Does that word send shivers of fear or excitement down your spine?
Does the thought of working with a shiny and new business concept appeal or appall?
As children, we were afraid of the dark, the monster under the bed, the neighbor’s big scary dog. It’s the unknowns that frighten us.
However, once we realize there are no monsters, that nothing lurks in the shadows, and the dog is a big softy with a loud bark, we’re more or less okay.
As adults, we try to have fun with fear by watching horror films. If it isn’t real, it can’t be that frightening, can it?
Our current fears — loss, failure — have to do with the unknown, too.
Startups are one of these unknowns, but they do have a positive side to contrast the uncharted waters. Today, we’re going to look at both the good and the bad, the frights and delights — so when the interviewer at your dream startup asks, “Why do you want to work for us?” you’ll be well informed and prepared to answer.
Ready? Let’s start it up.
How Startups Work
The first thing to understand about working at a startup is how they function.
Startups don’t quite work like other well-established companies, especially in the early stages of launching the business.
What Is a Startup?
Let’s get this out of the way.
You can define a startup as a company that:
- Is in its earliest stage of development
- Is typically self-funded or seeking venture capital from investors or banks
- Has 1 to 3 founders
- Has fewer than 50 employees
- Is focused on growth
- Has identified a problem and is working towards a unique solution
- Is trying to do what no one has done before and aims to change the world by doing so
Startup Company Culture
Startup company culture tends to lean to the creative, innovative side of things.
A startup’s culture may stem from the founder’s personality, but even the corner office types know that creativity fuels growth. And growth is what it takes to move any company forward.
Therefore, many startups aim for a fun, creative, imagination-sparking environment in the early development stage.
You also have to remember that a true startup has a vision — that desire to change the world somehow.
Visionaries tend to foster a culture of “let’s try it and see” if there’s even the slightest shred of evidence or hope of success.
Startups often have a philosophy that encourages asking questions. In fact, employees at a startup may find themselves being asked questions, usually by the founder or CEO, as everyone searches for the best ways to find the solutions they seek.
For example, a founder without an MBA might approach a team member with an MBA and ask questions about a business-related topic that the founder is uneducated on.
Work/Life Balance, or Lack Thereof
Most startups are filled with people committed to the mission that the company has embarked on.
That type of commitment can mean working long or weird hours or even changing your role over time. Growth can place even more demands on your time and talents as the startup expands, but not enough to hire more people.
Startups are learning, however, and many now offer creative ways to help counterbalance these demands. As with finances, it largely depends on the founder’s mindset.
Working at a Startup — the Day to Day Stuff
Your Work Will Be Valued, But Not Well Paid
In place of the “brick in a wall” feeling lots of people have as an employee of more extensive, established companies — startup team members are offered an opportunity to make a difference in both the company and the world. And that difference is both measurable and visible.
Your work will matter, as teams are small and everyone must pull their weight. That means the work will look different across startups, but it typically means that each individual will have well-defined tasks and measurable goals to meet.
Unfortunately, most startups are strapped for cash. That means your salary and benefits will likely be far less than if you worked in the same position for an established firm. You’ll be highly valued but not well compensated. At least not in the beginning.
Your Workplace May Be Weird
You most likely will not work 9 to 5. You may not work in an office. You may not even have a company headquarters to report to, other than the owner or founder’s home.
An early-stage startup can be headquartered in a garage (Apple), an apartment (TOMS Shoes), or even a kitchen (Clif Bar & Company).
You may even be asked to work from home. With today’s plethora of available technology, you may find yourself in a different time zone or even on a different continent than your fellow teammates and founders.
Some startups are now composed entirely of these remote teams, bringing a unique set of demands and requirements.
You’ll need self-discipline and self-starter tendencies, as there’s no boss looking over your shoulder. You’ll also need to be comfortable working by yourself, without direct and immediate colleague interaction.
Remote teams are not always ideal for the extroverted, outgoing types, as it can get lonely working all by yourself with just the ficus for company.
Your Teammates Will Be Supportive
Since everyone at every startup is working towards that world-changing solution, the atmosphere is entirely different from many other businesses.
Instead of looking out for #1, it’s more like the Three Musketeers — all for one and one for all.
Therefore, you’ll find your teammates less competitive and more cooperative and supportive of everyone’s efforts. You may find it hard to adjust to this at first.
Your Future May Be Uncertain
Your role may shift, too, as the company grows. At some point, you will undoubtedly be asked to take on either more or less responsibility than you had in the beginning. More if you’re moved into a supervisory position. Less when more teammates are brought on board.
