are the type of people who see seemingly insurmountable challenges as exciting opportunities to grow, both personally and for their company. A willingness to meet uncertainty head-on, with enthusiasm, is critical to success in a startup.

2. In startups, you need a Swiss Army knife.

Startups must have multifunctional employees. Being able to tackle a variety of issues is a key to success in the early days at a startup. Everyone in the business needs to be able to wear multiple hats, and essentially function as Swiss Army knives, which are known for being helpful in a variety of situations, instead of exceptionally strong in one area. Usually, a startup won’t have the funding or ability to hire specialists for every task in the early stages of growth. You have to rely on people and tools that can do many different things competently, similar to a Swiss Army knife.

Someone who views himself narrowly as a specialist or who lacks the ability or the will to solve diverse problems is likely to struggle in the startup culture. One way to prepare to serve as a Swiss Army knife, and help across multiple functions, is to read about startups in order to learn what types of issues typically arise and how generalists respond to those challenges. A particularly good introduction is The Lean Start-up by Eric Ries.

3. In startups, speed matters.

Speed is critical to success as a startup. If a company—and by proxy, its employees—is not willing or able to move fast, that company is almost certainly doomed to fail. The ability to act and react quickly, adjusting on the fly to market and investors’ needs, can be the difference between a company that gets off the ground and one that gets left behind. Speed also helps once the company does get going: the faster a company is able to grow and respond, the more momentum it will build to carry it through its second year and beyond.

Startup employees need to think fast and work fast. Understanding that speed is an asset, and working to make it a habit, is crucial in a startup’s success beyond the first few months.

Working in a startup environment is invigorating, especially if you, like me, consider yourself a natural problem-solver or a builder. After working with one or two new businesses, you’ll start to see how every startup, while unique in some facets, shares similarities with your previous projects. Understanding these similarities and effectively managing them will ultimately help you focus your time on the meaningful parts of each project—those qualities that caused you to get involved in the first place.

I joined ZX Ventures because I believe it can benefit from all the skills I’ve learned in my previous ventures and because I appreciate the depth of opportunity available here within the ZX Ventures portfolio. In my first six months here, I’ve learned that the skills needed to thrive in a startup perfectly mirror ZX Ventures’ cultural principles. Cross-disciplinary challenges, meaningful and ambitious missions, meritocracy—these are as valued by ZX Ventures as they are in the startup world. It’s a great fit for me.