Startup Years = Dog Years

We were in a meeting recently and someone made a comment about startup years being like dog years. Definitely an accurate statement!

If you analyze the progress made by a successful fast growth startup in sales & revenue, feature additions & product growth, and staffing additions, each year is often equivalent to about a decade (or more) of large corporation progress.

One of the biggest thrills of working for a startup is the breakneck pace. It’s not for the faint of heart, but man is it ever a fun ride!

User Centered Design: The Difference Between Customers and Clients

So I’ve been working at this awesome company, Schoolwires, for 6 years now.

I’ll never forget my first day on the job. My director, manager and coworkers were incredibly welcoming.

I was put on the road to observe my first onsite training during my first week.

I distinctly remember saying to my coworker as we were preparing to hit the road, “How long has this district been a customer?”

My coworker looked me dead in the eye and said, “We don’t call them customers, they are our clients.”

She said it in such a matter of a fact tone that I didn’t press for more information.

It didn’t make any sense to me, I’d come from a giant corporate monster, where we called everyone a customer. I thought that if it was a good enough term for that multi billion dollar business, why wasn’t it good enough for the little startup I now called home?

After a few weeks at Schoolwires I started to notice something. Every coworker I met seemed to love his or her job.

Then I started to notice something else, our staff members legitimately cared about each and every one of our “clients” on an individual basis. Our team would go above and beyond to make sure every single “client”, no matter the size or financial gain involved, was successful.

After about a year at Schoolwires it finally clicked for me.

When I worked at that multi billion dollar corporation, our millions of “customers” were treated like faceless inconsequential account numbers. They were just a chunk of pie on a market share graph. “Customers” are the herd of people in line at Walmart or at the grocery store or at the mall, or the faceless data in a year end report.

On the flip side, at Schoolwires each and every “client” really legitimately matters.

Using the word “clients” creates a subconscious increase in respect and professionalism throughout our entire organization. Our work environment fosters empathy, camaraderie and interpersonal relationships between our staff members and our clients. It also makes a difference in the way I approach design and usability testing. I’m not designing for the faceless masses, I’m designing and testing products that can improve the lives of the clients I know and care about.

We love our clients, and our clients love us! We’ve achieved 95% or higher client retention rates for the past 5 years in a row, which is an insanely high percentage in the tech industry.

So you want your company to start adopting a user centered product design strategy? Start by calling your users clients instead of customers.

I think you’ll be surprised by how much of a ripple effect changing a single word can make throughout your entire organization, let alone the huge impact it can have on your future designs.

Is Working For A Startup Right for You?

Today we’re going to address the age old question: Is working for a startup right for you?

Before you can answer the question of whether a particular startup is right for you, you need to define exactly what it is that you value in a workplace.

I had a really fascinating Twitter discussion today with another UX pro (Micah Herstand @micahherstand) about why we love startups. And you know what? The longer we chatted the more I realized that we had completely different views of startups, and often times polar opposite reasons for loving them.

Then it dawned on me… that’s because our experiences were working for completely different startups, with vastly different cultures and values.

Then an even bigger realization struck. I don’t love working for startups, I love working for MY startup because it fits my lifestyle and personality.

Questions You Need To Ask To Know If A Particular Startup Is Right For You

1. What are their views on work life balance?

I’m a mom, and being able to go watch my daughter in a school play, or go to a doctor’s appointment (the one at the most obnoxiously inconvenient time, but the only one available) is very important to me. It’s also important for me to be able to telecommute on days when my kiddo is running a fever and can’t go to school, but can lay on the couch next to my desk sleeping while I work. I don’t lose any productivity by having to take a sick day, and my team still meets our deadlines. And we utilize a set of absolutely fabulous remote collaboration tools that make it feel like I’m in the office anyway.

As an introvert, I also value being able to invest extra time in major projects from my living room couch with my small furry puppy son curled up next to me. I’ve been known to get so caught up in a project that I start at 8pm after my daughter is in bed, thinking I’ll put in an hour or so, but am so in the zone that I look up and it’s 12am. 100% focus.

So in short, things that I value are: the ability to have a flexible schedule, and the ability to telecommute.

