The best startup advice I can give: Strive for efficiency over perfection.
If you’re joining a startup for the first time, obviously you want to do your very best. But in a startup, you may need to adjust your conception of what “your very best” is, because it might less rooted in the perfection that many of us have been taught to aim for, and more in efficiency.
By no means do I want to convey that the quality of your work isn’t important. It is. Yet it’s crucial to operate with the awareness that early on in a startup environment, very little can be perfect — that’s just the nature of the game — and more importantly, perfection is not a required result most of the time. What you need to focus on is being efficient, which means knowing how good a result has to be and achieving that result as quickly and easily as possible.
Letting go of perfection can be tough in an environment where new hires often come from good schools and generally have an A+ history, but it really is the case that at an early stage startup, where there is a never-ending amount of work and a lack of information and experimentation frame your day, efficiency trumps excellence. In a startup environment, constant iteration is key to success, and you can’t iterate successfully if you’re preoccupied by perfection.
Demoting perfection as your immediate objective demands that you continually assess what will work in a given context, and I look for that kind of nimble thinking even when I’m interviewing candidates. I use the following question to assess how someone might work on my team:
“If I needed you to figure out how many Chinese restaurants are in San Francisco, how would you do it?”
The answers here can vary from consultant stuff, like market sizing analysis, to excruciating silence, but most people give really bad answers because they want to show how smart they can be. But what I’m looking for is how efficient they can be. I don’t want to have to train a new employee out of thinking they have to be the smartest — I want them to demonstrate a tendency for efficiency from the get-go.
The first trick is to figure out how well you need to answer this question. So I’m really hoping for this in return: “How good does the answer need to be?” If I answer, “You need to be within 1,000”, then the answer is simple: 1,000, because there are almost certainly fewer than 2,000 Chinese restaurants in San Francisco proper.
If I tell you that you need to be within a few hundred, it’s tougher, but you should still look for a simple answer. Here’s the right answer: “I’d probably pull up Google or Yelp and do a quick search. Count the number of restaurants on a page, multiple by the number of pages returned, and give you that number.” Great, you showed efficiency, so now we’d move on to tougher questions.
Very rarely as an employee at a startup do you need to exhibit perfection or even brilliance, at least not in the traditional sense of the term. At a startup, brilliance lies is in the efficiency and simplicity used to get a sufficient result, and it’s key to moving up in the organization. Show that you can exercise good judgment to know what the necessary result is for a given situation or problem, and then be ruthlessly efficient in everything you do to achieve that result.