Untold Stories of Early-stage Employees (Part 2)
A few weeks ago, I published part 1 of the untold stories of early-stage employees. Today we are posting part two.
This time, I interviewed BenchSci Principal UX Designer Matan Berson, who began at BenchSci in March 2017, when we were a company of under 10 people.
Matan, you are one of the first employees at BenchSci. Can you walk us through your journey from your first role till the current one?
When I joined, I came in as a UX/UI designer. My first and foremost goal was to redesign our product before the public launch of our app. Like everyone in the company, I was wearing many hats. I spent at least half my time designing for our marketing, sales, and fundraising efforts, and helping with odd projects like the design of our office. Two years later, shortly after our series A, we brought in more designers to help level up our marketing, sales, and fundraising efforts. The new resources allowed me to focus more on user research and the design of our app; the job BenchSci initially hired me for.
Along with this, I became a manager for the first time and started to grow my team. After our series B, our company’s growth picked up speed, and we needed to expand our design team and level up our practice rapidly. We decided it would be best to bring in a seasoned design leader who has worked with enterprises before to do this job. My role shifted to focus more on scaling our product. As of late, my focus has been on the research, design, and strategy of our new sets of products.
I am sure this journey was not easy. What were your most challenging moments and how did you overcome them?
Deciding to bring in somebody above me to lead the design practice was hard. I remember having some challenging conversations with you, Liran. I joined the company thinking I would like to grow the team myself and head the department as it expanded. I felt ashamed, like I failed myself and BenchSci because I wasn’t fulfilling our needed role. Overcoming this took time. Eventually, I allowed myself to be vulnerable and share how I felt with close friends and coworkers. By hearing from others who have been in this same position, I learned to see this as a tremendous learning opportunity. This change would allow me to focus more on honing my craft as a designer by spending more time on our product. I could learn faster by having design mentorship and feedback within the company, rather than constantly seeking it outside of BenchSci.
And most importantly, I learned that bringing in somebody above me is not a reflection on myself as a person or how I was doing my job. Instead, it’s what the company needed to scale. Looking back at it now, it’s a decision I’m more than happy we took.
Other challenging moments have been when people have left the team, and our small team’s production capacity dropped dramatically. There have also been significant drops in team morale during these times. There have been a few points through the years where this has led to a lot of stress. The company still needed to move at the same speed. The remaining teammates and I needed to continue moving things along until we got new team members. The main reasons I was able to get through these trying times were because we were supported by people from other departments, feeling like you can’t let your teammates down, and hoping that things would get better.
What would you have done differently if you did it all over again?
If it weren’t for the path I chose, I wouldn’t be the person I am now. I wouldn’t have the understanding of who I am. To regret anything is an act of treason to who I am today! Nonetheless, I do think I would have grown more quickly if I was willing to be more vulnerable with my managers or coworkers about how I felt earlier on.
What are the top three pieces of advice you can give early-stage employees in startups?
- Network. The growth of your practice is very self-directed at an early-stage company. Find mentors and acquaintances that you can learn from and help you with the challenges you face at work. Attend meetups and events in your field. People working in more established teams and companies can give you advice on how they solve challenges. They will also offer a more objective point of view to help put things in perspective.
- Use growth as your compass. As the company scales and brings in new people, it can sometimes seem hard not to get caught up in titles, roles, hierarchy, etc. Remembering to focus on growing as a UX designer and as a person has allowed me to focus on learning more, feeling better, and contributing more to BenchSci’s growth.
- Prioritize your mental health. There have been many times that I didn’t give myself the time and space that I needed. I ended up getting burned out. Making sure I have people I can speak to, open and honest communication with my manager, and time to reflect on how I’m doing has helped keep me in a healthy state of mind.
What is the top advice you can give organizations as they scale from the lens of keeping their early-stage employees?
Ensure team members feel like they are growing with the company. There should be a regular conversation about role-fit and discussions about aligning career growth with the company’s needs. Compensation and benefits, including options in the company, should grow with the team member and the company’s development, so that team members feel valued and incentivized to stay.
