Untold Stories of Early-stage Employees (Part 3)
A few weeks ago we published part 2 of the untold stories of early-stage employees. Today we are posting the third and last part.
This time, I interviewed BenchSci’s Director of Customer Success, Diane Doran, who joined BenchSci in 2018, when we were a company of under 40 people.
Diane, can you walk us through your journey from your first role till the current one?
I joined as BenchSci’s first Customer Success Manager back when we had about 15 paying customers that were in varying stages of trialing the BenchSci platform. At the time my job involved travelling to customer sites to hold demos of the platform, engaging with users to help us champion the product, and working with our client stakeholders to drive further awareness and ensure we were exceeding their expectations. While things on the customer side started to slow down in December, I was asked to help with planning a customer event that we were holding in Boston. I ended up leading the planning and execution and, fortunately, it was a huge success for us. Shortly after the event, and with things progressing well with customers, I was promoted to Senior Manager of Customer Sucess to manage the two Scientific Liaisons on the team and begin hiring for another CSM.
For the next two years, I gradually grew the team as our customer needs grew, adding a new CSM or Scientific Liaison every few months, and eventually handing over all of my customers but one. My job became about passing on what I’d learned about how to do enterprise customer success in the context of pharmaceutical R&D, supporting my team, setting best practices and priorities and, of course, managing my own customer base. When the team was poised to grow beyond eight people, we brought in a VP of Customer Success, at which point I was able to focus solely on leading the CSM practice.
Then, about six months ago, I was promoted to Director of Enterprise Customer Success, and was able to hand off my last customer! These days my role is about enabling my team to be successful and level up, designing scalable processes, and future planning to ensure we are equipped for the next phase of BenchSci’s growth.
I am sure this journey was not easy. What were your most challenging moments and how did you overcome them?
There was a point, back in 2019 before we brought in a department head, that I was simultaneously managing six direct reports, running four enterprise accounts, hiring for two open roles, and handling de facto department head duties like budgeting, KPI reporting, and providing updates to leadership, all while traveling every other week to visit client sites.
It was too much. Way too much, and I was drowning, but there were so many people and things depending on me that I didn’t see a way out other than to work longer and harder. I was so bogged down with everything that needed my attention in the present that I couldn’t poke my head up and try to figure out a long-term fix. I felt like I didn’t even have time to let people help me because in taking the time to download them on what I needed, I’d have lost crucial time on two to three other things that were more urgent. Better to just do it myself when I was able to get to it.
That’s the logic of a very stressed-out individual and, thankfully, my management could see the situation and stepped in to help build a plan to bring me some relief, and also gave me some extra time off to recuperate over the holidays. I’ve learned a lot from that experience.
What would you have done differently if you did it all over again?
The biggest thing I would have done differently is asking for help sooner. I had never had that much responsibility before and I worried that if I raised the flag that I was overwhelmed, leadership would question my ability to handle the job. I realize now that not raising it sooner is in a lot of ways more concerning, and that’s it’s actually a sign of maturity and experience to be able to know your limit, protect your time and energy carefully, and make noise when things are becoming unmanageable. In the long run, you are really not doing anyone any favours by overburdening yourself, and in fact you’re potentially putting the business at risk. If you stay in that state long enough you are bound to drop a ball somewhere, if you don’t hit a wall one day and then leave your colleagues scrambling. Even if you manage to avoid those outcomes, you’re doing yourself a disservice by taking on so much that you can never give 100% to anything. People don’t get to see what you’re really capable of when you’re at your best.
What are the top three pieces of advice you can give early-stage employees in startups?
- Be flexible It’s been mentioned in parts 1 and 2 of this series, but for good reason. I think it really is number one. If you don’t do well with change, and want your role to be clearly defined, then you won’t have any fun in that type of environment. Look at every new challenge and change of direction as an opportunity to learn and grow.
- Build relationships. You will rarely get a better chance to build strong relationships with people who will later become influential within the company, and who work in vastly different verticals than your own. Seize it, and you’ll be well-positioned to navigate the organization when it grows!
- Be responsible for your own workload. Don’t do what I did and wait to be rescued. In a young startup, no one has been in your role before, so no one knows exactly what workload is reasonable to expect from you. Communicate regularly and honestly with your manager about your bandwidth, be proactive, and ask for what you think you need.
What is the top advice you can give organizations as they scale from the lens of keeping their early-stage employees?
I think it’s important to make room for and listen to their perspectives as the company grows. They know the organization better than anyone and likely feel very connected to the company and its culture. Things like rest policies and mental health initiatives are also really important to make it possible for people to stay long-term.
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?
I think one of the biggest things you give up is room in your brain, and often in your life as well. I’ve always cared a lot about the quality of my work, wherever I am. But when you care about the quality of your work AND the impact of your work, that’s a recipe for over-investment. You spend a lot of time thinking about work even if you’re not necessarily working. When my work/life balance was much more work than life, I’m sure I was less fun to be around, and my friends and family probably put up with a good deal more work talk than they cared for, but it was so much of my world at the time that I couldn’t help it.
It was worth it for me because I’ve learned and grown more both professionally and personally in the last three years at BenchSci than I think I have in any other equivalent time period in my adult life. I joined BenchSci at a time in my life when I was able and willing to devote a good deal of my energy to my job. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, and I also wouldn’t want to sustain that pace forever. But if you’re looking to grow and can put in the work, you’ll get out just as much if not more than what you put in.
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 was interested in working at a startup, but less so for the vibe and more so for the opportunity to build and own something, and to put my energy towards something that I felt mattered. BenchSci may be a bigger company now but we’re very much still growing and evolving, and there are still PLENTY of things to own and impact. I don’t know if that will ever really change at BenchSci, because our culture is very much about continuous improvement and experimentation. There’s always more new ground to cover and a good amount of autonomy to do so.
And for what it’s worth, I think the vibes are still alive and well at BenchSci.
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’m pretty sure that if you analyzed it, a person’s belief in the company mission would correlate pretty strongly with tenure here at BenchSci. There are a lot of challenges that come with working at a startup, and a lot of other ways that you could be making money. But if you believe in what we’re doing and feel energized by trying to make it happen, you’re much more likely to stick around.
But adaptability is also key, as Matan mentioned part 2. Is a person able to grow with the company, and evolve their role to suit what the company needs from them at the next stage?
A good amount of grit, resourcefulness, and solution-orientation all go a long way. People who get discouraged easily, or take failure personally can become disenchanted pretty quickly. People who can take setbacks in stride with good humor and move on are much more likely to succeed.
Be honest: What are some of the frustrations of working in an early-stage startup? How did you deal with these frustrations?
Ha, maybe the sketchy motels? In the early days, as you well know, budgets were tight and we traveled cheap, often sharing rooms. As much as I enjoy my colleagues, when you’ve woken up at 6 AM to get on a flight and then spent a 10-hour day with customers and colleagues, sometimes all you want is some space to yourself at the end of the day.
And, of course, there are very few people in internal support functions like you would find at bigger companies. My last company had a team of three people whose sole job was to take care of booking travel and accommodation for work trips. Not so at an early-stage startup. Recruiters, copywriters, project managers, and more are unlikely to show up until later on in the company’s growth. Until they do, it’s all you.
Overall, though, I didn’t feel a lot of frustration being part of a small startup. Pressure, yes. But I tried to see all of it as a good life experience, and if nothing else, as something that would turn into a good story later on.