The Early-Employee Mindset

In a session for On Deck First 50 fellows, Pete Huang (15th hire at Airtable and a Product Manager on the Growth team) breaks down the early-stage startup mindset and the advice he’d give to people looking to join hyper-growth startups.

Early stage startups are a test of a team’s ability to continue moving forward so everyone needs to add momentum.

There are three components of the early-employee mindset.

  • Expectations
  • Work ethic
  • Adding lots of value


It’s incredibly important to understand what you’re going to get out of the startup experience and manage expectations, particularly if you’re switching over from the non-startup world.

What you will get

  • Opportunity to learn: The pace of execution will mean months of learning in days.
  • Work with smart people: You’ll work with smart people who are passionate about solving the biggest problems in the world.
  • Exposure to a problem: The all hands on deck nature of startups means you’ll get deep exposure to a problem. Engineering, operations, sales – you’re going to see the problem from every facet.
  • Problem ownership: You’re going to get ownership to solve these problems as well.

What you might get but can’t rely on

  • Mentorship: Your team isn’t there to provide you management cover so you’ll need to learn to become self reliant.
  • Nature of learning: It’s going to be the most unstructured learning of your career.
  • Title growth: People grow at startups by demonstrating impact. They earn it, rather than optimizing for the prize. Angling for promotions or title growth is the wrong approach.
  • Money: Startups are a bet. If you’re in it for the money, prepare to be disappointed.

Adding lots of value

It boils down to ‘always move the business forward’.

Zoom out: When you join an early stage startup, it’s going to be a fraction of what it’ll look like in 5 years in terms of scale, headcount, business functions, sales, etc.

Ask yourself: what do we need to know in 5 years that we don’t know today? What can I work on this week that’ll get us there?

The build vs operate mindset: You aren’t at a startup to ‘do work’. That’s the operating mindset. You’re there to meaningfully change the trajectory of the business and search for inflection points to make the hockey stick curve steeper.

Example: The team is at capacity so you take on some of the customer onboarding and dedicate 1-2 hours per Friday.

Fast forward a year and the business and headcount have increased by 10x. You’re now spending an entire workday to onboard new customers.

From the business’s perspective, it’s a disaster. You know more about the business than most employees yet are still in that ‘operating’ mindset.

Someone with a ‘build’ mindset would have made sure the work was delegated to new people over time. They’d have automated it, or found ways to add value to the process so it wouldn’t take so much time in the first place.

Stop operating, start building.

Give away your legos: You can create more impact by empowering other people and letting them go deeper into the work.

Get out of the hamster wheel and stop throwing hours at the work!

Structure and synthesize: One of the reasons startups are chaotic is the difficulty of managing the everyday learning of the team. Everyone has a million things on their plate so you need someone to pull everyone back and tie it all together. Be that person!

  • Break down the problems the company is trying to solve into smaller and manageable chunks.
  • Have people learn against those questions.
  • Take those learnings and feed them back into the questions.

Be meaningful so that people can learn more effectively.

Dedicate time to think: You cannot do any of the above things without dedicating time to think. Take an hour out every Friday and reframe your efforts. It’ll have a multiplier effect on your work.

Some questions you might try to answer are:

  • How am I doing?
  • How is the company doing?
  • How are other people doing?
  • What is the state of the problem I’m trying to solve?

Work ethic

Work hard: You can’t coast! You will be living and breathing the company’s problems 24/7.

The best operators in startups think in terms of hours instead of days. They’re known for doing things well and doing them really, really fast.

It’s great to want to emulate them…but to a limit. DON’T BURN OUT.

Always keep a check on your physical, emotional, and mental health.

Self sufficiency and orienting to solutions: How people tackle problems they know nothing about is a very good indicator of success in startups.

Are you the type to roll up your sleeves, learn on the fly, and do your best? Or would you give up? It’s all about scrappiness and it is essential to success.

Self sufficiency naturally leads to orienting towards solutions because you know they are possible. Be relentless.

Do what the company needs: Everyone needs to pitch in. The company is going to need scrappy, dirty, and ugly stuff done. It might be manually building a Twitter list or stocking the company fridge, and you cannot think yourself above it all.

The Role-Fit Prioritization Exercise

The role-fit prioritization exercise can help evaluate opportunities for which you’d actually be passionate.

  1. Write down 10 criteria that are a must-have in your next role or company (idea, impact, salary, team, etc). Write down a qualitative description of your perfect opportunity as well.
  2. Complete the exercise the next day without looking at the older list.
  3. Do it 10 days in a row.
  4. Take your final list on the 10th day and cut it down to 5.
  5. Put those 5 criteria in a rubric and rank each company or role across those metrics.
  6. Write a narrative around each role or company and see how well it compares to your ideal opportunity.