Three Rules of Survival

I have always maintained that Start-ups and established companies, small, medium or big, are two kinds of organisations. Rules that make one thrive at Start-ups do not necessarily hold in larger companies, and indeed, they could jeopardise one's prospects seriously.

But then, it is hard to distinguish between Start-ups and Small companies. This is because, however much we talk about company cultures and values, it is people who carry them. So, it is not whether a company is a start-up or not, but whether the people that run the company are company-people or startup-people.

And, indeed, one could have a start-up full of people who succeeded at big companies, because that is what investors really want. The other is quite rare - companies full of start-up people - though it is now a deliberate cultural objective, and even IBM would say that they want to hire 'failed entrepreneurs'.

All this is relevant because of a strange third kind of people, who work for start-ups. We may see the world in black-and-white terms of employees and entrepreneurs, but there are those people, and more of them than ever, who are employees of start-ups. And, even when their very existence may be proof of shades of grey, they continue to see the world in the black-and-white terms of how start-ups should be. And, often they fail - because all start-ups may not be really start-ups.

Interestingly, I have lived in both the worlds, and truth be told, survived in both. And, I have known enough people who could not survive in one or the other, as they are quite different. My basic rule of survival has always been to start with people, trying to understand what they are like and what they like, rather than assuming what they should be like. But then there are three specific rules I follow to judge this, and I thought it may be helpful to spell these out clearly.

Rule 1: Watch Out For BCCs

Blind Copy, that wonderful feature that gives away that email was really meant to be a big-company thing, is the first sign that Start-ups may not be start-ups after all. Because in the fast, flat world of start-ups, often confined in a room (or, famously, in a garage), there is no space for BCCs. It is more the world of chat, or, as in some cases, plain shouting!

But, isn't BCC supposed to be blind? How is one supposed to know BCC is part of the culture or not? There are many ways, really. One can be receiving some of them. Besides, BCCs always have a way of revealing themselves: They may supposed to be blind, but they exist because someone somewhere needs to know something. So, next time your boss accidentally mentioned seeing the email spat you had with your colleague, you know! And, once you know, if you are observant, you can tell from emails - okay, roughly - which ones had a BCC and which ones did not.

Now, if you know there is a culture of BCC in your company, what are you supposed to do? One obvious way is start BCCing yourself, though one may not win the game because you are not supposed to be BCCing everything (only when you are pointing out your colleague was wrong, and never when you are saying sorry, is a kind of rule of thumb). The other, more sensible, way is to write emails more often, particularly to make your points, even when you could have just talked to your colleague or sent a chat message. This is because if BCCs come back, you can forward - and that is such a decent thing - all those subsequent emails that your boss may have missed out on.

Rule 2: Follow The Conversation

Start-ups talk more often about doing things rather than not doing them. By definition, Start-Ups are experimental entities set up to make low-stake mistakes before hitting the right formula. They usually do not have the resources or time to ponder over issues, make empirical judgements and then get things wrong.

Big companies, on the other hand, is set up to do exactly that: Ponder! There are many reasons for the same. They have the resources to do this. They also often have people whose roles are to reign in others from experimenting. They are also designed to avoid risk and continue doing what they do well.

Now, if you notice that conversations in your company is more about not doing things rather than doing them, assuming that you want to survive (because there are supposed to be rules for survival), it is best not to try to do things. Instead of being hailed as a champion, you may fall in one of the following categories: Self-promoter, Underhand Dealer or Plain Naive. The rules of survival here is simple. In such settings, as in big companies, Activities are deemed to be equal to Actions. So, instead of trying to do things, you may make PowerPoint and you will flourish!

Rule 3: Giving Up As A Strategy

Now, indeed, how does one get anything done in this setting, one may wonder. And, indeed, you have to get things done, because, whatever the culture, the start-up will die if nothing gets done. One can not survive if the whole thing sinks, after all! So, therefore, the third rule of survival: If you want to get anything done, give up!

That may sound crazy, but this works if you spot the big company culture. Because one good thing about such culture is no one really wants to be responsible, about anything. So, instead of trying to push things through against the resistance of all assembled, which gives them all the brownie points and you get both the blame and the risks, just give up! This shifts the blames and the risks to people who said no, and usually, that is the way to get your way.

All this may sound very political. But, being political is about dealing with people. One does not have to be Political with a big P, out to grab power and push people out, but one needs to understand one's workplace and act accordingly if one has to survive (till it becomes too much, emotionally). I write this with experience, not of one company but many, and I have lived through some of the most brutal workplaces imaginable (including one where every email was read by the owner, making BCCs superfluous). And, I write this not to criticise anyone I may have met, because I believe most people are acting out of habit rather than intent, but out of concern to people like whom I have known, good people who failed to act according to the norms of their own organisations. And, this, in my reflection, are my steps through symptoms-disease-cure to live in the world of small 'big companies'.


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