You Are A Startup

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”

Dorothy Parker

I enjoy discovering new quotes. In my work office, I have amassed a small collection of magnets with famous quotes that speak to me in some way. It’s my favorite purchase when I visit a Barnes & Noble store. I would love to share a picture of my quotes, but I can’t because like everyone else I am working at home in the era of COVID-19. The quote above came from Michaele yesterday, and like most I discover, it really resonated with me this morning.

This morning, Michaele and I had a chance to meet with Willy Wijnands, the founder and creator of eduScrum. I had heard of eduScrum during my Scrum training over the years. It is an innovative approach to educating young people by focusing on Scrum and the Scrum Values (Focus, Commitment, Openness, Courage and Respect) which is leading to some amazing results in over 20 countries worldwide. Students at a variety of age groups are learning collaboratively, and are taking ownership of their education journey while following their own curiosities. It was awesome to hear about the amazing work they are doing at eduScrum, and the energy Willy brings to the world. When talking about current global “stay at home” working approach, one thing Willy said stuck with me. He shared his prediction on what happens when we go back to the “office”:

“We are going back to a better world.”

Willy Wijnands, Creator and Founder of eduScrum, April 2019

I work at a large, global, Fortune 100 company. This is quite the opposite experience compared to the three startups I was a part of previously. Listening to Willy’s stories today re-connected me to the feel of being in a startup mindset again. There were a lot of great things about working at these companies, especially in earlier stages of my career.

A number of concepts underlying the Agile Best Self journey have a number of similarities to that startup culture feeling. Let’s explore this thread.

Clarity of Purpose

Working at a startup carries great personal, professional and financial risk, both as a founder or employee. First, the mission inside a startup is crystal clear. It has to be, because survival depends on knowing who your customer is and what needs to be done to satisfy their needs. One startup I worked on was a healthcare administrative services company. We knew very well who the customer was. It became our daily mission to figure out what we had to do, and then show results quickly before the startup funding ran out. In larger organizations, this gets murky, with multiple customers and levels of stakeholders. This game of telephone muddies the waters, as sometimes more attention is paid to the internal stakeholders, for a variety of motivations. Agile frameworks, such as Scrum, attempt to simplify this by flattening organizational structures. This also explains why these methods work better in smaller organizations, but I digress.

Michaele and I learned that helping others move forward in their own journey required a clear understanding of their North Star, which is a word or phrase that describes who you are and how you see the world. Michaele and I had already defined our own, personal North Stars. We overestimated: a) what a critical piece of the puzzle this was and b) how many others had already unlocked this piece. I share a lot of insight on this topic in this post. This learning came about as we did our first set of workshops on the 12 Agile Best Self Principles. We consistently got multiple questions about how to get started and how to define a personal “best self.” About six months in, after seeing a consistent trend in workshop Q&A sessions, we asked the 20+ attendees of our Twin Cities Agile Days Open Space session if they would like to learn how to create their own North Star statement. Boom! More clarity on how we can help the Agile Best Self community define and take the next step in their journeys. Fast forward to earlier this year, a workshop on possible ways to start defining your personal North Star became our submission to the Agile2020 conference. The North Star workshop was accepted over our Agile Best Self basic workshop (NOTE: stay tuned to find out Agile2020 goes online. COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the in-person conference). Back to the differences between large global companies and purpose driven startups…

Impact is Readily Visible to Others

Startups are generally staffed by a very small group of people, who are in constant contact with one another. If you work at one of these companies, you can expect to wear multiple hats; there is no place to hide from poor performance. Good work is readily apparent and noted by teammates. Another startup I worked at was a consulting services organization; we were recognized publicly and financially when we landed a new customer or recruited a new consultant into a billable customer engagement. I remember feeling pride when these wins were announced in an all-company meeting. The feedback loop is quick, and paradoxically collective and personal.

Recognition in large companies is different from startups – individual promotions and performance appraisals come to mind. The problem with this process is that events rarely happen near the time when the significant event or accomplishment actually occurred, so any feeling of pride is watered down. The feedback loop is so laggy that most people are already on to the next challenge.

In Agile Best Self, I believe that when you put the effort into your journey, you will be the first to notice change, followed closely by people who are close to you and know you well. The feedback may be very subtle at first. A great example unfolded over the course of last year. At the beginning of the year, I had committed to co-train a Scrum Master course. Just like in a startup, being a co-trainer means there is nowhere to hide, and the trainers are the two people who have to take responsibility for every aspect of the course. In the midst of leading my section of the class, my Inner Critic took over and told me I wasn’t good enough. I tapped out and forced the co-trainer to lead the entire class. The class may not have noticed, but I did. My Inner Critic led me toward fear and hiding, away from courage and openness. I was so focused on avoiding failure in front of colleagues, I stopped being my authentic self.

As the year progressed, I got clarity on who I wanted to become. Principle 8 strikes again! I figured out what I needed to do. My “being more” meant that I could co-train, as well as lead an entire class on my own. There was a lot I needed to learn and practice in order to do this well. In doing so, I discovered a new passion in teaching Scrum. My passion led me to teaching in ways that were my own and allowed me to show up authentically without fear. When I delivered my first Scrum Master class as a Licensed Scrum Trainer, I spent almost 2 full days in and out of flow state, because I felt fully connected to my North Star (Be a Light). Being my authentic self. Ahhh. When it was over, looking at the feedback validated that I had hit the mark. Progress visible. Check.