Your work/life balance may wax and wane, too, depending on your role within the company. You may find yourself in demand at one stage and sitting on your thumbs in the next, as goals are met and needs alter to meet them.
As the company’s finances and funding rise and fall, yours may do the same. You may never get rich working for a startup, but unless your startup fails, you may never have to worry about a paycheck again (and getting rich is always a possibility, however slim).
Many find these challenges hard to deal with and thus choose not to work for startups. Others see them as challenges to be met and surpassed. It’s not hard to see that appeal, either.
Why a Startup May Be Right for You
Working at a startup may be right up your alley if you meet certain personality and business-related criteria.
It Takes the Right Kind of Person
Here are some personality traits that may make you the perfect fit for a position with a startup:
- Reliable — a lot of responsibility will be placed on your shoulders
- Self-starter — you may be faced with finding your own solutions
- Cooperative — you’re a team player, not the star of the show
- Creative — innovation requires imagination and thinking outside the box
- Flexible — growth demands adaptation, exploration, and experimentation
- Genuine — it’s hard to fake it in such a small, intimate setting
It Takes the Right Kind of Skills
In addition to the right type of personality, specific skills are in demand regardless of the product or service a startup is developing. These include:
- Sales — all startups are trying to sell something; in the beginning, it’s their idea and their potential for growth in hopes of securing funding. In the end (hopefully), it’s their product or service.
- Technical skills — from developers and designers to back-end tech skilled in Photoshop, HTML, and Facebook’s ad platform, those with both specific tech skills and broad, general tech skills are always in demand.
- Data analysis — remember those goals we mentioned? The company needs to be able to tell how close they are to achieving them. Knowing what to measure, how to measure it, and how to interpret those numbers is vital.
- Growth skills — Startups generally market with little to no budget. They often rely on social media and word of mouth and thus need marketing staff who can think creatively on their feet.
- Doers — Whether you call yourself a self-starter or a polymath, startups need people who can, and do, get things done. Those with an active hobby life, a side hustle, or who just hate getting bored are highly valued.
- Multiple skillsets — Those who are good in one area and somewhat useful in another are often chosen over the experts in just one field.
Lindsey Allard, a co-founder of PlaybookUX credits her Quantic education for helping her price her product and build her business model with financial topics in mind. The Quantic network also helped her get in touch with like-minded product managers and provided her with advice on growth hacking.
Why Working at a Startup May Not Be a Good Choice
As we’ve seen, there are a few reasons why you may not find startups to be the best choice for you and your career. Here are some reasons not to make that decision, in order of importance:
- Startups fail. You may want a more secure, reliable future.
- Startups are demanding. You may not want to risk your work/life balance for uncertain gains.
- Startups are all about innovation and creativity. You’re not signing up for the 9 to 5, suit and tie, cubicle, and commute business world.
- Startups require traits and skills you may not possess. As exciting as the world-altering solution may seem, if you can’t be true to both your abilities and your work — it will most likely prove a huge disappointment to all involved.
- A startup may not be the best thing for your resume. We’ve not yet discussed life after a startup, but your role at a startup, and the ultimate fate of that startup, may affect your future prospects.
- If, for example, you were involved in securing funding and the venture failed for a lack of funding, you may have difficulty finding another firm willing to take you on.
- However, if your startup is still thriving (or at least surviving) and you’ve simply outgrown your role there, you may find yourself welcomed with open arms. You were, after all, responsible for that growth in some capacity.
No one will blame you if you don’t choose the startup route for your career.
How to Decide if a Startup Is Right for You
Ultimately, the choice to work at a startup is yours to make. There are a few things to consider that will help you decide.
The first consideration is your future. Can you afford to potentially lose your job in a few months? Are you willing to go through another job search in a year or two? Startups fail, as we’ve said, and you’re assuming a risk-taking position by working with a startup.
The second thing to consider is your life. Can you afford the time working at a startup will demand? Are you in a place where the sacrifices of evenings, weekends, long hours every day will not be asking too much of you, your partner, your family, and friends?
Next, take a good long look at yourself. Do you have the personality and skills to make working at a startup rewarding, or will you find yourself too challenged? Too out of your comfort zone? Too out of your depth?
If you decide to try working at a startup, you may find plenty of opportunities on our job search engine. Companies large and small, new and old, access it to find their next executive, MBA grad, or candidate.
We even count our very own Quantic startup founder among our graduates. You can read her story in a case study we’ve prepared.