Exploring the qualities needed for success in people and business.

First things first, what actually is a start-up? Google defines a start-up as a “newly established business”. OK, pretty straightforward. But what does this actually mean? And how can we translate this simple definition into an understanding of how these businesses work and the individuals behind their success?

Newly established businesses are those that may have received investments to get them off the ground; they are usually unheard of, and are often breaking into brand new markets in order to sell their product or service. To gain investments, build brand awareness and get their target markets to part with their money for this good or service; ideas are key. Every single company that is now a household name – like Amazon, Apple, Deliveroo – all started from an idea. It is the people behind these ideas and the teams helping to foster and bring to life these ideas that ultimately lead to success for the business.

Some key qualities that you might need to work in a start-up are…


In order for a new company to compete against more profitable, well known and trusted brands, they need to have the best and brightest people within their team. Bright individuals are those who can think on their feet, who can process information rapidly and use this to confidently solve problems and excel in their daily tasks. The brightest candidates can extrapolate their reactions to known situations and use this to thrive in unknown contexts. In an environment where the luxury of having decades of experience to guide your behaviour does not exist, you need the brightest individuals to pave the way.

An inquisitive mind

The growth of a company and the creation of ideas require inquisitive individuals who are not afraid to question their own understanding and think outside the box. High-growth businesses need people who can learn quickly and are confident in their ability to overcome problems in new ways. A start-up is a much younger business and usually less structured in terms of processes and systems; suggestions about how to refine these aspects of the business and make them more efficient and thus more profitable for the company are welcome.

The ability to see the bigger picture

To be collaborate in a start-up environment, having awareness of the bigger picture is crucial. That means understanding what the company is doing as a whole, rather than getting bogged down with a minor task that you’ve been given to do on a particular day. Understanding the commercial value of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and the role that it plays in the ultimate expansion of the business is key; and with every member of the team adopting this mindset, cohesion and success are likely to follow.

Hunger and humility

No, I’m not referring to hunger for an overpriced Pret sandwich – although most millennial start-up workers can relate to this kind of hunger, too – I am referring here to hunger for a challenge. While it’s true that any role in corporate law or banking (to name but two examples) will be challenging, there is a unique set of challenges posed by working at a start-up. As a graduate, for example, coming into a newly established business, there is no three year structured grad scheme, there won’t be a ‘buddy’ system in place with a more senior employee and there will be some level of uncertainty as to what your day-to-day might look like. However, people who are hungry for a challenge, who crave lots of responsibility early on in their career, who are looking for opportunities to work with senior figures in the business and who feel that rigid pay and responsibility structures are restrictive rather than helpful, will thrive in this type of setting. The rewards – personally, professionally and financially – will be reaped with persistence and a continued hunger for growth.

Humility is an intriguing quality that can seem contradictory to the confidence that I mentioned earlier. Here in the context of start-ups, humility refers to the understanding that you are no better than anyone in the team and that all ideas should be welcomed and treated with respect. Tenacity, or persisting in your work even if tangible growth of the company isn’t always visible, is intimately intertwined with the quality of being humble. Being tenacious and determined come from knowing that you are not always right, that you are not superior to others in your team and from having faith that the work you are doing will reap rewards in time.

Genuine passion for your company and its vision

I think this point is best made without dressing it up: if you have a genuine belief in what your company is trying to achieve, how its product or service is going to make an impact, and you actually enjoy and understand the value of your work, then you are the ideal candidate for a start-up.

Coming into work every day with a positive outlook and the energy to succeed, not only for yourself but for the whole team, will become evident in the work that you do.

Clearly, different roles such as Marketing, Sales, Software Development, Account Management, require different skills, but what must be consistent across each of these is the passion for what you are bringing to consumers or businesses.

In a smaller company there is no room to hide; you need to be brilliant.