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How to Survive In An Insane Hypergrowth Startup

This post lists the key insights from this article, from Jonathan Golden, a former director of Product at Airbnb.

Building a startup that is in hypergrowth is like few other professional experiences. The work environment is different every few months in every way, including the team members around you. The pressure of operating at a breakneck pace can seem insurmountable. But I was able to handle stressful situations much better as I matured as a manager and, more importantly, as an individual. Over time, and with a lot of trial and error, I developed a few rules that helped me build resilience and succeed in a hypergrowth environment.

1. Don’t just identify a problem. Start fixing it by enlisting others.

I cannot stress this enough: bring a solution to the table any time you spot a problem. For hypergrowth companies, there are problems everywhere, literally every place you look. Just saying that there is a fire somewhere, without helping to put it out, is not helpful.

Others may not know how big the fire is, so you first need to develop a case for sizing the problem. Typically, it’s a lot easier to get the green light to fix a problem than it is to get the resources. So be prepared. Think through what you need, and the timeline for fixing the problem, so you can present a compelling case for what it’s going to take.

I’ve seen too many individuals (myself included!) identify problems but not be willing to help solve them. The hard work is in enlisting others to help fix what’s broken — educating colleagues, in a non-confrontational way, about the scale and scope of the solution and the resources required.

A team player who is constructive when problems arise is far likelier to advance, and advance quickly. Focus on outcomes, and you’ll become the coworker everyone wants to work with: someone who can inspire the organization to take action when they want to. Simply put, someone who can get it done.

2. Understand the (ever-broadening) context.

Being an effective team player isn’t just about solving problems as they arise. It’s also a matter of understanding, and contributing to, the priorities of the overall business. Because what matters to you most might not be what the company needs to focus on at a given moment in time.

I’ve witnessed coworkers become irritated when their work product is not presented in company meetings. They then either want to work on the latest shiny object or become withdrawn, assuming that their work is not important.

You need to constantly strive to stack rank priorities and to reshuffle them as you gain awareness of the context in which you work. To thrive in a hypergrowth environment, you need to push your ego to the background. Focus on what is most essential to the company’s success instead of simply advocating for whatever’s in front of you.

3. Confront challenges head-on. You’ll get through it!

It’s important to keep a positive attitude even when the heat is on. There will always be people who are ready to throw up their hands and claim that nothing will work. But here’s the reality: something has gotta work, or you’re a dead duck anyway. Don’t despair — make a plan and get everyone paddling in the same direction. Putting out fires is how you will spend most of your time, so think creatively. Take some risks. Just work through the issue and you’ll get to the finish line.

At Airbnb, we never needed positive thinking more than during the trust crisis of 2011, when a host’s home was trashed (and a front-page story ensued). The team is what got us through those difficult days and weeks. Even the founders slept with us on air mattresses in the office to respond to the crisis and make the product better than ever. I distinctly recall a financial consultant, though, who pulled me aside during all of this and pleaded with me not to launch Host Guarantee. She told me it would bankrupt the business. I heard her out, but I also recognized hers as a reaction of fear. She was playing it safe, focusing on avoiding the worst-case scenario, rather than actively pursuing a solution. It’s in these moments, though, that you actually need to double down on proactive, positive thinking.

4. Everything changes all the time. Get over it.

When something changes, it doesn’t mean that everything the team was doing before was wrong. It just means that new information came into focus and prompted a refinement. Whatever your role, flexibility is crucial to surviving startup life.

If you’re in a leadership role, you have the added responsibility of rallying your team behind a new direction. Don’t say “nothing changed.” Acknowledge the change and explain the reason for it. Again, I can’t stress enough how important it is to be candid about the why. Organizations normally change for the better as they constantly work to make the team operate as effectively as possible.

Take solace in the fact that no organization is perfect. To survive, every company must change and flex. For instance, at Airbnb we reoriented the product team at least every year as the product’s external environment and community of users shifted. Change also doesn’t mean that something was wrong before. The internal organization simply needs to respond to exogenous factors.

The key is to look forward instead of reflecting on the sunk cost of your work. If the opportunity ahead is brighter than what you were pursuing before you changed paths, then it is the right decision. Don’t dwell on what you’re throwing out the window. Be open to the growth that this type of change typically brings.

5. It’s all about the EQ.

The most stressful situations were often the ones where my technical skills were least useful. During one particularly challenging period, I found myself continually butting heads with a colleague. He was an extremely logical thinker, and I fancied myself one as well. But we always ended up on opposite sides of the table, in every meeting. After a year of this — not kidding — I finally told him how I felt.

I framed things in terms of how they affected me emotionally, not who was right or wrong in any given moment. After a few months, we rebuilt a bridge of trust and are good friends today. That is the power of acknowledging that we are all emotional beings — even in the workplace — and learning how to manage those emotions.

5 min​ read

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