How to Adjust to Startup Culture

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

My first post-college job could not have been a more controlled environment. I worked for a television news station.

Being a television personality meant I had little control over my appearance. Dressing to the nines every day was a requirement.

My hours were set in stone. I clocked in at 9:30 a.m. and clocked out at 6:30 p.m. No ifs, ands, or buts about that one. I had 10 vacation days. Questioning authority or providing feedback to someone in a higher position, not an option either (unless you wanted to get fired).

Some people enjoy the structure of a setting like the one I just described. It feels comfortable being told what to do and knowing you have to dress a certain way.

But, this work culture isn’t the only option anymore. Once I learned about the freedom that comes with working for a tech startup, I knew I had to make the switch.

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you are planning on joining a startup. Or, you already started and need a little advice on how to get situated.

If you’re coming from a corporate or structured setting, you will experience a bit of culture shock at first.

Here are four things that are handled differently in a startup:

  1. Communication over instant messaging
  2. More lenient work hours
  3. A lax dress code
  4. Open communication about personal matters

Let’s go through how you can adjust to each of these things.

1. Turn Off Instant Messaging Notifications

Communicating with coworkers via email is not a thing in startups. Most use either Slack or a similar direct messaging system.

I had a hard time not letting Slack distract me at first. I left my notifications on and felt pressured to respond to every message instantly. I found myself getting sucked into distracting side conversations that had nothing to do with work.

If you’re using Slack or another messaging system, turn off the notifications. I recommend also setting a status. If I’m doing deep work, I put my status as “do not disturb” so people do not message me during this time.

Although it is an instant messaging system, you don’t need to be glued to it all day. Check it when necessary, and focus on your current tasks.

2. Create a Schedule That Works for You

At my company, the motto is “work the task, not the time.” Some people start their day at 7:30 a.m. while others choose to begin around 10 or 11 a.m.

When I first started, I struggled to realize that no one cares when I come in or when I leave. On the days I finished early, I stayed late anyway out of fear someone would judge me.

I cannot stress this enough: no one cares about the hours you work. All that matters is that the work gets done.

If you struggle working outside that 9–5 comfort zone, be open with your team. Express that you like the idea of having more flexibility, but are concerned about crossing boundaries. Asking for reassurance is nothing to be ashamed of if it helps you acclimate.

If you like having structured hours, make a schedule for yourself. If you want to work a full eight-hour day because it feels comfortable, then that’s okay too.

3. Prepare for Open Communication

People are not as private with their personal matters in a startup environment. Be prepared for open communication about pretty much anything.

Talking about menstrual cramps or mental health happens almost every day. While this may seem off-putting at first, it’s refreshing.

Separating work life from personal life is not always easy, which makes working for a startup great. Most startups are a safe place and the management understands the complexities of being human. We aren’t always perfect. Sometimes our personal life impacts our performance.

If you have something personal going on, communicate with someone you trust or a manager. Some people will share every little detail about their life with anyone who will listen. You don’t have to do that, but there are benefits of finding a work confidante to confide in.

Feeling safe to share information about your life is one of my favorite things about working for a startup. Honesty and transparency results in stronger team-building. If you’re having a bad day, people will tread a little lighter on you.

4. Wear What Makes You Feel Confident

My CEO wore pajama pants and a hoodie to my interview. I wore a freshly pressed dress and high-heels.

Since starting, my heels and pencil skirts have collected dust in the back of my closet. And I’m not sad about it.

If wearing business attire makes you comfortable, go for it. No one will judge you. Likewise, no one will judge you for wearing workout pants and sneakers every day. As long as you show up to work and feel confident in what you’re wearing, everything is a-okay.

Since most of us are working remotely, for the time being, the dress code probably isn't something you have to worry about quite yet.

Working for a tech startup is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. While adjusting to the laid-back culture can feel challenging at first, I promise you will feel right at home in no time.

Before you go, let’s recap.

Here are the four things I struggled with at first and how I coped.

  1. Communicating over instant messages. Turn off desktop notification and set a status so you don’t get distracted by this constant communication.
  2. Having more leniency with work hours. If working a structured day makes you feel comfortable, then do it. Just know, most people will work weird hours and don’t care if you do, too.
  3. Open communication about everything. Personal topics are not off the table. Learn to be okay with being honest about how you feel.
  4. Lack of a dress code. Some people look polished every day. Others wear pajamas. Wear whatever makes you feel productive.

The main takeaway: if at any time you feel uncomfortable, communicate it. If you aren’t sure about boundaries or certain policies, there’s no shame in asking HR or someone who’s been there a while.



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Grace Gagnon

Grace Gagnon


Former television news reporter now working for a weather intelligence start up in Boston. Lover of dogs, books, and people.