Startups

The Career-Girl Manifesto

Computer science Barbie inspires me. She happens to be a girly girl, and happens to like computers too. So that’s how she presents herself. The combination of her intelligence plus her authenticity shows her capacity for effective leadership. She’ll be your boss one day. I’m talking to you, lame startup guy.

Women are told that we need to act more like men to get ahead. We need to downplay our feminine ways and stop sabotaging our careers by doing girly things, like over-explaining ourselves, leaving crappy voicemails and using emoticons in emails. And we can’t cry – that makes guys uncomfortable. And God forbid we make people uncomfortable by being too girly.

But you know what makes people really uncomfortable? Downplaying your girly side. Embrace commanding body language. Be assertive, take charge and leave the emoticons at the door.

You just can’t win. The messages are confusing. They’re telling you you have to act a certain way to garner the respect and trust to earn a high-power position, but you can’t try too hard or else that’s distracting and threatening and people won’t like you. This message is conflicting, frustrating and unproductive, especially for young women like myself who are just starting out in our careers.

Men and women are not equal – we’re different. In Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk, “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders”, she diplomatically explains some reasons men get ahead in the workplace and points out some things they do better than us:

  • 57% of men negotiate their first salaries. Only 7% of women do this. (Wonder where the pay gap begins?)
  • Men attribute their success to themselves (“I’m awesome!”) while women attribute their success to external factors (“So and so helped me along the way…”) No one gets a promotion if they don’t think they deserve success!

I like to see behavior differences between myself and my male peers and think about things they do differently (and in my opinion, better) than me. I find the guys I work with to be more direct in how they communicate than I am. They make decisions faster than me. I think that’s because they’re more confident than I am and they don’t waste time second guessing themselves. They take credit for their work. They never seem to feel like people are taking advantage of them, whereas I do. You teach people how to treat you. Is this a difference between men and women in general or just between some assertive guys and a learning-to-be-more-assertive girl? I’m not sure.

While these points are somewhat worth exploring for personal growth I think it’s more worthwhile for young women to identify and cultivate their personal strengths than it is for them to try and act like one of the guys just for the sake of downplaying our feminine sides.

Because honestly, no matter what you do to downplay your feminine side, your gender is still out there. It’s this pulsing theme in the background of your life. No, not all women want to be moms, but the potential and desire for motherhood has a huge impact on your career, the choices you make and the stresses you feel outside the office. Women have miscarriages at the office. Then they go to board meetings. Even the most conservative/prepared/cautious birth control-pill-popping-20-something career girl secretly does a little fist pump and thinks “Yes! Dodged another one!” every month. She doesn’t want kids, she’s focused on her career. She’s in law school or getting her MBA or something. All of this only to end up doing IVF at age 35 and squinting at a pregnancy test every month praying she gets the two pink lines. (Worth noting: 11 of the 12 female Fortune 500 CEO’s are moms.) Even if you do end up on Forbe’s 50 most powerful women in the world list, they’re still gonna list your marital status and the number of children you have. Sure it’s 2011 but we’re still somewhat defined by our ability to reproduce and get hitched, not only culturally but also by the personal choices we have to make along the way. You’re still a woman. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a push-up bra or shoulder pads.

I imagine and celebrate a scenario in which an up-and-coming sales exec will go out for manicures to chum up to her female CEO just like how men go golfing with their male bosses. Embrace who you are. I don’t think it needs to be an either-or situation of being taken seriously and being feminine. To encourage more female leadership in tech, it doesn’t need to be a choice between science camp or jewelry. Wear your jewelry to science camp. To get to the corner office, it doesn’t need to be a choice being between an iron-fist or a nurturing hand, it just means choosing a leadership style that reflects who you are.

Furthermore, you’re allowed to hate manicures too. Go smoke cigars with your up-and-coming sales exec if you ladies prefer that. And if you hate jewelry, wear a baseball cap to science camp. Just make sure you are being mentored by your CEO or role model. And get your butt to science camp. Be who you are. I demand this. To be anything else is a distraction from your goals.

