Think Long

Startups are attractive places to work these days, and Amsterdam is doing its very best to become a startup hub, attracting thousands of enthusiasts to the industry every year, and the trend seems to only be getting stronger. This post refers to the state of Amsterdam startups the way I see it with my experience of running FindHotel and being part of the local startup-scene for several years.

There are many good reasons to like startups:

  • They are perceived as fun places to work, as there are perks, young people and city center locations.
  • Your impact will likely be felt, as the organization is small and you know that what you do matters to the success of the company, even in the most junior of roles.
  • The team is committed and usually sticks together well beyond the 9 to 5.
  • Hierarchies are flat, founders are involved and these two factors contribute to a meritocracy in both responsibilities and compensation.
  • Startups usually begin from single problems that are rather easy to understand, and deriving from that what your role would be is straightforward.

Yet somehow, most people get startups completely wrong...

  • Many people think startup salaries are high -> That is rarely true, especially not in the early days when any source of income for the startup is highly uncertain (funding and revenue alike). Becoming a key startup employee will eventually help you earn great salaries, but that is not a given on day one or year one, certainly not with any level of guarantee.
  • They think that owning a large percentage share means long-term equity -> the truth is that the size of the potential pool matters much more. Almost no employee gets any significant value when a startup is sold for <€10M, but everyone, even employee 200, would feel the impact of a €1BN exit.
  • They think that single problem focus means single focus roles -> that is rarely the case, as specialization only begins after there are more than 20 employees and sometimes not before 50 (this is problem dependent). Moreover, some degree of 'generalism' is expected from all managers and many key employees for many years.
  • They think that the team commitment means that startups are a family -> people do care a lot, but good startups are high-performance organizations, and they are quick to eject members who fail or stop performing, which is the opposite of family.
  • They think that their impact will make a great dent -> but that is only true if they become the people that make a dent in the organization... If you come in for a 6 months of 'startup tasting', it won't be you who make that dent.

The common thread among these observations is that especially in startups, everyone must think long-term, and they must endure under high requirements and some level of ambiguity about the value of their compensation & the startup experience. These would only become really valuable if they are in a place that is 'going places', which takes time.

My favorite examples of success

How do you know that you are in a startup that can succeed? Is it the hype? A good round of funding? The founders' enthusiasm? How do you get over the hidden fear in every startup that it might be "going nowhere?"

My two favorite examples in our industry, and Skyscanner, were border cases between success and failure in the middle of their first decades as companies. In the time that most startups go on TechCrunch, get two rounds of funding, close down and start over again, these companies cruised under the radar until they found their model for success. The model for both companies included extreme focus on customer acquisition sources they could master, and a focus on few key strategic pillars that made their model work and gave them the long-lasting advantage they enjoy in their niches. They were certainty not the best designed, best known or best funded companies in their niche at ages 1 to 7. Yet, through focused execution and long-term vision they became pioneers in their niches and multi-billion dollar companies that today draw fear and admiration in the industry. The founders and key employees at these companies thought long and eventually built amazing companies, as well as equity for themselves and a terrific career path, allowing them to be in full control for the rest of their working lives, after gaining valuable experience only a few in the world have had.

The goal

In my eyes, that is the goal of every long-thinking startup, creating that impact and wealth. And while it is hard to imagine when you start your company, and harder to admit in public that you even think in a decade term, it is what great startup leaders must do from a very early stage.

Judge us on our longevity

The truth is that startups are hard, and only a few succeed because both the odds are low and only a few founders and enough key team members aim for large-scale success. Thinking long is the only way to build a truly successful company. There are simply no valid shortcuts (or 'growth hacks') for either founders or employees that allow for successful company building without long-term focus and high quality execution.

Today, as a founder who is building a company that could go places, thinking long is becoming the most important quality I seek in managers, employees, and partners. I can only wish that this mantra becomes "trendy" one day, as well as a key criterion that the best recruits look out for when they consider joining us.