Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Startup Fun Time

If you have never worked for a startup, you might not get it. Lots of risk and lots of potential reward. Many failures for every success. Daily swings of up and down that have forced many to mood enhancing (or stabilizing) drugs on a regular basis.

But, if you are lucky, you reach something I call Startup Fun Time. This is an amazing time that gets under your skin and becomes part of your psyche if you're lucky. It's amazing how many folks who have experienced Startup Fun Time never go back to a large company. A mentor of mine once told me that startups are like rollercoasters while large companies are like smooth sailing in a duck pond. Both can be rewarding and successful experiences, depending on your personal sense of adventure. Strangely, I've been involved in four startups and I really don't like real rollercoasters as they scare the broccoli out of me.

I have a vivid memory my first day at a real startup. I was told to go open the office doors for the first time with our only other employee who was going to be our office manager. We met at the office space, opened the door and realized that there was absolutely nothing inside. No cubes, no wastebaskets, no phones, nothing. Not a single pen or scrap of paper. The first thing I recall saying was, "Well, I guess we need to go to Office Depot...." Of course, we had nothing to make a shopping list on :)

Startup Fun Times had not begun although the logistics of building a company from scratch did has some intellectual stimulation. Being a one or two person company where the hours are long and the stress of being squashed nearly everyday is not Startup Fun Time. But, slowly, over time, with some success, we reached the world of Startup Fun Time. Then the company got big, went public, got bought, and got sold. Somewhere in that last sentence Startup Fun Time halted and the monotony of the duck pond took hold. Luckily, I left the company before the last few corporate moves and immediately went to join another startup looking for that elusive Startup Fun Time. I was hooked and the drug was not out of my system.

So, what are the components of Startup Fun Time? I think they are more or less this:

  • Intuitive products. You get it and your mom gets it. Customers buy without huge sales and marketing efforts. Folks really do get what you are doing in an elevator pitch and want to buy.
  • Small group of motivated people. Generally, the company has less than 200 people. You know everyone and what they do. You know the names of their wives and kids. No-one ever asks, "What do you do here?" I recall the day that someone asked me that question as the day I considered the beginning of the end of Startup Fun Time.
  • Everyone contributes. Engineers take sales calls, tech writers test code, sales people help spec features and functions. Everyone sees everyone helping out and silos are virtually non-existent. Wheat is quickly separated from the chaff, so to speak.
  • Spontaneous fun. People at the company have fun at work. Fun is not contrived with "corporate events or retreats" that feel more like work than a retreat. I've seen food fights, wiffle ball bats and radio controlled blimps in the office. No-one had to tell folks to go have fun, they just did on their own.

Yesterday, a fellow Vyattan told me that "this is the fun time" and he's right. Vyatta definitely appears to be entering Startup Fun Time and accelerating toward a successful future. As we grow, it'll be great to watch the fun expand. We'll just have to be careful that as we approach the duck pond we remember how we got there.


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