I think the article “Can She Lead” offers a good solution:

It seems that authentic leadership is the most important factor women can maintain to rise as leaders for society. Women shouldn’t feel they must lead with an iron fist to thrive because, nor that this is the only way they will ascend the corporate ladder. Leadership should not be garnered by fear, but rather by consensus and a belief in the leader. In addition, women should not feel that they must act passively to conform to traditional ideas of female leadership. Rather, they must be true to themselves and realize their influence as leaders… Female leaders can rise to the top as they embrace their own strengths as women and maintain a leadership style that is embedded in their individuality. This is what will draw others near, inspire, and motivate.

When it comes to female leadership in the workplace, I hope my little blog post is just one piece of an increasing discourse centered around embracing individual strengths. And if we do generalize about differences between men versus women, I hope we see more conversation that emphasizes the benefits of a “female style” of leadership. Positive reinforcement, people: Let’s talk about what we’re doing right once in a while!

We’ve got a ton of work to do. 85% of PR practitioners are women but the top 80% of management is male. The glass ceiling still exists in many industries. I’m painting my nails and I’m getting a hammer.

How to: Be a Startup Kid

Considering a job at a startup? New to startup life? Based off of my extensive eight months of experience, here are my tips:

1. Be Agile

Take your job description. Print it out. Burn it. Be ready to wear many hats. Depending on the direction your company takes you may need to take on different projects or tasks that you didn’t initially set out for. Be flexible, learn as you go and multi-task.

2. Be Decisive

Make decisions quickly. Be really confident in your choices, knowing that usually things can be iterated on and re-considered later. Act quickly and trust yourself. Second-guessing wastes time you don’t have.

3. Drink

Chill with other startup kids. Mingle. Go to events. Startup friends understand your work life in a way that others usually don’t. They’ll be able to offer really great feedback and advice, and some of the best networking opportunities come from just hanging out. True story: I met my friend who I hired as a freelance blogger when we were just hanging out drinking wine with other startup geeks once. Networking doesn’t just happen at conferences.

4. Drop the Perfectionism

You do not have time to nit-pick over minute details that don’t move the needle. Some jobs are extremely detail-oriented and are totally focused on shipping only the most perfect product or document possible. At a startup it’s less about being perfect and more about perfecting as you go along. “Ship it and change it based on customer feedback”  or “let’s test this and see if it gets traction” are more the themes at a startup.

5. Get Over the Rainbows and Butterflies

Your bad ideas that you love so much but just don’t work? Love ’em and leave ’em. You can’t get emotionally tied to and hung up on specific ideas or projects at a startup. Test your idea, measure the results and be ready to scrap the whole thing and move onto the next one if it wasn’t the right solution.

6. Play Ping Pong. Wear a Hoodie.

Be the type of person who gets bored with the mundane and thrives under pressure. Learn to be happy despite a strong level of uncertainty. Show up at work and get stressed. Then, when you need to relax a little, play ping pong or something. Startups are nuts and being able to keep an even keel – in whatever way you do that – is key.

7. Know Your Needs

Feeling sick? Need a day off? This one’s tough for me too. Part of what makes you a successful startup kid is knowing your needs and taking care of yourself. If you need more sleep, sleep. You need exercise and a diet that doesn’t only consist of PBJ & PBR. When you take care of yourself you help your team by making sure their engineer or product person or marketing person is ok. Know your needs and take care of them.

8. Choose Your Choices

Not everyone is going to “get” the startup thing. They don’t understand how your job isn’t just a job to you or why you’d want to work such crazy hours or do what you do. Get behind your own life choices and commit to your own decisions. Then, it really won’t matter to you who does or doesn’t understand or approve. They’re your choices and you want them, after all, so who cares.

9. Be Hungry

Be hungry to learn. Be hungry to figure it out. Be hungry to find someone who already knows how it’s done and then go ask them how it’s done. Identify your weaknesses and seek the knowledge or experience that fixes them. You’ll likely be “punching above your weight class” and will be challenged with a lot more responsibility than you initially thought. If you are absolutely die-hard hungry to learn all you can, succeed in your own role and make your contribution to the team a success, that’ll be ok.