Flexibility and Freedom

The are very few rules in a startup beyond satisfying your customers. You have great autonomy to figure out how to get the job done, with almost boundless freedom to explore new ways of doing things. Having this kind of freedom is not for everyone. A relative lack of structure can create ambiguity — if you need clarity provided to complete your work, you will struggle if you cannot adapt. Sounds like how a good Agile team works, right? This is in sharp contrast to larger companies, where policies and procedures exist to manage risk to the business.

At the healthcare startup, I was given a very broad mandate to design and form a small team to build and deploy an application. No software development lifecycle to lean on, no development tools, nothing (in 2001 this was a much bigger conundrum than it would be today, in all honesty). I had to figure it all out — sounds like a big task, and it was — and that was the good news, I got to figure it out. Doing this required that I could not take a rigid approach — I had to be comfortable not knowing all the answers.

Agile Best Self Principle #2: Welcome change with curiosity.

This sounds a lot like Principle 2, doesn’t it? I’m going to drill in on the word curiosity. In the months before the creation of the 12 Agile Best Self Principles, I was struggling as a change leader, and spent far too much time with Scrum teams trying to win over a few very vocal Scrum detractors. It was exhausting. As a result it impacted my ability to serve everyone else in the organization, as well as tend to my own well-being. One day, I had an idea. What if I did the opposite? What if I found a like-hearted community? I switched tactics and focused on building the Agile organization with those that are trying to improve their teams. My curiosity defeated the Inner Critic that day. I have not looked back, and I no longer spend time trying to win the nay-sayers over, but rather lift up those that are doing well. This shift in energy and time brought back the startup mindset: the concept of possibility and clarity of purpose.


One can learn a lot by being a part of a startup. Just having the opportunity to work alongside a successful entrepreneur creates learning experiences you cannot get anywhere else. Also, because you are likely wearing multiple hats in a startup, you will take away some tangible and marketable skills. You may even uncover a new passion to explore. Or, maybe the learning is that you don’t want to work in a startup — I see this as equally valuable. This was the lesson I took away from the experiences I had with startups. I learned there was no such thing as work/life balance in the startup life. Michaele comes from a family of entrepreneurs and small business owners. Even at a young age, she never understood why people wanted to “own their own company.” Her parents and siblings took their first “family vacation” when she was 27! Knowing that the startup life is not for you is a good thing to know! Maybe there will be a time later in life when I feel differently.

Agile Best Self Principle #12: At regular intervals, reflect on how to become your best self, then tune and adjust.

Just like a startup, an Agile Best Self journey can be described as continuous discovery about how each of us shows up as our best self. The current coronavirus pandemic has drastically altered the current reality for almost everyone. How do each of us want and need to apply our best self in service to a cause? In Scrum, we make sure the team spends time doing retrospectives to inspect and adapt their approach. Our Agile Best Self journeys should work the same way. We need to take time to rest, reflect and fine-tune our approach. Furthermore, a good retrospective results in a “Kaizen” idea. The Kaizen philosophy touches on multiple aspects of improvement – teamwork, discipline, morale, quality and incremental sustained improvement.

During this COVID-19 work from home time, my company has asked me to utilize one-half of my vacation time, and asked me to take a two-week furlough on top of that. This seems a little scary on the surface. The Inner Critic is telling me that this is a last step before a layoff! Inner Critics love the fear-inducing drama of exclamation points. Now that I’ve acknowledged and quieted the Inner Critic, my Inner Advocate has shown me that this to be an opportunity of a lifetime. I get four weeks to spend improving me. So, I am getting after that idea — this post came from the fact that I had time to think!

The result of applying Principle 12, and coming up with a good “Kaizen” for these next two weeks is to improve the Agile Best Self community by pushing a lot more new content for the website, while “being more” over “doing more.” My hope is that it leads to better understanding of Agile Best Self for myself and everyone in the community.


It’s exciting and stimulating to be in a startup. You are purpose driven. You learn and grow continuously. You get close to the people you work with every day. Startups can’t afford extra process and the extra friction you get in big companies. But, while exhilarating, startups are inherently risky, and not for the faint of heart.

The Agile Best Self journey is the same way — you get a lot closer to who you are as a person, you get clear about the causes that matter to you. By doing so you can show up authentically in the places and relationships that are most important. Friction and wasted energy become apparent quickly. You learn to work with the willing and seek out your like-hearted community. I’m indebted to these startup lessons.

I am grateful for everything I learned — the good, the bad and the ugly — while working in startups, as it definitely has impacted my Agile Best Self journey.

In closing, I leave you with one more quote from the magnet collection on my office wall. It’s one I go to when the Inner Critic is running amuck inside. It provides me a gentle nudge in the right direction. I hope you find it useful also.

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”

William James

Copyright © 2018 – 2023 Michaele Gardner and Brian Hackerson

Published by Brian Hackerson

My personal philosophy is to be a light.

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