What’s so special about start-up life?

Written by Laura Chamberlain, Managing Director at Now.

When I rather rashly decided to leave my last agency without a job to go to, a couple of things happened in quick succession. Firstly, a Braveheart, covered in woad moment: “FREEDOM!” Followed swiftly by the inevitable, “Oh-shit-oh-shit-oh shit-what-have-I-done” moment.

The creative services director, a friend and wing-woman, gave me a leaving card that said: “Jump and the net will appear”.

And so it did. I was invited to join the start-up, and I haven’t looked back. So what’s so special about start-up life?

I was recently invited to speak at Lewis Silkin, specialists in advertising and media law, about start-ups – a rather daunting prospect in front of a large group of very clever looking lawyers at a table so large that the UN might want to borrow it for coffee mornings. Gulp!

Casting about for a good video to give them a break from death by Power Point and given that it’s the Bard’s 400 year anniversary, I played a clip of Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech, delivered on the morning of the Battle of Agincourt.

The purpose being to illustrate that it’s often the intensity of the close-knit and supportive team spirit that helps start-ups succeed against the odds.

“From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”

Act IV Scene iii 18–67

Henry V knew it. Shakespeare knew it. And now Google has proven it. It’s all about the spirit of the team. A recent article in The New York Times, titled What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team, unpacks Google’s Project Aristotle.

Researchers reviewed a half-century of academic studies looking at how teams worked and concluded that it wasn’t the composition of the teams that mattered (ie how many individual stars a team contained), it was the team’s culture that determined success. So what type of team culture?

The type whose behaviours exhibited aspects of what’s called “psychological safety”. The smart people at Harvard define this as, “a shared belief held by members of the team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking… a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up… a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves”. (Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson)

Google similarly concluded that “In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs”.

So “big data” has proven what those of us lucky enough to work in start-ups already know. That start-up life is the ultimate team sport. That creating a culture where everyone feels they can speak up and be listened to is what makes the difference.

We play together, laugh together, take risks together, make great stuff together. We care passionately about the creative work and each other. We succeed together or not at all.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

Originally featured in Campaign