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6 Vital Qualities of Startup Workers (Plus 1 That's Overrated)

In Company Culture — by Erin Engstrom

Startup InstituteStartup Institute is an eight-week immersive program that helps career-changers make the transition into the world of startups. Founded in 2012 and now operating five locations worldwide, Startup Institute has successfully trained hundreds of individuals across the globe who have gone on to obtain new career opportunities. Some of them have founded startups of their own, some have landed at tech behemoths like Google and of course a great many are now working for startups.

After helping to grow two startups, Lisa Schumacher joined Startup Institute’s Chicago program as its director. In this role she’s assisted dozens of professionals in preparing for startup life. After shepherding Startup Institute students into the workforce and meeting with hundreds of startups along the way, she has unique insight into what makes for a great startup hire. Here are the six qualities of startup workers that are really essential to the success of your business – as well as one that probably isn’t.

1. Grit

“Grit is number one. It’s foundational to everything else. You will encounter failure after failure after failure, and frustration after frustration. The people who become better the harder things get are the ones that are going to fly.”

2. Desire to Learn

“Here’s the secret: When a startup posts their job requirements, they want the sun, the moon and the stars. The reality is that most founders or leaders of a startup are looking for the right mindset. They’re looking for people who can bring a base level of technical skill, of course – that has to be present, but it by no means has to match the full laundry list. But they’re really looking for the people who are constantly learning, who are instinctively finding ways to create value, add to their culture, and think ahead. People who are anticipating and throwing out ideas of what we could be doing next.”

3. Thrive in Ambiguity

“Corporate employees may not quite be ready for the absolute lack of process and procedure that characterizes most startups. It doesn’t mean you can’t make the transition – you absolutely can. But you need a guide. You need to talk about it. And I think the transition starts to occur when you, as a new startup employee, begin to create processes. You may quickly realize those may not be the right processes, and then you iterate.”

4. Collaboration

“Because a startup is fraught with so many challenges and so many unknowns, it’s essential to have a strong team of collaborators. Great collaborators know how to be vulnerable with each other. Not only about the business, but about each person’s role in relation to the business. It requires self-awareness – you have to actually understand how you feel. And it requires empathy – really putting yourself out there to say what you think and to genuinely hear and respond to others. And it requires the ability to create a safe place where you can have those conversations.

“Every single person who’s working at your startup has to have that internal compass and fortitude and willingness to be vulnerable with each other. The business is moving too fast and it’s way too hard for anyone to not feel completely aligned and working together as a really tight team.”

5. Diversity

“What I’ve seen is that startups with a real lack of diversity are like plants that don’t grow very well. They may grow really well in one area, but the rest of the plant looks like crap. Whereas diverse work teams with a broad base of talents, backgrounds, and experiences – these plants grow really well because all considerations of product/market fit are thought through far more effectively.

“So I encourage startup leaders to really be bold and to hire people who really represent your customers. You will have an easier time recruiting top talent when you already have a diverse work team. When you have a diverse team, it’s amazing how quickly you can solve problems.

6. Passion

“Startups are way too hard. If you’re not passionate about it, don’t do it. Passion can come from a number of different places. We all don’t have to be passionate about the product. We all don’t have to be passionate about each other. But your passion to be part of a company has to spring from somewhere.

“I look for it in how the person approaches life. Because no one can teach that, and no one can give it to you. You’re looking for what lights up their eyes. What are they looking for and why? And what have they done? Or are they just passionate about a lot of things but they’re just nice ideas and they haven’t really done anything about them? I would steer clear.”

Lisa also shared a quality that gets mentioned a lot in relation to startup workers, but that she thinks is overrated:


“Be careful how you think about the value of risk-taking. The best startups are the ones that move fast – where there is a bias for action – but there’s an absolute clarity of vision about what your business model is, and what it’s not. Risk-taking often implies to the new startup employee to get super-creative and shoot off in a variety of directions. If actions are not anchored to that vision, and prioritized, you’re screwed.

“Staying focused on the few risks worth taking is way harder to do and essential to success. I also observe job postings sometimes create a tone of risk-taking, as if it’s a game. It’s not. Your employees’ lives are intertwined with your startup. You’ve got to be concrete and focused about the risks worth taking.”

Image courtesy Startup Institute

About the author
Erin Engstrom is Trakstar Hire’s outreach manager. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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