28 September, 2011

How Startups Differ: Dreams of an Employee

The other day I was thinking about what separates us humans from animals. I won't go through the whole discussion that happened inside my head, but only the result: dreams. Animals have needs: eat, sleep, reproduce. Repeat ad infinitum, or at least until you die. We are a bit more complex in this respect. We have dreams and thereby goals which are ends in themselves. Someone might claim that all the wants and goals we have eventually collapse into the previously mentioned biological goals. I'm not so sure - I can't see somebody looking for a career in formal logic reduced to his biology. At face value it makes more sense to accept his want to understand logic as an end, not as a means to impress the ladies.

As the previous anecdote shows, dreams can play an important part in our careers. It’s not just the normal professions of a doctor, firefighter or a police officer that have dreams as their fuel. I’m very confident that any profession or job can have the same quality. This does not necessarily mean that the sales clerk has a dream of being a sales clerk, but he or she may dream of being a respected, trustworthy individual who eventually progresses at the workplace and then ending up as a sales manager in another company. Who you want to be is everything to who you are today.

If I think about the stereotypical large company or organization, dreams don’t seem to be of exactly very high importance there. You have a job, and your development goals are to be linked to your proficiency in that task. What, you want to improve, only to leave your post here? Not going to happen! Now, companies have training programs. Some of them even ask about your career goals. But this is not enough. A person is not just a career. Career goals cannot operate in isolation of all your other goals. I say it’s time to move from a paradigm, in which the employee is a repository of skills and knowledge, to a paradigm, in which he is a holistic person with dreams outside his career, too.

This is something at which startups excel. Everybody has heard the standard comments about the dynamic nature of startups and how they penetrate even the tiniest niches in the market. Well, sure, the Titanic hardly maneuvers in the same way as a speedboat – they are very unlike in size. But it still doesn’t mean you can’t feel good and whole in both.

What I’ve gathered from the startup experiences of my friends is that the startup culture is very multifaceted and you’re generally approached with interest. People are keen about stories or narratives, which explain who you are, what you want and why. In a large corporation gatherings can at worst be at the “I’m Jack, an accountant” –level. I mean, defining yourself by your position or profession is hardly the best way. I’d guess this has a lot to do with the fact startups rarely have very strongly identified or differentiated employees- everybody does everything. There’s no chance to identify with a role you don’t have. But still, even though we have roles in larger organizations, we don’t have to identify ourselves primarily through those. It would make sense to define ourselves through ourselves. And to do that, we need to make room for dreams.