There are approximately 500+ unicorn companies globally so there is a slim chance that one gets to work at one of them. I’ve had the opportunity to be part of two great unicorns and it has provided me with incredible learning experiences that are unique to such high growth companies. Based on my journey and observing the best in the business, these are some of the key ways to succeed at a unicorn:
Get sh*t done
Even if it sounds obvious, it’s incredibly important at a unicorn to execute and punch above your weight class. If you see a problem, try to solve it. It’s better to apologize than ask for permission. Trust is earned when you’re doing your job but also finding ways to improve your function. Unlike large organizations, non-performers can be spotted easily and can get left behind. Not only are you impacting yourself, but it’s also unfair to your coworkers who are firing on all cylinders when one doesn’t put in the same amount of effort.
Don’t chase titles
Unicorns can provide life-changing experiences both from a learning and financial perspective so your focus should be on these two, not titles. Titles at these companies don’t always reflect the day to day work that one might be doing. A leader on paper might be in the trenches just as much as the individual contributor on their team. On the contrary, non-leaders on paper can take on initiatives or guide others as if they are a leader.
Working at a unicorn requires a tricky balance of being scrappy but with a focus on scale. You should always be looking at ways to improve or automate so that the company can grow with new customers and employees. Everyone’s time is super valuable when you’re moving towards a big revenue or exit goal in a short period so it’s important to be cognizant of how your decisions can impact the company overall. This could be something as small as requiring a meeting with 5 people for a task can be accomplished asynchronously.
When you join a unicorn, one has to adapt quickly. Not only do you have to leave your prior successes and ego at the door, but you also need to learn and embrace the new market, culture, team, etc. I’ve seen many people from large organizations struggle at unicorns because they are used to certain processes or mindset. Even working at 2 different unicorns isn’t the same and you need to adjust to each company accordingly.
Being good at your role isn’t enough at a unicorn. Those that have an edge stand out with their soft skills like communication, empathy, drive, grit, etc. One can be the best engineer or salesperson but if they’re an a**hole, it will be hard for them to succeed. Unicorns need to act as one tight-knit team working towards a singular goal. Self-awareness and common sense prevail in decision making.
Unicorns aren’t perfect just like any other organization. There can be uncertainty or a lack of processes for different functions, but one has to understand that these are part of growing pains. If you get caught up in these small things, you lose sight of the big picture. Often these are not a result of poor intention but rather a circumstance of singular focus on the large goal.
Unicorns aren’t for everyone. They can be stressful and just like any startup, they have a high chance of failure. Unicorns are for those that are optimizing for learning fast and failing fast. Sheryl Sandberg puts it best: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat! Just get on.”