Climb the Ladder

5 Skills Every Person Who Works at a Startup Needs

If you are a young professional seeking a new job, there’s a good chance that you’ve considered working for a startup. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2015 alone there were more than 414,000 new startups created across the U.S., employing more than 2.5 million workers. Unlike more established companies that might have a more rigid or slower career progression, startups offer the opportunity to learn a lot and advance your career in a short period of time. However, startups can also require significantly more adaptability and a unique set of technical and soft skills. If you have your heart set on working for a startup, here are some of the top skills you need to succeed.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence, or the practice of expressing your own emotions and understanding those of others in a healthy way, involves proficiency in managing stress, active listening, demonstrating empathy, and perceiving body language. Emotional intelligence is a highly valued skill in any company, but it’s especially true in startup environments in which you are less likely to be siloed into one specific department or working with the same group of people all the time. Depending on your role and the size of the company, you might be interacting with senior leadership, clients, sales prospects, or coworkers across different departments. So knowing how to exercise your emotional intelligence with each of these diverse audiences is essential to ensuring a harmonious work environment.

Analytical thinking

In many entry-level roles at established companies, employees have a set of clearly defined tasks and may not be involved in strategic decision-making. But at a startup, you could be given a lot more responsibility a lot faster. This is where analytical thinking comes into play. Analytical thinking might mean working with data or synthesizing other information in order to reach important insights, solve problems, and make key decisions. This could be about how to plan a product launch, how to expand to a new market, or how to optimize current processes within the office to improve productivity. And at smaller, newer companies, the stakes can be high so every decision carries a lot of weight. 

Aside from brushing up on your problem-solving and analytical thinking skills, you will also need to be careful to avoid “analysis paralysis,” a phenomenon in which a person spends too much time researching or thinking about a problem without taking timely action. A few ways to avoid analysis paralysis include setting deadlines for making decisions, incorporating different perspectives by seeking feedback from colleagues, and creating a rubric or standard to use in evaluating choices.


Working for a startup requires adaptability, patience, and resilience. Especially in the early stages, startups may not always have a clear direction. That startup that began as an app might expand into a brick-and-mortar location, or that SaaS platform with one core offering may be changing its suite of products or its subscription model. Any of these changes can trickle down and affect your role in the company, whether you are involved in sales, marketing, customer service, finance, or product development. As a result, you will need to be able to pivot according to new changes, even if it means starting from scratch.

Growth at a startup can also be inconsistent, often coming short bursts or accelerating at a rapid pace after an influx of venture capital. In these instances, your workload may increase a lot. There may also be slow periods. Your team could contract or expand accordingly, and you might not know how far ahead of time. There may be setbacks or unexpected turns for the company, and you need to be able to adapt quickly and responsibly. 

Being a self-starter

As a startup goes through its growing pains, you will need to be proactive, both in terms of moving the company forward and taking charge of you own career. Compared to a more established organization, you may not have much of an onboarding process at a startup, and you may experience “trial by fire.” Since startups are often short-staffed, you will likely wear many hats and be exposed to multiple aspects of the business. For example, even if your primary job is in content marketing, you may also be involved in market research, sales, and events. You may have to lead and manage yourself too, if your supervisor is responsible for many different parts of the business (or if your only “boss” is the CEO!). If you are someone who prefers to have a clearly delineated role in a highly specific field, then a startup may not be the best fit for you. 

Managing up

Startups are known for being less rigidly hierarchical than many other established companies, so the lines between junior-level staff and senior-level staff can be blurry. Part of your job is making your boss’s job easier, and giving them some direction as to how they can help you too. This is an essential part of “managing up,” which refers to the way you adapt to your boss’s preferred method of management, decision making, and communication. Managing up can also take the form of leveraging other skills you have to assist your boss and the company in general. For example, if you are skilled in a software program that would improve project management, you could suggest this to your boss or take initiative in implementing it. Being proactive and communicative with your boss on a regular basis, such as weekly one-on-one meetings, can also help you stay in touch with each other and learn how to most effectively get the job done.

Working for a startup offers exciting opportunities, especially for entry-level employees. Those who exhibit these skills will not only make a positive difference in the company, but will also equip themselves with the experience needed for higher-level positions within the startup or at another organization. To learn more about how to get a job at a startup, explore some of our other blog topics or subscribe to the Scouted newsletter.

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