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3 Lessons Learned from Working at a Startup

3 Lessons Learned from Working at a Startup

Are you curious what it’s like to work for a startup? I took the plunge as a consultant to an edtech startup to learn whether I would like to work for one and to determine whether I had the right skills to make the leap into the startup world full-time.

[Related: Practical Thoughts on How to Start Your Own Business]

Three main lessons that I learned from my work with the startup are below.

Skills matter – When you join a startup, make sure you know what you can bring to the table. If you’ve worked at Harvard Business School for a decade like I have, make sure to tell the founders about the skills that make you unique. For example, I bring expertise in managing projects worldwide and working with over 50 colleagues in 9 countries. I also bring unique insights into how a business school like Harvard has sought to diversify its educational programs to satisfy prospective students who are increasingly skeptical of attending school for two years as tuition continues to skyrocket. If you’ve worked in the finance industry, you might offer your skills in accounting and ability to brainstorm potential revenue streams for the startup.

Bottom line – Know your skills and make sure they align with the startup’s needs. You must be able to articulate what skills you bring to the table.

Founders matter When you join a startup, you will join a founder or set of founders who came up with the company’s product or service. Make sure you that you respect those founders and look out for mutual respect, willingness to listen, and skills the founders bring to the table. All of these things matter when you are in the throes of designing or launching the startup’s product or service.

Bottom line – Getting along with the founders is critical, but it’s a two-way street as well. As with any working relationship, you need to assess whether your colleagues’ work styles, receptivity to feedback, and skills align with yours.

Learning matters When you join a startup, be prepared to learn a lot. Even if you’ve worked at Harvard Business School for a decade like me, you must be willing to learn new skills because working for a startup often is an all-hands­­­­­­-on-deck experience. For example, I had to learn how to talk about (also known as pitching) the edtech startup to potential users and investors. I learned this skill by watching seasoned entrepreneurs at startup events and even the TV show “Shark Tank.” The best method of learning for me came by pitching the startup myself, so I am a big fan of learning-by-doing.

Bottom line – Embrace learning and make sure you ask experts for help as you develop the skills.

Overall, I loved my consulting engagement with the edtech startup and would highly recommend testing the waters in a similar manner if you’re thinking about joining or founding a startup. And be sure to keep me posted on what you learn along your startup journey.


Moha Shah managed projects worldwide at Harvard Business School for 10 years. She writes about leadership, women in business, and skills required in today’s global knowledge economy. Follow her on Twitter via @globalmoha.

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