I would also recommend companies take mental health seriously. Due to the unstable and high-pressure environment of startups, burnout is prevalent. It can seem like a never-ending marathon at times, and one’s purpose of working at the company can waver. Give people an avenue to take longer breaks when needed to reevaluate where they are on their journey.
What are some of the sacrifices of working at an early-stage company? Is there anything you feel you gave up versus working at a more established company? Why was it worth it?
First and foremost, you are sacrificing stability. There is a high likelihood of failure, and the company might not be there in a few months. You probably won’t have regular hours. You move at a fast pace. A lot of your work gets thrown away as you fail, learn, and shift directions. It can be an emotional rollercoaster at times. The flip side of this is that you are exposed to more aspects of a growing company, learning the business needs, and developing faster.
Second, as I mentioned, you end up needing to seek mentorship and knowledge outside the company. For example, reading many books, learning from people in other companies, etc. The flip side of that is you have a lot of autonomy, and you have a lot of influence on how the company and your practice develop.
Lastly, early-stage companies usually can’t afford to pay competitive wages and provide many benefits like established companies. I remember skipping dental appointments early on since I didn’t have any coverage, and I didn’t want to pay out of pocket (don’t skip dental appointments). The flip side is the increased level of responsibility you get when joining a startup. You can get much more ownership and accountability in a startup than you might get in an established company, especially early in your career.
This was your first proper job as a designer out of school. Would you recommend others start their professional career by joining a startup?
It depends on what you value. I shared some benefits and things you might need to give up in return. Is the trade worth it for you? For me, it was worth it.
If you’re early on in your career, being exposed to a lot, taking on responsibilities you might not otherwise get, and failing often, pushed me to grow and learn about my values. Joining a startup right out of school can also make sense since your current lifestyle can lend its way to working in a startup. Before joining BenchSci, I worked long, irregular hours under tight timelines as part of my master’s. So it didn’t feel like a significant shift in lifestyle when I joined.
You joined a startup, but it’s grown and is now becoming a larger enterprise. If what initially attracted you was the startup vibe, how do you maintain your engagement as the company grows and becomes more established?
I feel like I’m still learning how to deal with BenchSci becoming a larger enterprise. In the early stages of BenchSci, I loved knowing everybody I worked with and feeling very united as a small team. One thing that has helped me is developing a culture within the product team where I feel engaged. As the company grows, it takes more effort to maintain relationships with people in other departments I work closely with. So I try to make a conscious effort to create time for informal chats and catch-ups.
You must have seen a lot of people come and go during your tenure. In your experience, what do you think makes someone likely to be successful in the long-term? What do you think makes someone unlikely to be successful long-term?
I think it’s a matter of alignment between what the company’s needs are and what the team member is looking for. Does the company need a team member to work in an area that the person is passionate about? Are they looking to grow in areas that the company needs to grow in? If there isn’t alignment, people can feel disengaged, or there might not be a need for their particular skills at the time, and that can lead to a shorter engagement.
I’ve found that the people who have been flexible in the work they’re doing have been successful in the long term. People can’t be too set in their ways or too rigid. They need to be comfortable with ambiguity. They need to be okay with work going to waste. They need to be able to roll up their sleeves and help others complete work that isn’t exactly what the company initially hired them to do, but is what the company or team needs at that moment.
Be honest: What are some of the frustrations of working in an early-stage startup? How did you deal with these frustrations?
As Mark mentioned in part 1 of this blog series, constant change is a struggle. When things change, basic human instincts jump in and it can feel like a danger. I’ve found practicing mindfulness has helped me identify my fear of change, let my guard down, and embrace the change.
Another frustration is the amount of prioritization that’s required and the speed you need to move at. It feels like you never have the time and resources you need. I’ve been dealing with this by practicing setting realistic expectations for myself and others.
The frustrations and pains of working in a startup are many, and so are the rewards. Before joining one, I’d recommend spending time understanding the potential benefits, comparing them against what you might be giving up, and measuring them up against your values. If it seems like a good option for you, then I wish you all the best!