My Story – Helen Palmer

I went to work in a technology start-up (2018). Here’s how my workscape adventure unfolded.

I met a guy at a creativity-innovation conference. He was the co-founder of past and current start-up businesses. At the conference he saw me lead an interactive presentation. We chatted during the coffee break, and then we both, along with others, participated in a creative group activity. All this seemed to give him a useful and lingering impression of my ability and attitude. We exchanged contact details and, about two weeks later, had a more robust conversation over another coffee. Two months after this he contacted me about working at one of his start-ups. Lesson: You never know where meeting someone at a conference might lead.

The role to be filled was at a technology start-up which was 10 months old, and had an international team spread across the globe. There was no position description written down nor fixed job title. I had never done the role as it was described to me. However, I had lots of related experience and transferable skills that I could use to achieve what was wanted. There was also a lot of flexibility in what I might want to shape the role and working relationship to be. They wanted me, so were prepared to explore ways to make things fit well for me and their business. Lesson: It is possible to negotiate for a mutually beneficial working relationship with an organisation.

I took a day to think about the proposition before taking the next step of agreeing to meet with the CEO. In that time:

  • I did online research to learn about the business and the key people involved. I thought about what attracted me to the role given what information I had. One important aspect was feeling aligned to the Founder’s vision of doing something good for humanity. I also wanted to play on a global team with global impact, and have a front-row seat to the insights and inspiration of a truly start-up business using cutting edge technology (i.e. blockchain).
  • I did a Value Exchange Ledger, to get clear on what I could/would offer, and what I wanted to get from the role.
  • I identified what working conditions I wanted to negotiate; like working through a business-to-business (B2B) relationship rather than PAYG employee so I could keep some independence and work with other clients; and working remote and mobile (before the pandemic made this a ‘new normal’).
  • I prepared a custom resume that collated and highlighted my experience in light of the partially defined role. Having previously set myself up to smartly produce custom resumes (using Self unLimited advice for creating a Portfolio Resume) – this meant I could make a quality resume without stress in a very short amount of time.

One week later, I met with the CEO when he was back from an overseas trip. And at the end of the 45-min meeting, we mutually agreed that I would join the business. Lesson: Things move fast in start-ups and rarely is there a structured process being followed.

I contributed to the start-up business over a four-month term. From my own experience, and observation of others in the business, there is a certain disposition that is important to have, and particular working conditions you need to be prepared to tolerate or create for yourself. Lesson: Working in a start-up is not for the faint-hearted – but to know is to be forewarned.

I learnt that to not only survive but thrive in a start-up, it’s important;

  • To have a ‘practical imagination’. Without all the details, you might need to guess or makeup things in order to progress an action.
  • To be able to balance order and chaos. Do what you can, and then let go knowing it might all change the next day. Accept and flow with a frequent change of plans and focus.
  • To aim for done, not perfect. Accepting that the minimum is the goal with limited resources.
  • To reveal and challenge assumptions. Things that don’t get said can create costly traps to fall into when left unexposed.
  • To manage my stress with good self-care practices and be wary of the contagious effect of adrenaline-charged colleagues.
  • To be a proactive part of a team, managing up, down and sideways in order to get things completed.
  •  To cope with the fact that start-ups have little structure to the business and precious few resources. While this can seem undesirable compared to more mature established organisations, it is part of what keeps a keen, lean energy fuelling the work.

These are things that aren’t naturally learnt inside a non-start-up organisation but with some mindful intention they can be.

I had one of the most amazing stretch-experiences of my life at this start-up. Five weeks after starting, I lead an international five-countries-in-five-days public speaking tour to raise investor interest in the business. And that’s a whole other story!

Bottom line – I would work for a start-up again. Next time, I’ll be more mentally and functionality prepared for what that means!


Helen is Founder of Self unLimited, she’s worked with multiple entrepreneurs as they make new businesses, as well as being an entrepreneur herself.