How to Succeed in Startup

Alexandra Sepulveda, deputy general counsel of one of the fastest-growing companies in the country, shares her advice for survival and success in the fast-paced, high-growth world of startups

If there’s one thing I know about startups, it’s that they force upon you an amazingly condensed learning timeline. They are pressure cookers: you have to be prepared to experiment, fail, learn, then get right back up and do it all over again. To get into and succeed at a startup, you need one thing more than anything else: courage. Here are four pointers for anyone considering joining an emerging company in 2015.

1) Be willing to be awkward

I was recently asked to be a guest speaker at a class at UC Berkeley. At the end of the seminar, I was asked an inevitable question: “How do I get good at networking?”

My answer was that the student should be prepared to talk to everyone and get comfortable with being awkward.

I’m not a natural networker. I was so painfully shy growing up that when my grandmother would ask me to get her something from the coffee shop waitress, I would bribe my sister to do it instead by promising to clean her room—all to avoid a one-minute conversation!

If, like me, you find the idea of talking to a stranger to be an uncomfortable one, start small with short conversations.  Starbucks is great for this: You’ll only have time for a sentence or two because there’s probably someone behind you in line and you’re unlikely to see that person ever again. If you say something weird or awkward, the moment will be over before you know it.

Being willing to try out what works and what doesn’t will build your confidence. When you walk into a scarier situation, like a room full of startup CEOs, you’ll already know what works for you.

2) Drop your ego at the door and be willing to learn

Time and again I see new employees at startups try to bring everything to the table all at once. Resist the urge to dazzle your new colleagues with your expertise straight away. Just listen and watch for a while before getting in the swim lane.

In a startup, it’s vital that you take the time to understand the organization you just joined. Titles are pretty meaningless at an early stage startup; everyone does a bit of everything, and it isn’t immediately obvious who the key decision-makers and influencers are. Often, they are people outside of the C-suite.

When I started at Kabam, I felt like I had to prove that the company made the right choice taking on a lawyer with a nontraditional background. I ended up spending too much time on work that wasn’t essential at that stage in the company’s evolution.

I was overeager to deliver what I thought was value, but I had no idea yet what value really means at a startup. Fortunately, I had great colleagues who were willing to give me honest, real-time feedback and help me more effectively focus my time and attention.

3) Invest in yourself even when it feels selfish

At a startup, it’s easy to stay focused on the product and the bottom line. After all, it’s often the difference between commercial life and death. Such myopic thinking can be detrimental, however.

My first two years at Kabam were spent head down, buried in work, trying to stay on top of what was becoming an increasingly complex organization. I tried every single form of self-organization technique I could lay my hands on, but they weren’t helping me prioritize or manage the fire hose of email traffic.

I then decided to take a vacation and vowed to check email once a day. By stepping away from the torrent of information, my brain was able to recharge. I ended up coming up with multiple ideas that brought positive results when I returned, including a complete redesign of the legal intranet. As we say in the game industry, “achievement unlocked!”

The takeaway here is that even when you work for a company in which every minute matters, seek out what inspires you. I regularly encourage my team to do the same. I’ve found they have the same unlocks that I do, and that stepping away for a moment can help them generate major leaps forward in our team thinking and approach.

4) Embrace scarcity

I’m fortunate to come from a family of entrepreneurs that keep me inspired. My grandmother was one of the first businesswomen in the south of Chile, having built an entire hotel-restaurant empire with only a third-grade education. She was the master of accomplishing everything with nothing.

Her parents died when she was in grade school. The aunt and uncle who took her in didn’t think girls needed an education, so they put her to work in their vast agricultural holdings in the south of Chile. Her workday started at 4:30 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m. She was eventually put in charge of all purchasing for the farm and quickly developed a reputation for tough, but fair, negotiation.

At that time, the railroad was the only real mode of transport. The state leased the land next to the railroad stops to a local businessperson, who ran a hotel and restaurant for passengers. Her uncle had the lease for a number of years—until she decided to bid for it herself, successfully. He was so angry with her that he immediately removed all linens, silverware and china.

 My grandmother had exactly one day to get everything operational or the state would honor the next bidder, her uncle. But because of the reputation she had built, merchants gave her what she needed on credit. The hotel was a smashing success and allowed her to expand to multiple locations.

Many times when I am faced with a mountain of work to do and little resources to do it, I’m inspired by my grandmother’s ability to accomplish greatness through grit, hard work, and imagination. She’s my reminder that scarcity of resources can lead to great things.

Success in today’s fast-moving, free-agent economy isn’t always the result of the right education, connections, or résumé. From everything I’ve seen in my career so far, the people who win are the people who have the courage to put themselves in uncomfortable positions again and again.

Alexandra Sepulveda started her career in private practice at Kilpatrick Stockton and worked as in-house counsel at General Mills prior to taking on her current role at Kabam in 2011.

Kabam Inc. creates mobile games that are available in the Apple App Store, Google Play, and the Amazon Appstore. Valued at more than $1 billion, Kabam is the 6th fastest-growing company overall in North America, according to Deloitte LLP.