Finding your value as a non-“skilled” startup employee
I’ve been working at Aviary for 3 years now. One of the things I’ve always struggled with, and keep hearing my friends fight through, is the vast discrepancy in perceived self-worth and “value” between different groups of startup employees.
GROUP 1: The highly “skilled.” (I’m sorry for all these quotations, but I can’t help it - these are the right words but also so silly and wrong that I can’t take them seriously.) This includes engineers and designers, who either have gone to school for years to learn a professional trade or who have spent their lives teaching themselves because they are talented geniuses.
GROUP 2: The highly experienced. This includes employees who join the company at Director-level and above. They could be in any department, but come at a higher default price and with some built-in respect because they’ve been doing their job, clearly successfully, at other companies for a while.
GROUP 3: The rest of us. An employee from group 3 might commonly be referred to as a “people person” or a “jack of all trades.” These titles are meant to give us some sort of imaginary soft skill to cling on to when we consider (and try to prove) our worth, but mostly just make us feel bad about ourselves because people in the first two groups don’t have to prove anything.
It’s a given that groups 1 and 2 have higher starting salaries - they bring more obvious contributions to the table initially - but no one ever talks about the other implications of this rift. (Well, more accurately, they talk about it, but only in frustrated whispers among members of group 3.)
When I first started at Aviary, I was brought in to do customer support and office management. These are (arguably) two of the “easiest” jobs to do in that they don’t require any specific skillset or previous experience; an employee in these roles just needs to be a “people person” who can “wear a lot of hats” and be generally nice and considerate. The reality, though, is that most people would (and do!) suck at these jobs.
Being good at customer support can make or break a company’s relationship with the people providing its revenue. Being a good office manager can mean the difference between employees staying or leaving. These are CRAZY IMPORTANT THINGS. Startups literally cannot function without these roles, which is why (sometimes confusingly) an office manager is often one of the first hires in any new, small company. The “skilled” employees can’t do their jobs if they’re answering support emails or building furniture all day.
Anyway, I was so excited when I started at Aviary (it was a fun place to work! all my coworkers were so smart! we were building things that people loved!) that I spent most of my time feeling incredibly humbled and grateful for the opportunity. This is definitely part of what made me so effective at my job, but I think it was also my first Big Mistake, which has stayed with me for the past few years. At times, it kept me from being happy, it kept me from pursuing new opportunities, and it made me way less productive than I could have been.
Not understanding your own value is a terrible problem, both for you and for your company.
I’ve come a long way in my career at Aviary. I’ve held more job titles and responsibilities than I can count, and by now I understand my value at the company and the fact that the “soft skills” I have to offer are JUST as important as the ones provided by my coworkers. But it took way too long. I spent a lot of time feeling resentful and, well, confused. Sometimes I struggled with feeling like I was the only one not “contributing” anything or building anything directly (for a long time I was the only non-“skilled” long-term employee we had on the team), which made me feel like I didn’t belong. I spent a lot of time (on weekends, of course) teaching myself a bit about programming, trying to learn Photoshop (miserable failure), reading books about startups - trying to find some way to convert myself into a “skilled” employee.
What I want to tell you (and I’m getting quite near the end, now) is that this doesn’t help. I mean it’s great if you actually want to do those things, but what I learned is that I *like* the things I do. I’m really good at the things I do (thank you to my coworkers for lecturing me about this endlessly until I believed it). There are very few people who could do the things I do, just as I can’t realistically do all the things my super talented team does. It does not help to try to turn yourself into a different kind of person.
So, here’s what can help:
1. Read everything you can find about successful people in your own specific line of work. For me, the biggest turning point was discovering Joel Spolsky and devouring every single thing he’s ever written. This was maybe 2011, and my title at the time was Program Manager. Joel was at one point a PM at Microsoft and wrote this amazing article about why PM’s are basically the best people in the world and no one can function without them. I’m paraphrasing (just barely), but it was the first thing that made me feel like what I was doing was an important contribution to the company. Other good examples:
- Customer support: read the Uservoice blog. They will make you feel so awesome about your work. Remember that you’re not just answering bullshit repetitive questions; you have the ability to make someone’s day. That is a big deal.
- HR: Um, hi, building a good team is the ONLY thing that matters. If you don’t have a team, you have nothing. Plus, hiring (and retaining) good technical people is pretty much becoming impossible these days because of all the competition, so you are some kind of unicorn if you can actually pull it off. This has never been my full-time job so I haven’t read a ton of stuff on it, but Lori Dorn is a great place to start.
- QA: Read this killer piece by Spolsky. Oh man. That guy REALLY loves good QA people. (I can relate on this; ever since we hired our QA lead last year, the quality of all of our lives has improved exponentially.) (See what I did there?)
- Office management: I don’t know of any good reading material, but I’m sure it’s out there. I could tell you some stories about office managers who’ve dramatically contributed to the success of their companies. Also, ours is a member of the Office Heroes League. You should join it.
- Account management: This is my current job, so I feel you. Look, being super organized and keeping your paying clients happy is an incredibly important job. And no one else wants to do it! And it’s hard! I don’t know of any influential account managers off the top of my head, but I’ll talk you through it if you want.
Etc. Seriously, do some googling and find people who you can really identify with, and who can reassure you that you are awesome and important and valuable.
2. Be honest with your boss. It took me a while to open up about how I was feeling, but ever since I did I’ve been getting a pretty much constant stream of positive reinforcement from our executive team. And sometimes that’s what you need in this kind of gig - someone to acknowledge that you are building something important, too, even if it can’t be distributed through Testflight.
3. Find. A. Mentor. Just find one. Go to relevant meetups and ask people you respect to teach you. Ask your boss if she knows anyone. Send an email to someone you respect on the internet. Ask my OG mentor to help you out; he lists his services right on his tumblr. Speaking to someone who’s been through what you’ve been through is so invaluable. Having someone outside of your team (that part’s important) to talk to will make all the difference in your life. A bunch of us at team Aviary have stayed in touch with our former COO, who has talked us each through many panic attacks over the years.
Here’s a quick list of some of the skills that commonly go unmentioned, but are incredibly valuable at a startup and will totally get you a job, even if you don’t think you’re “qualified” to get one. It’s important to remember that these so-called “soft skills” are just as difficult to master and are crucial to the success of any business.
- Empathy (seriously, this is a big one)
- Awesome communication skills (both out loud and in writing)
- Brevity (your awesome communication skills mean nothing if you’re sending 10-page emails) (I realize the irony of saying this in a crazy long blog post)
- Willingness to help with anything
- Eagerness to learn everything (often called “hunger” but I can’t bring myself to say that)
- Confidence and humility (you need both)
- Ability to talk to anyone, and ideally to make them smile
- Basic understanding of the internet, social media, etc (you really can’t get out of this one)
I’ve always told people that getting my dream job at Aviary was a fluke. “I had zero skills,” I confide when they ask. “I only got the job because I already knew the founder. I just got lucky. It was just good timing.” I have a million excuses. But honestly? Recently I’ve come to terms with the fact that I got this job because I deserved it. My boss hired me because I had already proven to him that I had all of the above, and that outweighed the fact that I had no startup experience or technical skillz. And building that trust with him, becoming the kind of person who was a no-brainer to hire, THAT - not spending my time trying to morph into someone else - was exactly the right use of my time before my startup career began.
Don’t beat yourself up for not fitting into a cookie-cutter “skilled” job description. Make your own job description (more on this later). Go get your dream job because you deserve it.
And email me if you need any help!