No, it’s not an Eastern European carmaker. That was Yugo. And yeah, it’s not an Italian restaurant in SOMA either. That’s Buca. I’m not a big fan of either of those, but I am a huge fan of VUCA.
VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Any startup or anyone going to work at a startup needs to index high on their comfort level with each of these. Trust me: it’s VUCA out there.
Change is constant at startups. Everything is new and new information is acquired every day. (You know: build, measure, learn, repeat.) This leads to changing strategies, changing roadmaps and changing roles. Everything is always changing. Everyone in the shifting startup world needs to expect the unexpected, be at the ready for new twists and turns, and not get too rattled when the inevitable curveball comes their way.
You also need to come up with some frameworks for handling the constant change. Back at the startup I co-founded, Dogster, my co-founder, Ted, and I had a term we used called the impact horizon which we used for our product roadmap planning. The impact horizon was the time limit for which a project must have an impact in order for us to consider working on it. In the early days of the company, we wouldn’t start a new project unless we thought it would have an impact within a couple of weeks (thus, impact horizon equalled two weeks at that time). This was because things change so fast and we couldn’t invest in longer projects that might be irrelevant by the time they were completed. As the company matured and became more stable and predictable our impact horizon expanded to 3–4 months. An impact horizon is dependent on the stage of company and the industry, but for consumer startups it usually starts pretty short and gets longer over time. This term and our frequent use of it was helpful as a constant reminder of the ever-changing landscape and put us on the offensive in creating our roadmap.
Remember, don’t just accept and expect change; find ways to plan for it, to walk towards it, and turn it into your opportunity. This is where you can outpace the big entrenched incumbents (those jerks!).
The biggest uncertainty at a startup is existential. Will the company exist one year from now? Six months from now? Anyone joining an early stage company knows that there’s this kind of risk involved. Most early stage startups in my experience have a runway that measured in months. Most founders and CEOs appropriately buffer their team from the ups and downs of shrinking runway and the unsteady fundraising process. Inevitably, through a culture of transparency or the pervasiveness of the grapevine, the word gets out that the company has four months left of cash and a handful of dubious funding options. This is when the team cannot get spooked and needs to perform. Can you look death in the eye, sip your pamplemousse La Croix calmly, and power through?