Twelve months notice

2009-10-23

Generally speaking, there are two approaches to relating to other people in the business world. The first approach is transactional and legalistic:  work is primarily an exchange of labor for money, and agreements are made via contracts.   Enforcement is provided by organizations, especially the legal system.  The second approach relies on trust, verbal agreements, reputation and norms, and looks to the community to provide enforcement when necessary.

In the startup world, the latter approach dominates.  It is almost unheard of, for example, to see entrepreneurs or VCs sue each other.  The ones who do tend to leave the startup world, either by choice or by having ruined their reputation.  It is very rare to see someone in the startup world break a verbal agreement.  And, in most cases, employees and employers show loyalty far beyond what is seen in larger companies or what is economically “rational.”   (Most startups do spend considerable legal fees on financing, employee, and IP documents, but that is mostly because they know that those are necessary if they decide to sell themselves to a large company where the legalistic approach dominates.)

For this reason, if you are an employee working at a startup where the managers are honest, inclusive and fair, you should disregard everything you’ve learned about proper behavior from people outside of the startup world.

For example, let’s suppose you are a two years out of college and have a job at a startup.  You like your job but decide you want to go to graduate school.   The big company legalistic types will tell you to secretly send in your applications, and, if you get accepted and decide to attend, give your boss two weeks notice.

What you should instead do is talk to your boss as soon as you are seriously considering graduate school.  Give them twelve months notice.  Any good startup manager won’t fire you, and in fact will go out of her way to help you get into school and get a good job afterwards.  They will appreciate your honesty and the fact that you gave them plenty of time to find a replacement.

(Now don’t get me wrong:  if you work for bosses who have a legalistic, transactional mindset, by all means give two weeks notice.  I gave 4 months notice once to a boss with that mindset and was duly punished for it.  But hopefully if you are at a startup you work with people who have the startup, relationship-centric mindset.)

This way of relating to other people is one of the main things people are talking about when they talk about “startup culture.”  It is why so many people coming from other industries have difficulty fitting into startups (especially people coming from Wall Street where the transactional mindset is at its most extreme).  I personally find the community approach a much nicer way to operate, and try to only professionally associate myself with people who prefer that approach as well.

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