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5 Lessons Learned From Working at a Startup

Upon graduating from the University of New Brunswick’s Renaissance College (Leadership Studies) in May 2015 I took a summer internship with the Pond-Deshpande Centre. I wasn’t sure if I would stay in New Brunswick or move west to my home town of Calgary.

Fortunately, I crossed paths with HotSpot CEO Phillip Curley at the Our Top Talent pitch competition hosted by the Wallace McCain Institute. Halfway through my internship I had a full-time job lined up with HotSpot for that fall. I was staying in New Brunswick, a hotbed of exciting tech startups.

sara-taaffe-t4g-limitedOver 13 months with HotSpot I learned more than I could have ever anticipated due to the high level of experiential learning I faced, and the diversity of tasks I was assigned to.

Below are the five biggest lessons I learned from a year working in a startup.

1. The Importance of Adaptability

I’m a big believer that the only permanence is impermanence; as markets and industries grow and fluctuate, so do we. HotSpot afforded me the experience to understand this from the very beginning. To be constantly adapting and innovating to solve problems discovered was incredibly rewarding. Through this our team created various plans, approaches, campaigns and products, developing HotSpot’s successes. The outcomes of these engagements were a direct result of being adaptable, curating quickly, testing thoroughly, and understanding the ultimate impact on the end-user and the stakeholders who engage along the way.

2. Build Your Brand Around the Customer’s Story

This is important for all businesses, but there is a particular need for it within tech companies that don’t have regular human-to-human interaction. When a customer calls a support line, it’s really the only person-to-person direct communication they will ever have with your company. That one phone call holds a huge amount of potential to create an amazing/unforgettable experience that drives repeat customers and an amplified reputation. Although some customers will be difficult, almost any situation can be made positive through empathy and connecting to the customer as a human.

Additionally, it is through these situations that we are forced to think deeper about our operations, which ultimately helps us see the changes necessary to improve our services. Answering the HotSpot support phone taught me the importance of active listening; customers who are treated with respect will be your biggest advocates and strengthen your brand’s reputation significantly.

3. Account Management: Don’t Hide Problems

Account Management taught me the importance of being prepared and confident, while also listening and accepting vulnerabilities. When demoing dashboards for clients I loved showing off all our amazing features, but when something didn’t work properly I’d get frustrated. Through trial and error I learned the importance of the honest policy; things won’t always work 100% perfectly. Glitches and bugs will happen. Yes, people want a product that works the way they want it to, but people are human and will be much more empathetic when you demonstrate vulnerability and tell them the truth about glitches rather than cover them up. What’s important is recognizing the issue, communicating with the team to understand the problem and then adjusting the product accordingly. Just as with great customer service, this allows your team to build a better product.

4. Content Geared to Your Audience – Telling a Story that Resonates

Marketing and Communications taught me that connecting to clients through words can be tough – you need to speak their language and tell them things that will resonate with their lifestyle. Coming from an academic background I found it difficult to change my writing style to a more product-driven/simplified/relatable copy. Those first few months I learned a great deal about the company, and had interacted with many of its merchants. By the third or fourth month I realized my writing needed to change to resonate with these small business owners. I identified a need to understand the problems the customer was facing, and crafted our marketing and communications with phrasing and tone that would be more relatable. It’s still not something I’ve mastered, but I understand that less is more, and simplicity usually trumps long, 5-syllable words.

5. The Value of Technology and Data

Working with technology planted a seed of passion for it. They say ignorance is bliss, but I’d beg to differ. After having my eyes opened to the power and possibilities of technology and data, I can’t believe I never acknowledged its importance before HotSpot. I’m grateful for gaining a more technical perspective from people who understand its ability to create impactful changes and drive efficiency.

To explore this newfound passion a level deeper, and with a new lens, I’ve joined T4G’s team as a Public Sector Analyst, and co-founded Open Data Atlantic with HotSpot COO Erin Flood. Had you told me a year and a half ago that I’d be starting an open-data book club I wouldn’t have believed you. However, I couldn’t be any happier with the path that’s brought me to where I am now, and the positive influence that working for a startup has played. My appreciation for the opportunity to work with such an amazing company, and with a team who had faith in my skills, runs far and wide. To say I had the best first job would be an understatement.

[Read ONB’s chat with Erin Flood on HotSpot’s Big Data work]

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