Startups are exciting places to work. They’re fast-paced, they offer unprecedented opportunities for personal and professional growth, and are often trying to change the world (or, at least, make some part of it better). They’re unique environments. But they aren’t for everyone.
How can you tell if they’re right for you? Here are a few pointers, gleaned from my own experience in the trenches as well as those of some heavy hitters in the New York startup scene. Remember: you might not be happy working at a startup if…
You Don’t Know What Startup Life Really Means
“To someone considering joining or creating a startup for the glory, I’d tell them that there are easier ways to make money,” says Joseph McKeating, founder & president of Pulsar Strategy. “Hundred million dollar investment rounds and billion dollar valuations have created a romanticized version of the startup lifestyle in the public perception,” he explains.
The greatest and most frustrating thing about startups is that, by their very nature, they’re trying to do something no one has ever done before – and doing that requires more than ping pong tables and cushy perks. It requires everything from coding and crafting social media posts to buying a shredder and chasing down the UPS guy.
Harder still, “startup folks are not ‘suits’ or cookie cutter types,” explains Leyda Hernandez, director of marketing and professor. “They tend to be a very passionate and interesting mix of people coming from different backgrounds, skill sets, and experiences.” This means people from every conceivable background are frantically working together to do something no one’s ever done before. That is not easy… and you should know that upfront.
You’re Not Sure How a Startup Works
Given all the sturm und drang cited above, you might be wondering exactly how all those elements can work together to make something new happen. The answer lies in wearing multiple hats: “With startups—usually short on resources—the personal desire and discipline to wear and own different hats in order to build the business is critical,” says Fred Cannone. Or, as Leyda puts it, “startups might not be for you if you’re not comfortable with ‘different’.”
One of the key reasons startups are able to accomplish the lofty goals they create for themselves is because they’re small enough to maneuver quickly. Be it executing a new strategy or delivering product, startups can pivot at a moment’s notice. But, that maneuverability relies on every single employee doing more than is asked – and often outside their comfort zone. Customer service, B2C web copy, cold calling customers, running to Staples for post-its, and grabbing toilet paper from Duane Reade are all fair game at a startup. If you can roll with that in addition to everything else you’re doing, go for it.
You’re Not Comfortable With Risk
Because startups are trying to do something that’s never been done before, with a diverse group of people who haven’t done it before, they are risky—more so than any other business modeled on a proven plan. As a result, the startup may fail before you see payoff for any of your work. There’s no guarantee of success: “You have to be okay with uncertainty – high risk & [high] reward… There might be a large payday down the line, but that’s in rare cases. Most of the time you’re working for less than if you signed up for a Fortune 500,” says Jeremy Goldman, founder & CEO of Firebrand Group.
“You often have to be willing to give up far more significant amounts of time than you would in a Fortune 500,” confirms Chad G. Abbott, partner at Abbson Live. “The hours are longer because the work still has to get done, even if it’s just you on the project. If you’re spending lots of time weighing the risks and are indecisive about whether or not it’s for you, it’s probably not.”
You’re Not Comfortable Setting Business Hours for Yourself
My personal bugaboo. As a manager, I am acutely aware that every second of lost productivity equals wasted money. Wasting money, especially in early-stage or self-funded startups, is not only not okay; it’s often the difference between closing shop and keeping the lights on for another week.
Yet, while there’s so much to do in a startup that working in one can easily become your whole life, taking your mother’s call about her cat when your teammate needs to chat strategy is a no-no. Ditto on interrupting your project manager’s request for an update because the price finally dropped on those plane tickets to Miami. When you’re working with the team at a startup, the team needs you. Protect the team’s time and save the cat-related chatter for when you get home. Please.
You’re Not Comfortable Asking for Help
If “you need lots of guidance and support from your boss,” as Jordan Cohen, chief marketing officer at Fluent, Inc. puts it, startups are not for you. “You have to be very self-motivated,” agrees Jeremy. “There’s no way to float by and be a middling performer because, in a small and scrappy firm, people will notice that.”
Startups are demanding – but they’re not heartless. When you can’t do something well, you need to speak up. The longer you let the issue fester, the more it hurts beyond just your ability to deliver: it hurts the whole team. I had a sales manager who consistently failed to meet quota, and even though I tried every management trick in the book to help her, she never spoke up. She resigned herself to feeling bad about letting us down. Lose–lose. Struggling makes nobody happy, and it forces everyone else to scramble to make up for lost productivity. Speak up. Don’t beat yourself up.
You’re Not Sure of Your Strengths – Or Weaknesses
“I think it’s super important to know your worth, and where it’s worth investing your time,” explains Mimi Banks, founder of MB Social. “While at the beginning, you are more inclined to take any project to gain experience, credibility, etc., it is also okay to say no. You know what your time is worth and how much you deserve to be compensated. Some people think just because you are a small shop that you should be paid significantly less. Bottom line – it’s okay to say no.”
You’re smart. You know that. Be confident about it! As unsure as you may be of your ability to resize photos for a sales email, you know you do some things well. Take advantage of a startup’s flexibility to not only get really great at those things; get great at other things, too. It’ll help you learn more about your own capabilities and interests in the long run. Plus, it’s infinitely better than having a coworker resize those photos for you and costing the team in efficiency, productivity – and money.
You’re Not Sure When the Hat Doesn’t Fit
Right along with knowing your strengths and weakness is knowing when it’s time to leave. Don’t feel obligated to stick around and help out where you can. That approach rarely produces work with meaningful outcomes, and it leaves both parties frustrated. Just recognize the need to move on and move on. It’s better for everybody. As Fred puts it, “Equally important is having the strength of character to recognize that when the hat doesn’t fit, you shouldn’t force it.”
So, after all of these warnings, aren’t you curious about what you actually need to do to work in a startup? Proactive passion, according to Abe Shaw, founder and employee: “If I were speaking to college students, instead of using wording like “you must be comfortable with…” or “you should be willing to…” I would emphasize a need for proactive passion and enthusiasm for the mission at hand. Not just a willingness to tackle it. I think that a proactive, almost optimistic mentality… is more important today than ever… If there is passion and enthusiasm on the part of a young employee for the mission of the hiring startup, many of the other things to know – low pay, long hours, an expectation for flexibility and creative thinking – are easy(ier) to stomach.” Or, as Joseph puts it: “if you want to reach new levels of freedom, do it. If you want to truly find out where your breaking point is, do it. If you want to remove the ceiling on your potential, do it. If you want to help change what it means to be a working human being in the 21st century, do it. Especially when you’re young, the worst possible outcome is a temporarily bruised ego and the realization that it’s not for everyone.”
If you’re sure that’s you, then congratulations—you should get started with your startup job search. Just know what you’re getting into.
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