building the plane while flying it
a burnout mantra
I want to jump right into it and talk about a phrase that exists everywhere in business and across all kinds of industries: We are “building the plane while flying it” (or some variation of that).
In startups, this phrase is referencing the speed and scrappiness of building a company.
“This phrase is a cliche of Silicon Valley that initially referred to iterating software development. Instead of perfecting the software before shipping, this phrase summarizes a different approach – ship it, fix it, ship it again.”
FYI: The image and caption came from this blog post which talks about this same topic but in an entirely different way. They talk about 5 examples of planes or other aircraft actually being built or maintained while they are in the air. I skimmed through some of the other posts and they were pretty good if you’re interested in checking that out!
This phrase exemplifies what I believe is just a fundamental characteristic of startups. If it’s just you at the company, you can’t JUST do sales and literally nothing else. You would have no company!
This tweet covers the phrase pretty well:
The startup hustle culture has permeated throughout the US (and broader western culture) and has only accelerated in an iphone world.
And it’s an attractive culture! Work hard on what you want and make a ton of money. Change the world with your brilliant idea. Create your own business and answer to no one.
Who wouldn’t find all that at least a little enticing?
Startups are a fantastic environment to learn
Many people prefer learning in a “trial by fire” (myself included). A startup can absolutely feel like that. However, a well-managed one does not feel always feel like a giant pit of flames (more on this later).
Those who enjoy startups often mention the sheer volume of knowledge you can get on a daily basis:
seeing the work of teams outside your discipline in greater detail than you would at a big company
seeing the mistakes, wins, and changes happen in real-time across the entire org
And even on your own team you’re learning a lot! Most startup marketers are doing a bit of everything.
You also have the opportunity to make a very tangible impact on the organization. This was something I never got when working at a big company. I could never really see the impact of what I was working on. At a startup, every project has the potential to ripple through the organization.
Over time, you’ll be able to identify opportunities for improvements and build the systems you want to see that could have a lifelong impact on the company.
sorry but don’t romanticize this for too long
It’s important to understand working at a startup should not always feel like this. There are many things wrong with a company that takes this phrase too far.
Imagine you and your team are those people in that tweet. Do you all look like you have it together? Calm, cool, collected?
NO! You don’t! Now, imagine if every day felt like this. Pretty terrible if you ask me.
This is an exhausting environment to constantly be in. You started the day checking email campaigns, skipped lunch to conduct a customer interview for a case study, and ended the day responding to internal technical issues (because apparently only marketing and IT understand technology). Oh and you have no idea how work fits into the broader growth of the business.
It can also be a toxic work environment that discourages people from taking time off, staying consistent with tasks and projects, or simply asking how a coworker is doing (and meaning it). It can also put blinders on leadership to problems within the company or significant stress their employees are feeling.
Everyone handles this kind of environment differently. Some thrive in it, others fail, and many live in it for years before cracking. Preventing any issues comes down to clear and open communication.
The reality is...this is unavoidable.
This is just simply what happens at startups. You don’t have a lot of people and you have a lot of things that need to get done in a short amount of time.
Things move really fast in startups for a lot of reasons. Here’s a few:
startups are often up against revenue goals for additional funding
Everyone is doing things quickly and then moving onto the next thing. The faster things get done, the closer the company likely is to actually making money.
Unclear roles or inconsistent work expectations can make the day-to-day feel like a blur. The business can sometimes feel like it’s going fast but really people just aren’t aligned and don’t know what is going on
It’s perfectly okay to believe in the positive and motivational emotions this phrase can evoke. It will probably happen to you at some point working in a startup.
That being said, it can be used as a weapon and false sense of pride and accomplishment. Knowing the difference between the two takes time and your level of tolerance may fluctuate throughout your career.
So if all this craziness is unavoidable, how can you mitigate the inevitable stress and burnout?
The best way to avoid burnout at a startup
Create and promote a culture of transparency, especially for work communication and goal-setting.
(As with all culture tips and advice: if any of this is going to work, it must start from the top. If leadership is not a strong proponent and participant in the behaviors you want to see in the company, it will never happen.)
This simply means sharing more openly about the company - the good, the bad, and the ugly. Take the time to inform people of projects in development, sales wins and losses, upcoming marketing campaigns, open job roles, etc.
Channels on slack are better than individual messages. It is much more effective to create open communication across the org using channels people can easily access. Careful of too many channels as this can be an easy way to confuse the team.
And it does not just have to be slack, can also be on zoom or in the office. There shouldn’t be a fear or stigma of sharing company knowledge across teams or to more junior people.
This becomes a common issue as you scale and it just becomes inefficient for everyone to know everything. Companies of all sizes will experience this. Holding back information - for better or for worse - seems to escalate once you get additional funding...
It’s sooooo important for everyone to be okay with saying and hearing “I don’t know”. Great way to make sure the right person is working on the right task, or to have the team collaborate and figure it out together.
Finally, implement a standard goal system for the company. I recommend the OKR structure which will work across individuals, teams, and leadership. Big fan of SMART goals...
This does a few things:
Make it easy for individuals to see how their tasks align with larger company goals.
Everyone will understand who is responsible for what
Most importantly, it will mitigate team friction and the seemingly never-ending feeling that you don’t know what’s going on ☺️
Leadership and managers must focus on the work that matters. This will be different at every company. You and your team must define what matters most and that should align with what leadership is trying to accomplish.
What are some tips for preventing burnout? Reply and I’ll share some in the next newsletter!
If you’re even more excited about startups after reading this, I encourage you to check out my guide on building a marketing function as a one-person team. It’s normally $5 but you can grab it for free using code ‘catchall100’ at checkout!
See you in a couple weeks!