There Are Right and Wrong Reasons to Join a Startup.
Before you take the jump, here are a few things to consider.
Vidhya Prakash Ravi
It’s no secret that this is the most well-known Silicon Valley career path.
Maybe you added in the extra step of a stint in investment banking or management consulting right after getting your “good education.”
If you are focused and follow the herd, you’ll probably make it to the end of your time in a “dynamic, high-growth company” without too much confusion, introspection, or fanfare. However, the next part — the part for only the riskiest risk-takers — taking a job at a startup isn’t as straightforward as it may seem.
Having made the jump myself, I can say the road is even more perilous for people with non-technical roles than it is for people that will continue to work in technical functions.
The premise of a non-technical job at a startup is more subject to change. Hindsight is 20/20 and knowing what I know now, I would have taken my path into startup land a little differently.
Are you joining a startup for the right reasons? Before you decide to take the jump, here are a few things to consider.
Most startups, especially early-stage startups with less than 50–100 employees, aren’t stable enough to guarantee continuity or consistency for your role.
That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it’s something I wish I had considered more seriously during my first foray into a startup.
The most important thing to consider when joining a startup is your ability to work with the existing leadership team and the founder. Your title, your area of work or function, or even your ability to do what the role is currently scoped as is secondary.
The reality is, whatever you thought you would go in to do you may get to do, but strategy can turn on a dime and you will have to pivot and do something completely different (with skills you may not already have).
That means that if you join a startup because you want to work on specific things (like manage the implementation of an email service provider or build a far-reaching branded media campaign), you could be disappointed.
In small startups, roles aren’t always properly scoped and part of your job is to come in and assess if what you were hired to do is really what the company needs. You also run the risk that once you better understand what the organization needs, you may or may not be the right person to do that job.
It’s a less talked about risk related to joining a startup, but one every new hire takes.
Starting your own startup (as founder, co-founder or CEO) is a completely different journey than working in a senior-level role at a startup founded by someone else.
“High-growth startups don’t need brilliant employees; they just need employees who don’t screw up.” — Anonymous
When you start your own company, you are bought into the vision. You believe in what you are doing. You feel it’s worth your time and investment. You also have a lot of control as to how your company will operate and how that vision will come to life.
When you work for someone else’s startup, while your expertise may be valued, you’re really there to do a job for the founder — you’re there to make their startup a reality.
And that may mean you’re doing what they want you to do how they want you to do it.
You may yield to do things that they think are most important versus what you think is most important.
You may discover that life at the startup is very different than what you were told or what you were able to discover on your own prior to joining the startup — the product may not be as great as you thought, other team members may be really hard to work with, you may not be given the resources to do your skill at your best.
When you start your own company, you have a level of transparency into the company and yourself that you cannot have when you join someone else’s company.
However, there is another side. You are not taking on the same level of risk or personal investment that you do when you start your own company. If you don’t want to work at the startup anymore, you have the freedom to leave without significant financial loss to yourself or financial burden to the team that depends on you.
If you do deliver on what is needed from the perspective of the founder, you may move up the ranks rapidly and gain a seat at the table to influence the future of the company. You have to remember, even if you’re working at a startup, it’s not your startup — you are not the founder. At least, not this time around.
If your goal is to gain a coveted leadership or people management position, that’s not a good enough reason to go to a startup.
I meet a lot of people that feel the way to gain management experience is to join a startup.
That may be true for some: joining a rapidly growing startup that relies on existing employees to grow quickly means you could move into management with very little experience. But hiring and managing at a startup is very different than managing at a larger, more established company.
The hires you attract are different and your levers for keeping your team motivated and retaining talent are different. What’s more, you’re going to have to spend a lot of your time rolling up your sleeves and doing independent contributor work while also leading a team.
You’re going to be managing through understanding the founder’s vision alongside learning how to inspire and motivate a team to deliver on it. That’s in addition to learning to be a first-time manager — and you’ll have little to no resources and training on how to be a manager. Your management and leadership training will most likely be self-driven.
It’s a lot for anyone — especially someone without prior management expertise — to handle right off the bat.
While longevity in startup leadership roles could lead to a sustained leadership role for the rest of your career regardless of where you work, it may not.
Some more established companies are aware of the expertise gap in early-stage startup management so moving from a management role at a startup to a larger company may not mean that your new role will be in management.
Do you really believe in what the startup is doing? Meaning would you stake your life on it?
Because when you join a startup, you basically are. The organization isn’t diversified — it’S betting all its eggs in one direction and it will take big swings to make the vision a reality.
You’ll have to give up not just your time, but your mental space, to solving the problem the startup is working on. You may have to make sacrifices in your personal life to make this work.
The whole time, you will ask yourself “Is this worth it?”. If you’re not excited about the industry, space or problem, and you’re not going to be able to give it your all — do everyone involved a favour and don’t join. You won’t be happy and neither will the organization.
Just because you are entrepreneurial, it doesn’t mean you should join someone else’s startup.
There are so many ways to be entrepreneurial without working for a startup. You can start your own startup — but you can also consult, freelance, or advise.
You can pick up new skills like house flipping or options trading. You can join a board of directors for a startup. You can write a book or develop a methodology.
You can enter academia and teach others about what you’ve learned. The rise of the gig economy has changed the way we think about opportunities — and careers can be more fluid, compared to ever before.
I’ve been an entrepreneurial person my entire life.
The idea of starting and growing my own business has been a dream since I was in university — and I made several attempts to do so, including inventing and running an MBA admissions focused brand and blog, helping my son monetize his dinosaur drawings, writing for a variety of publications, and now venturing out with a partner to build a startup we believe in.
When I left big tech, I thought that working at a startup would be the thing that makes me most happy.
I was sort of right, but I was sort of wrong too.
I share this advice because I learned the hard way — being at someone else’s startup is different than starting your own thing.
I didn’t spend enough time thinking about if my new startup job’s problem space would be something that I wanted to eat and breathe every day, day in and day out. I was so excited to land my first startup gig and experience distributed work, I didn’t think things through clearly enough.
Now, I spend my days consulting, writing and working on my own startup. I am fairly sure I will end up at another startup (or maybe larger company again) someday, but I have so much more perspective on how to vet the opportunities to make sure it’s the right thing for me.
Originally published via THE STARTUP
Vidhya Prakash Ravi