The UX pro I was talking to said that he values being able to work in an office surrounded by his peers, and being able to put in extra work time in the office as opposed to at home.

We had polar opposite views, which is because we likely have completely different personalities and lifestyles. And you know what? Neither of us is “right” or “wrong,” it comes down to us placing value on entirely different perks.

2. Do they have a benefits package that suits your needs?

Some startups invest tons of money in benefits packages to attract talent, others advertise hefty starting salaries with little to no benefits, and still others have no benefits and low salaries, but they offer stock options. The list of scenarios goes on, but what it really comes down to is do they, or do they not have what you need. Some people are young and healthy and single, or are married to a person with awesome benefits and they can go without benefits packages entirely. Others just need solid benefits end of story. They aren’t optional.

3. Is the company working on something that you are passionate about?

This is kind of extremely important. When you jump into a startup environment, you are kind of jumping into a casino situation. You are betting your salary that the company is going to take off and soar, and if it does it can payoff huge for you: great job, great benefits, and even mega success or a potential buyout and a big payday at the end of the yellow brick road. Just as it goes with gambling though, there is also a chance that the company is going to flop, and more often than not, this is the case. You need to take a hard look at the company, their values, their long term plans and how passionate their senior leadership and employees are about making magic happen; and then decide if those things align with you and your needs.

4. Does the company have room for career advancement?

One of the coolest things for me about working for my current company was the opportunity for cross departmental career advancement. We have folks who have come in to the company entry level in a department where they fit, only to discover they have serious passion for another area of the company. And you know what? They don’t need to quit to have the opportunity to advance their careers in that totally different direction, we do a ton of hiring from within. There are other startups that have a once you’re in a position you’re stuck there approach and they hire externally for the most part. Think about your career goals, and ability to move within the organization, and make sure you’re aligned in those areas.

5. Do these people seem like folks you’d enjoy spending time with, feel inspired by, trust with your career and could turn into a work family?

Some people are going to read that work family line and go, give me a break, lame. But in all seriousness, when you’re working at a startup you spend a huge amount of time with a small group of people, and while differing opinions are great, because they often lead to killer innovation, the ability to get along as a group is HUGE. We have a new hire ranking sheet; our whole team sits in on interviews. A huge chunk of the interview score comes down to “fit.” Will this person fit with our team and lead to increased productivity and innovation. Because as a startup, you can’t afford to have a negative minded snake in the grass who is going to make your workplace miserable. You need folks who are all on the same page and are borderline obsessed with making your company succeed, and who are willing to do whatever needs to be done in order to make that dream happen.

So in closing, if you’re considering applying at a startup, answer these questions. If you’re aligned, get ready to have an incredibly exciting roller coaster ride that may lead to you witnessing dreams becoming reality! Or, the ride may lead to flying off the track and crashing and burning. But that’s the fun in working for a startup, right? The excitement is in the gamble.

3 Reasons Tech Startups Need to Allow Telecommuting

Recently there’s been a lot of buzz around telecommuting. These are the top 3 reasons your startup should not pull a Yahoo:

1. You can’t pay as much as giant corporations for highly skilled employees.

Let’s face it. You are a start up, therefore you aren’t exactly swimming in billions. Remote work and flexible schedules are often more powerful perks than flashing dollar signs for those who place high value on work/life balance.

2. You aren’t located in Silicon Valley, so people with the skill sets you require are not local.

Telecommuting means literally a world of potential employees to choose from, versus picking 1 of the 3 under qualified locals who apply.

3. You want to keep your talent.

It’s not for everyone, but for those who value it, the option to work remotely can mean the difference between keeping a brilliant employee, and losing him or her to a larger corp with a benefits package that could eat yours as an appetizer.

To sum things up, as a startup, swearing off remote work for your employees is kind of the equivalent of blasting huge holes in your already half capsized boat of employee benefits. Until you can afford awesome salaries and killer benefits packages, it’s best to keep telecommuting and flexible schedules on the table.

Who knows, you may even get to steal some crazy amazing talent from the companies who are “putting a foot down” and shattering their culture and positive employee experiences in the process.