5 Things I’ve Learned in Four Years at a Start-Up

By Pablo Esteves — Emzingo

Four years ago, almost to the day, my MBA classmates, Carlos and Caroline, and I were presenting our recommendations to the board and staff of Student Sponsorship Programme. Over the course of six weeks we had worked with this nonprofit organization in Johannesburg, South Africa, to help them improve their branding and fundraising strategy. That same day, I approached Emzingo’s co-founder, Drew, and asked him if I should give him my CV or apply for a job at Emzingo through the company’s website.

That is Drew (left) and me many years (and stories) later.

Fast-forward eight months, countless phone calls and emails, a fateful breakfast with Emzingo’s other co-founder, Ramon, and a three-month unpaid ‘internship’ and I become employee number two at Emzingo. That’s right, unknowingly I had applied for a job at a start-up that day in February 2011.

As we approach Emzingo’s fifth year anniversary, and I begin my fourth year at Emzingo, it seems fitting to reflect on what I have learned as others might find it useful. So, without further ado, here are: The Five Things I’ve Learned in Four Years at Emzingo.

1) Don’t miss ‘important’ occasions. Full stop. Your mother’s birthday, your niece’s recital, that rock concert you’d love to go – don’t miss those. Obviously, the word “important” is subjective and open to personal interpretation. The point of this recommendation is that by not missing important occasions you’ll make sure that you get down to business, get the work done, and have enough time to do other things; because you have to. Even better, don’t let your team miss ‘important’ occasions. Everybody will be more efficient, productive, and happier. Bonus points, the people around you (your mother, your niece, etc.) will be happier too.

2) Sleep and stay healthy. Exercising, eating healthy food, building ‘down-time,’ and sleeping should be labeled as ‘important occasions.’ Pretending to be a hero, and celebrating your ‘hard work’ by not sleeping is bad idea. It causes stress, makes you stubborn and more irritable, diminishes your creativity and morale, and the overall productivity goes down the drain. Similarly, unhealthy habits (e.g. eating junk food, or not exercising) will make you sick sooner rather than later, and you are no good when sick. Needless to say, make sure your team stays healthy.

3) Be good to the people who have helped you (and to people in general). This is a “no brainer” you say? Yes, it is a no brainer. Yet, from what I have seen, once life gets in the way, time goes by, things line up and success makes you busy, we tend to forget who helped us when everything was difficult; who gave us good advice, a meaningful introduction, hours in mentoring, etc. How can you be good to the people that have helped you? Start by sending a thank you email after an introduction. Send a written note. Make a phone call. Buy that person a coffee. Provide general regular updates. Celebrate your success with them. Be open to feedback and listen with intent. Can you do more? Yes, start with baby steps and build up.

4) Find a Mentor / Be a Mentor. I can’t stress enough the importance of finding a good mentor (or mentors), learning how to be a good mentee, and in turn becoming a good mentor yourself. When done with purpose and regularity, being a mentee and/or a mentor, can be one of the most rewarding experiences you can have in your professional and personal life.

5) Stay alert. What happens when you are sick with the flu and cranked up with cold medicine? And when you are multitasking? When you pull an “all-nighter?” Think about it. Most likely you aren’t able to focus, nor to see the big picture. The quality of your work, and decisions, will suffer – or simply you won’t be able to work. By following the four prior recommendations, you’ll be able to stay alert. Not only your work output and life balance will benefit, you’ll be able to spot trends and opportunities earlier; identifying talent, mentors and connections will be easier; and your creativity, idea generation, and decision making process will be clearer.

The past three and a half years have been a roller-coaster. We built a high-performing team with fantastic people in six cities in four countries, the partnership team grew with Daniel and myself, we went through a fundraising round, and we have steadily grown a global program year on year, in terms of participants, projects managed, clients we work with, and programs we deploy. Can’t wait to see what this fourth year brings!


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