What’s the right length of startup job tenure these days?

I believe that to do a job that matters, you always have to go through three phases.

  1. You have to ramp up and get up to speed.
    Plant the seed so to speak.
  2. Then you have to perform and deliver measurable results.
    The seed grows into a plant.
  3. The final stage is to scale and mentor others.
    The phase where the plant is thriving and generating other seeds.

10 years ago I would tell team members that this cycle typically takes 2-3 years, and that’s the type of tenure commitment I expected from them.  It allowed people to get to be highly productive in the first year, and then deliver results to be proud of in the second year. The third year was all about scaling their impact, mentoring others, and get ready for a new challenge.

It’s clear that this tenure expectation does not apply in today’s software industry, and it’s especially flawed in startup environments. The company changes too much for people to be rigid in a role for so long. People that look for 3+ years of job tenure commitment are probably less suited for the startup life to begin with. In 3-5 years, Startups develop very different skill needs, the culture often changes and you have to adapt (you will most likely have 3 jobs in 2 years time…). This only applies of course in the event that the company does not run out of money.

So what’s the right number? Before I give you my thoughts on that, I’d like to share what I think are the key ingredients for a great job?

Key ingredients of a great job

For someone to really enjoy a role, and have the right amount of impact, I believe a job needs to have the following ingredients:

  1. Learn something new – Most people equate growth to learning. Or to overcoming challenges. I think this is the foundation for a great job. I like to challenge everyone in our team to learn something new every day, even if it’s a small thing like learning a new programming language, or a tool. It’s magical how you can keep people happy and engaged by just coaching them to keep learning. This is how people invest in both themselves and your company.
  2. Own something – Individual accountability is a value we all hold dear when running a small company. The easiest way to drive this as a core part of your culture is to really empower every team member to own something that they control. The first thing team members own is to carve out an area of responsibility that needs their focus, leadership and commitment. Ask them to answer the following question: “If you would not be here tomorrow, would this task not happen?”. Once they pick and commit to something, let them run with it and they will almost automatically feel accountable for it.
  3. Leave something behind – It’s a big word but “legacy” often comes to mind. People want to “matter”. They want to be able to point at something they did. Something relevant to put on their resume as a key result of their work. To “test” if the thing a team member “owns” something that’s really worth doing, I ask them “If you are done with your job at our company, what will be left standing that will not be replaced or forgotten?”.

If the above 3 checkboxes are taken care of, and someone has a great job, let’s move to the next question.

What is the right amount of time in a job?

 When I interview job candidates I typically set expectations that a commitment of 1-2 years is the minimum, and 18 months seems to be the sweet spot. The traditional phases in a job lifecycle of ramping up, delivering results and then scaling results (and mentoring others) still applies, but these steps now typically don’t take as long. After about 2-3 months of ramp up team members have to deliver value, and if they do that for at least a year they have proven very valuable for a startup team. If you add a few months of mentoring a successor, or institutionalizing what they build, you get to about 18 months.

So I think 1.5 years is the new 3 years when it comes to job tenure in a startup. It’s interesting that this approaches the typical 1-year growth cycle in Nature. Anything shorter then one year basically means that the roots that the plant developed are not going to be able to lead to a great plant.

What do you think?