Do you easily feel bored in your work environment? Do things move slowly with uninspiring results? Do you yearn for more creativity and experimentation? If so, you might be suited to a high-stakes workplace, such as a startup, incubator, or accelerator.
Find out what a fast-paced environment is and what working in one is really like. Learn the pros and cons of working in startups and how to avoid burnout in a fast-paced and high-stress environment.
If you want an idea of what a fast-paced environment looks like, look no further than an incubator or accelerator. These are programs funded by large corporations or private investors who believe that an entrepreneurial idea has the potential to be successful in the current market. Investors provide the resources and funding a team needs to bring an idea to fruition and a product to market launch.
Typically, incubator or accelerator programs provide office or lab space, training, education, mentorships, and access to funding. Programs typically last between three months to one year. At the end of the term, the team showcases their product at “Demo Day.” Demo day is the all-important event where the teams get to present the results of their hard work.
Perhaps the most well-known accelerator is Silicon Valley's Y Combinator.
The founding father of accelerators is Y Combinator in Mountain View, California. Y Combinator has no shortage of funding from venture capital firms, seed funds, angel investors, and even actors and sports figures like Ashton Kutcher and Joe Montana. All are anxious to make money from startups that have the potential to be the next Stripe, Airbnb, Cruise, PagerDuty, DoorDash, Coinbase, Instacart, Dropbox, Twitch, or Reddit (all of these were the products of Y Combinator.
How well a project does during a three-month accelerator stint like Y combinator is uncertain. But what is certain is that incubators are intense, high-pressure, and fast-paced environments to work in. Investors have high expectations for exciting results and all within a tight deadline. Meeting those expectations is not easy.
What is it like to work in this type of environment as a team member or first-time manager? How do team members avoid burnout? Let’s take a closer look.
Justin Kan, a Partner at Y Combinator and co-founder of Justin.tv/Twitch, Atrium, and Exec, has vast experience in the world of startups. According to Kan, the startup or accelerator environment is not for everyone.
Kan’s experience with Y Combinator taught him that managing a fast-paced workspace is hard. Kan says, “management at startups generally really sucks” (his words exactly). Among other disappointments where management is concerned is the lack of mentoring. Although accelerators like Y Combinator are supposed to provide mentorships, Kan found that they are few and far between.
Then, there is the stress load. According to Kan, a startup is a stressful environment with little stability because there is no guarantee that the product in progress will be a success. If you are looking for a set path for career development, a startup is not the place to be.
Moreover, those who don’t take time to recharge between intense work periods can quickly succumb to burnout. Particularly in an incubator setting, teams are expected to produce results within a timeframe as short as three months, so the pressure is on. They must work long hours juggling tasks. And it's not unusual for individuals to jump from one project to another with little rest in between.
Related, “Getting Through Burnout”
On the other hand, according to Kan, the advantage of a fast pace at work is that your experience gives you access to jobs that you are not qualified for.
Typically, in a startup, there are few people on a team who are working to achieve a common goal. Nobody's job description is set in stone, and everyone pitches in to get the job done as efficiently and quickly as possible. This often means multitasking or doing something you know little about. In other words, a steep learning curve.
Fast-paced environments result in rapid learning for those involved, and success in product development automatically catapults them in the eyes of recruiters as an exciting talent prospect. Answering questions in a tough job interview after a successful stint in an accelerator can be pure joy for some job seekers.
Another advantage to a fast-paced environment, according to Kan, is that you collaborate with other talented people to produce real results. It is an opportunity to see how other people approach problems and learn from them. That kind of exposure can prepare you for your own entrepreneurial adventure in the future if you are so inclined.
A fast-paced environment will fast-track you to proficiency. Kan gives the example of an MIT student who worked at Justin.tv, one of Kan’s startups, as a computer engineer. He planned to work there for a month only, but he ended up staying for good and becoming VP of engineering. He learned software engineering on the fly, thanks to the startup, and built a scalable dynamic video system.
However, the downside of being so successful is that you may become indispensable to your team. Vacations may become few and far between. According to Kan, the video system at Justin.tv would often go down, and the MIT student was often called in at off-hours to get it back online. The stress became so great that he threatened to leave.
So, with that in mind, how can you avoid burnout working in a fast-paced environment?
In a fast-paced setting, you can only celebrate a successful project for a short time before you quickly move on to the next one. This type of environment is ideal for someone who is highly motivated and gets bored easily. However, type A personalities are vulnerable to overreaching and ignoring the signs of burnout.
Here are some ways to avoid burnout in an intense, fast-paced environment.
Fast-paced organizations can be unpredictable, and the pace may never slow. It’s important to plan downtime to recover from the chaos. You can push yourself for a few days or weeks, but if you don’t take some time to relax afterward, your body and mind will suffer and your immune system will break down. So, before you accept a job offer from a hiring manager, confirm the expectations regarding work levels and time off.
You have to be organized if you are working in a fast environment. If you have a system, whether it is a filing system, sticky notes, digital planner, reminders, smartphone apps, or project management software, you will find it easier to stay on top of tasks and prioritize.
There are many uncertainties in a fast-paced environment such as a startup. You are breaking new ground, and there are no guarantees that a new approach will work. You may have to pivot at the last minute and change course if things aren’t going well.
Some people thrive in this type of environment because they are resilient. Consider your level of adaptability and how you can learn to roll with the punches by changing your mindset.
For more on resilience, read “How to Be More Resilient in Your Career”
Teamwork is what makes fast-paced workplaces dynamic and successful. Everyone works together towards a common goal. That means relying on others to help you and helping them in return. Also, it’s important to learn when you need to pass responsibility onto someone else to focus on a project. Learn the art of delegating.
In a hectic work environment, you must be at your best. That means eating well, getting enough sleep, and taking time to relax. This requires planning. For example, make a list of food or ingredients that you need to prepare easy meals during the week. Shop once a week so that you are not eating take-out every day. Plan exercise time into your workday. Your body cannot function unless you nurture it with good nutrition and enough rest.
It may be hard to find balance when you are working intensely but strive for a balance between projects. Reward yourself for your efforts by resting and taking some time off if you can. It’s fine to knuckle down in spurts, but without rewards for your efforts, you will find it hard to stay motivated, let alone healthy!
To read more on avoiding burnout, read “7 Time Management Tips to Avoid Burnout”
For some, fast-paced work culture is an adventure and one that can lead to great things. For others, it can be a path to burnout if not managed well.
An intense work environment exposes you to like-minded go-getters who can teach you how to set goals, collaborate to achieve them, and prepare you for your own bright future or a new job. However, avoiding burnout requires practicing time management skills and maintaining a work-life balance over the long term.