Working at a Startup: The Real Deal

The Good Stuff

You'll have more responsibility and autonomy

At our old startup our CEO loved to say, "I'll happily give you enough rope to hang yourself". Yes, it's an ominous expression, but it was very true. We had a lot of freedom to accomplish goals as we saw fit and to pitch our managers on new projects we wanted to pursue.

Of course we had to build trust with our team and provide data about why we should take a new approach before it was approved, but most of the time our methods were never in question, only our results.

The beauty of a startup is that often times the correct way of doing things hasn't been established yet. You have to use the available data to infer the next right course of action and then just go for it. In more well established companies, process is already finely tuned, and you are expected to execute accordingly.

You'll be exposed to a variety of functions early in your career

Your role "responsibilities" are generally going to be loose guidelines that could change at a moment's notice based on the needs of the business.

This unpredictability can be tough, but it will give you exposure to a range of different functional skills and possible career paths so you can find your strengths and what you love doing.

If you want to start your own company one day, working for a startup is as close as it gets

If you have aspirations of being an entrepreneur yourself one day, the quickest way to learn about what it takes to start and run a business is to work for a startup (aside from just starting a business right away of course, but that has some significant risks).

You will likely be learning from people who have successfully started companies before and that expertise will be invaluable for you when you start your own company down the road. Aside from the skills, you'll be building a professional network in the startup space that can help support you in the future.

Scrappy is the name of the game

Startups need to run a lean organization. If they are venture-backed, they are working on borrowed time (in the form of money) from investors. If the startup is bootstrapped, meaning it was funded by the founders personally, then money is going to be even tighter.

You won't always have the luxury of enough money for the perfect tools but you'll have to make do and figure it out. That kind of resourcefulness is a valuable byproduct of the scarcity in the startup world.

The Cons

Lack of stability

What stability? No seriously, startups are risky. New ventures have been and always will be a risky proposition. There is no guarantee that you will have a job for the next five years, and if you do, it most almost certainly not be the same job you started in.

Management can be hit or miss

Startups are generally full of young people that are willing to take risks with their careers. This means a lot of first-time managers with little to no experience managing a team. The CEO may be experienced but most middle management won't be.

Personally, the hands-off management style at my first startup really worked for me. I don't like being micromanaged and I don't need or want constant feedback, but I know that is not the case for a lot of people. If you need a more structured professional mentoring, big tech companies are probably a better bet.

Some salary sacrifices

You'll probably have to take a pay cut in deciding between the same position at a startup vs. a big tech company. Equity in a startup is important. Company's should believe in ownership and let their staff share in the spoils. That being said I wouldn't plan on getting rich from your startup equity.

The chances that you will IPO or sell to a larger company are small to begin with and those billion dollar valuations are very, very rare. You are making a trade off between a high salary with a relatively slow rate of development or a lower salary with a higher rate of learning.