Must Love Chaos and Compromise

Progress continues to lurch forward in fits and starts as we settle on the personnel configuration to lead us to launch. Having watched a handful of similar revelations occur to many of our previous team members, it has dawned on me that the same factors that make Bonanzle so exhilarating for me are the factors that cause others to turn tail and head for the highway. My conclusion is that, until you’ve experienced the atmosphere before, it is easy to over- or under- estimate how difficult it is to be a part of creating something big from scratch. As usual, Paul Graham has insightful observations on the topic, but reading his poetic account of “hard work” makes it sound more romantic than I think it is. For my time, and the time of our future potential applicants, I think it is vital to accurately describe the most important differences between the startup and non-startup company.

I don’t think that work at a startup is most accurately described as “harder” than work at a large company. One of the “hardest” jobs I ever had was keeping my brain busy while I did nothing for 8 hours a day as a web programmer at the University Bookstore. A better point of comparison between small and large company is the degree of chaos and compromise you experience on a daily basis.

Specifically, these here are my five biggest contrasts that I think startle people who haven’t been immersed in a startup before:

1. The roadmap is drawn as you go. Well, technically, the roadmap is drawn at the beginning, but the more time gets spent drawing that original roadmap, the more time was wasted when that everything-you-know-is-wrong moment happens. Startups are about doing, not speculating.
2. Despite the best intentions, things will be broken. Sometimes with no easy solutions. And it will take creativity to work around it.
3. You are beholden to deadlines. No matter what excellent new service pack is available; no matter what important features from the next milestone one would rather work on. Of course, sometimes that excellent service pack absolutely does need to be installed, so you have to figure out the relative degree of necessity.
4. You are beholden to deadlines. Items only get checked off the schedule if each and every team member is 100% productive with their time. Working at Microsoft it might well be weeks before somebody notices you’ve been spinning your wheels over a certain problem. At a startup, spinning your wheels for 3 days will show up on the schedule.
5. You are your manager. And you are your everything else. Even in a company that attempts to create specialized roles, there usually isn’t time to send an email to the manager to get a task clarified, then get ahold of your web designer to create HTML, before finally working on the original bug that had been assigned to you. Instead, each person must often use their confidence (and common sense) to guide them to a sensible solution when a task has not been well-defined (see also item #1).

Look down the list, and there it is: compromise, chaos, compromise, chaos, chaos. Is it intrinsically harder to deal with chaos and compromise than a lack thereof? I doubt it. But it does take a special personality to have the confidence, patience, and foresight to see how the decisions they make on an everyday basis might seem like chaos, but when the dust settles, suddenly something amazing stands where moments ago there was nothing.

That is the payoff that awaits those with the grit to make something big happen.

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