10. ELAMF

Execute like a ___ ___. There is a unique level of productivity and motivation needed (demanded) from each member of a small team. It’s beyond the level of just getting to the bottom of a to-do list, it’s about asking “What’s next?” and being able to immediately act on that feedback. It’s about bringing new ideas to the table, asking questions, giving your input to every part of what’s going on. Showing up isn’t good enough, and participating isn’t intense enough either. This is about being really involved and applying your expertise to each aspect of your new business.

Startups are crazy, but somehow I love this. What other qualities or tips would you add to the list?

A book I loved: REWORK

REWORK is written by Jason Fried and David Heinemeir Hansson, the founders of 37 Signals. With refreshing clarity and a flutter of snark, they share their “cookbook” – a collection of short essays about lessons they’ve learned along the way from growing their product and business. I think it’s a great book for anyone working at a young company who wants a quick read and an uber-motivating kick in the butt.

These were some of my favorite lessons from REWORK:

Workaholism:

This resonated with me. They condemn workaholics, saying that those who like to burn the midnight oil just like to feel like heroes. They throw shear hours at a problem rather than effectively searching for a solution. Workaholics claim to be perfectionists, but that just means they focus in on needless details instead of moving forward onto the next task. I know sometimes I can get caught up in details too much, and it is incredibly time-consuming. Although marketing is very detail oriented in nature I think (someone has to nit-pick about grammar in copy!) you have to learn not to fixate on the stuff that won’t move the needle. You have to learn. I have to learn.

Draw a Line in the Sand:

This how you attract superfans.  Whole Foods is an example. They sell high quality foods, and sometimes it costs more. (Ever heard someone call them Whole Paycheck?) When you don’t compromise on what your product is offering you’re going to turn some people away. However, you’re also going to earn a loyal following of evangelists who agree with you. In a somewhat similar essay, “Pick a Fight”, they explain the value of taking a stand on something, or against a competitor. Dunkin Donuts is the anti-Starbucks. Under Armour vs. Nike is another example they cite. One example I thought of was HubSpot, and how they draw a line in the sand and chug the inbound marketing KoolAid. They pick a fight against old marketing tactics and create content around why inbound marketing is the way for businesses to generate leads.

Out-teach Your Competition

This essay preaches from the gospel of inbound marketing, whether that’s intentional or not. Your competition is buying advertising and hiring salespeople. You can do the same thing, but early on, you can’t out-do them. But you can out-teach them. They point the Gary Vaynerchuk teaching people about wine with Wine Library TV as an example. This is especially critical for startups. You can’t afford to buy a Superbowl Ad, but you can blog about your industry and teach your customers, and that actually creates a greater impact than any advertisement long term.

Hire When It Hurts

This concept is the idea that you should only hire when you absolutely need that position on your team – when there is a gaping, obvious hole in your organization and the quality level is slipping because you don’t have someone there doing that work. The thing is, each person you add to the team alters the structure and culture. You can always add people, but if you grow too quickly before you are ready, you can’t eliminate positions ( :-(!! ) without damaging morale. So only hire when you absolutely need to, and hire only after you have done that job yourself for a while so that you are able to properly manage that position.

Throughout the book, they seem to emphasize the advantages of being uncluttered. Desks, software, meetings, extra employees, extra policies – all of these things take a company away from focusing on their core, and well, getting things done.

Strangers at a Cocktail Party

When you hire the wrong people or hire too quickly, you might end up with a “strangers at a cocktail party” environment on your team. It’s a bunch of strangers in a room. This environment means that no one calls anyone out, no one gives constructive feedback or says what they mean. It’s too nicey nice. It’s too friendly. It’s too politically correct.

I couldn’t agree more. The NY Times had a great article about Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and Mark Zuckerburg’s Work BFF. They work so well together because they are able to communicate. I’m pretty sure that not all of their conversations are rainbows and butterflies. They can probably call each other out, give each other critical feedback and say exactly what’s on their minds. “Nothing goes left unsaid” is vitally important to me, and it’s a cultural value I try to instill in my workplace relationships (and in my life in general.) One of my mentors put it this way: Transparency is freedom. Try it at the office.

