Business Suit Track Start ID-10091865Working at a start up is not the same as having a job elsewhere in corporate America. I’m not talking about founding a company here, I’m talking about signing on to someone else’s start up, whether that means being employee number 1 (post-founder) or number 100. This first article of two will cover the introspective aspects of working at a start up. The second article will cover the more objective elements of due diligence that should be reviewed before signing on to a new company.

Not everyone is cut out to work at a start up.

That is not to say that people who work at start ups are superior to others, rather they may simply have a different outlook or physical circumstance. In my view, one needs to look at three career elements before taking the plunge with a start up. These are your goals, whether or not you can do the job, and the personal opportunity cost.

Your Goals

Why would anyone want to work for a company, which by definition of being a start up, is likely to fail? The major reasons are dreams of big money and social cachet. Others may be the excitement of the fast pace or the desire to build a business from “nothing.” Beyond those reasons, you’re probably just looking for a job, and you’re probably looking in the wrong place. I’m going to also contend that if your only goals for working at a start up are to cash in big or for social value, you will be disappointed. These can be great secondary reasons and real drivers to make you a loyal employee, but you are unlikely to achieve either and even more likely to become disenchanted before it happens if you don’t have a realistic base to your goals. If your main goals include growing a business or thriving in an exciting, fast-paced environment, you are much more likely to personally succeed at a start up, and to help it succeed as well.

Can You Do the Job?

Can you do the job? “Of course I can do the job” is your answer. You are a marketer and it is a marketing job, or sales, or development or whatever. But can you think beyond the job description? Can you think big? Can you work with incomplete information? Can you put up with change? Especially if you’re a developer and this isn’t “just software,” can you deal with agile product cycles or pivots that will render weeks or months of effort useless? There is even uncertainty in the little things if you have been in corporate America. Can you make your own copies and your own travel arrangements and order lunch for the client visit?

Any job at a start up is going to involve more inconsistency, change and probably frustration than you will find in a traditional role of the same name. And this does not even touch upon the “wearing of many hats” which might mean that, although you are the marketing communications manager, you may need to be the office receptionist one day and provide Sales support the next.

Being part of a start up is more of a lifestyle than a job, and that leads us to the final topic for this article, the opportunity cost of working for a start up.

Personal Opportunity Cost

Opportunity cost is the expense of making one choice versus another. In choosing to work for a start up you forego working for a traditional company and some of those benefits. The list varies, but you will most definitely incur risk in your employment future. You will also likely sacrifice family time, working long hours and weekends to make the business go. Most likely you will give up some salary. Start ups tend to be cash-poor and pay less with the promise of future reward from equity. This reduced salary may further affect the salary you can command in your next gig if they find out what you have been making. You may also sacrifice traditional advancement because start ups run lean and organizations tend to be flat, with managers reporting to VPs and not much in between. Then there is the flip-side to that scenario in which you end up with a VP title in your first job and have to take on a low-level manager role in your next job, which can be deflating and makes your resume look bad.


Well, clearly I am against working for a start up, right? Not in the least. Start ups are awesome. You should just be aware of potential ramifications of taking the job and consider if it is right for you, or the right time for you.


In part 2 of this discussion I will cover the more objective elements of evaluating a start up before you take the plunge.


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