Early employees often join startups to learn new skills and fast track career growth. The common thinking is that if you join an early-stage company then you’ll be a company leader in the future. You’ll get management opportunities and get to run a team. This is part of why I joined Lattice as the 3rd employee and why many others join startups.
The challenge is that as a company grows an individual’s approach must evolve to keep up with the company. The job of a department lead at a 50 person company looks really different than at a 1,000 person company and requires vastly different skills. As the company grows, so does the role of early-stage employees.
The ability for early-stage employees to scale really depend on two core factors:
1. Employee’s own experience combined with their ability to scale themselves
2. How fast the company is growing in terms of revenue, budgets and headcount
At the time of hiring, early-stage employees are hopefully ahead of the company growth curve or on track. (If they are below, it’s a bad hire). From there, one of two outcomes happen.
The dream scenario is employees who are able to keep ahead of the company growth curve. These employees are able to stay one step ahead of the company’s needs.
In this scenario, the early employee is able to evolve their function over time and change their own personal responsibilities accordingly as the company grows. The second half of this post discusses some lessons on how to keep up with the company growth curve as an early employee.
For fast growing companies, it can be difficult for employees to maintain their pace with the company growth curve. The employee is still growing and gaining new skills, but the company is growing too fast for them to keep up and maintain their current position. This is the most common scenario for early employees at fast growth startups.
In this scenario, employees are layered by a more senior leader who can manage a bigger scope of work. The early employee still has a big impact on the company, but they no longer run a department. For example, instead of being Head of Marketing they become the Director of Product Marketing.
At Lattice, I was able to scale myself with the company growth curve. In 2016, we had zero customers, I was the only person on the team and we had a small marketing budget. In 2020, I managed a team of 16 people, a multimillion dollar marketing budget and we now have 2,000+ customers.
Over these past four years, I’ve had to continually reinvent how I approached running the marketing program at Lattice. Below you’ll find some guidance on how I approached this challenge and what others in similar positions can do to keep up with the company growth curve.
The reality is that keeping up with the company growth curve is not an easy task and requires hard work. I worked most weekends for 3+ years to keep up with Lattice, but I was okay with it. My dream in college was to work for an early-stage startup, so I felt like this was my golden opportunity and I was going to take advantage of that.
I also subscribe to the belief that it makes sense to work really hard in your 20s to have a compounding impact on the rest of your career. Sam Altman talks about this in an interview we did with him early at Lattice, and it became a guiding principle for me in how I thought about my time at Lattice. Mike Volpe made a similar point on Twitter recently:
To keep up with the company growth curve, you need to go all in and make the startup a core part of your life.
Keeping up with the company growth curve centers around the idea of learning. As the company grows, there will naturally be things that you don’t know how to do or have never done before. And you need to figure it out.
There’s a number of different ways you should approach this learning challenge:
Startups are an emotional rollercoaster. There’s a lot of literature about how founders deal with the ups and downs of a startup, but the same goes for early employees. Early employees are working really hard and the payoff can feel like it doesn’t match, especially if you’re not making a high-salary or not getting the title that you feel that you deserve.
It’s important for early-stage employees to be honest with themselves about the reasons why they joined a startup (hopefully to learn!), so that they don’t get frustrated and focus on positive ways to move their career forward.
As the company grows, everything changes from the company culture to your day-to-day responsibilities. Early employees need to be mentally prepared for this change and also think about how specifically they need to execute through this change. The biggest change is moving from an individual contributor to manager, but there are many other changes that can happen at a startup. My recommendation is that early-stage employees reevaluate their approach at work every three months to see what they need to evolve.
Early employees need to make sure they are constantly working with the leadership team to talk about what they are working on and how they are thinking about scaling. It’s important that the leadership team understands that you’re thoughtful about scaling yourself and the department.
At Lattice, Jack, J Zac and I would talk all of the time to talk about the current state of the marketing program, the future state and how we were going to get there. This was a weekly conversation that was essential to proving that I was able to scale with the company and was thinking about the right things.
Coaches can be extremely valuable in helping you see around blindspots. At Lattice, I was the top-marketer, but I knew that I still had a lot to learn about marketing at scale and running a team. There was nobody else at Lattice who could help me, so I needed to get outside help. I was lucky enough to start working with Francois Dufour who really helped me professionalize my approach to running a marketing department.
It’s easy to feel imposter syndrome as you’re working at a startup. You’re doing a lot of things that you’ve probably never done before, but that’s totally okay. Most people in the world are “faking it.” Just be confident in your own skills and be self aware where you need help. If you’re not confident in yourself, nobody is going to be confident in you.
Joining a startup as an early employee is one of the most challenging but rewarding things you can do in your career. It requires you to constantly learn new skills and scale yourself in relationship with the company growth curve.