Meetings are Toxic:

I. Love. This. Concept. I can’t explain this as well as they are going to. But, if there is one thing I want everyone who reads this post to realize, it’s that your next one hour meeting with ten employees didn’t just take an hour’s worth of time. It was ten hours worth of time. Also, how much are ya’ll getting paid per hour? Meetings are expensive, kids! Was that conversation actually worth it, or could two people have sat down for ten minutes to get those decisions made or that to-do list mapped out?

(I want to run a marketing department when I grow up!)

Just… cancel your next BS meeting and watch this 17-minute video from Jason Fried about why you can’t get anything done at work instead:

As you can tell, I truly enjoyed the book and I think you’ll benefit from it to. You can buy it on Amazon here. If you’ve read the book, feel free to share your favorite lessons from it in the comments.

Swim Off Your Island.

Let me know if this situation is unique to my experience.

You’re at a startup and it’s mostly engineers. There’s one marketing person. It’s not that you don’t heart each other, but you don’t collaborate. You feel out of the loop. You actually have no idea what the other person is working on because you don’t understand their language, so their projects don’t become real to you until you see them deployed on the website.

This was my experience for the first six and a half months of oneforty, and it boiled down to a communication issue. Product things that I knew were being worked on had titles I didn’t understand, so I didn’t understand how it could translate into action on my part. (Oh, so this fancy code thing is a sick new website feature that could be promoted in a screencast for our users? Oh, so this feature is actually kinda huge and I should do some blogger outreach about it?)

We devised an incredibly elaborate and complicated solution to this problem. Now, this may be hard to comprehend, so here is the visual map-out:

Ask more questions! Talk to each other more. Explain your projects to each other. Provide some context. In the wise words of one of my engineers, “trust me, you don’t want to hear about every piece of code I push out.” He’s right. I don’t. He doesn’t want to see all of my Tweets either. Don’t micromanage each other – just communicate.

Ever feel like you’re “on an island” at your organization? Here’s my challenge: swim away and communicate. When you’re all in the loop, you don’t feel so alone on the startup rollercoaster. And when you’re communicating things internally, you’re better able to externally communicate new features. So jump in the water. Start swimming.

Boston is Awesome and Full of Swagger

I’m new to the startup scene here in town and I’m still getting a feel for the ecosystem around here. I’m doing a lot of listening, just reading blog posts comparing us to the Valley, about our lack of swagger or lack of innovation or this or that. I’m trying to get a sense of the environment out here and learn.

My take so far? I gotta tell ya, it’s not perfect here, but seriously, Boston is awesome and I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit.

Trust me: In June 2009 I wouldn’t have moved away from my parents  – not to mention WEGMANS – to live in some overpriced shithole apartment if I didn’t love that city outside my door. (Seriously. I pay like $600 a month in rent and my shower head is held up by a hair elastic. Go figure.)

I’m going to quote Bostinnovation’s take on all the Valley vs. Boston comparisons:

“The environment we currently work in is home to a world class collegiate population, large amounts of VC and plenty of technical talent.  Surely, world-changing companies have been brought to life in less favorable conditions than our own.”

Seriously, people. Boston isn’t so bad!

I’m going to talk to you about Techrigy/Alterian. They created a social media monitoring software, SM2, out of Aaron Newman’s basement in Rochester, NY in 2006.

There are definitely innovators in Rochester, NY – but Twitter and tech and such isn’t as ubiquitous as around here. In Boston, my boss’ three-year-old daughter knows how to use an iPad. Every major company and even local businesses know their way around social media around here. It’s not like that in Rochester. Many people are still figuring it out. Not the best situation for trying to sell a social media monitoring platform, right?

The people at Techrigy didn’t waste time comparing their environment to others. They sat in the basement, and then sat in an office with no windows, and worked their butts off. And then they got acquired.

So, I’m not saying that they are Google – but they are still a startup success story and awesome.

Beantown’s doing alright! We have the tech scene and the educational institutions at our hands. There’s a lot of young energy and leadership in the community, making it a place that new people like me want to be a part of. (Follow @GreenhornBoston, @BosWomenpreneurs @DartBoston and @Bostinnovation for a start.) I would just say that yes, it’s good to stop and question these things and look at what the Valley is doing – but let’s not get too distracted by it. We’ve all got work to do. After all, if we want to “catch up” to the Valley in any way – at some point you just gotta get back to your basement and execute.