Chances are you’ve thought about going to work for a startup. If you’re in software, you’re surrounded by startup chatter. Who’s hot, who’s funded, who’s the next Twilio. Maybe you’ve fielded an offer or two from startups sure they’re about to be the next Silicon Valley unicorn. Or maybe you haven’t, but you’d like to. But a startup job is not just a job. The startup environment, especially in the early stages, is unique, and it takes a particular kind of personality to thrive in one.
There are incredible benefits to joining a startup, but there are also some downsides. Here are some of the key indicators that can help you decide whether an early stage startup is right for you.
The question isn’t really “Should I work for a startup?” It’s “Should I work for this startup?” If you want into the startup scene so badly you’ll jump on board with any company that offers you a place, you may be setting yourself up for failure. After all, four out of five new businesses fail. Choose carefully, and be ready to work hard. Most importantly, choose carefully a company that you are eager to work hard for.
Employees of small, emergent companies aren’t in any position to “go through the motions.” Startup founders are looking for people they can trust with their vision, people who show the same passion they do for the company’s mission. If you don’t believe in the product enough to work long hours and throw yourself into achieving the company’s goals, you probably won’t do well at an early stage startup. We would never advocate for developers to work unreasonable hours on a permanent, ongoing basis at an established company. But when you’re helping launch a startup, long hours are part of the package.
Working closely with the founder of a company means having respect for the thing they’ve worked very hard on, and giving it your best.
Beyond feeling passion for what you do, you have to be great at what you do. A startup is a distilled, focused ecosystem. Maybe you’re used to being a cog in a very large machine; a startup is not like that. It’s a small group of talent in higher concentration, under greater pressure. Founders who give everything they have to start a company will accept nothing less than greatness from the people they select to help them.
Since you have considerable coding talents, you should also be seen as a great individual contributor. You may have management aspirations, and that’s fine; there’s plenty of growth opportunity in a successful startup. But don’t expect to sit behind your desk and supervise other people doing the work. In the beginning stages especially, it’s all hands on deck. And even going forward, the startup culture is one that encourages coders to code, no matter what rank you hold on the engineering team.
At its core, starting a business is a gamble. If your top priority is stability, you may not want to leave your safe zone for a startup. New companies often come with a “sink or swim” mentality, and each and every person has a huge impact on the overall success of the venture. This means the right group of people working on the right product can achieve great things. By the same token, though, a wrong fit can be disastrous.
Most startups fail. That’s a simple fact. You can certainly minimize your risk by doing your research and finding a company you believe in, run by founders with strong track records and a mission you can get behind. But compared to taking a job at a large, established company, working for an early stage startup will always be a risky venture. Some people simply aren’t cut out for that kind of pressure.
If you’re used to working for a large enterprise, there are certain things you take for granted. A clear job description, a rigid hierarchy, and a set work schedule are boundaries many of us are very used to. But at a startup, employees must remain fluid. You may have to wear many hats, pitching in wherever you’re needed and taking a leadership role one day and a support role the next. Small startup teams need to work together in a way other teams never need to. They’re not just performing work, they’re creating something, and employees have to be willing to go the extra mile.
Rigidity does not work in the startup world. If you’re not a developer who can roll with the punches, change focus quickly, and happily accept long hours and significant work loads, we respect that. There’s nothing wrong with structure. But if that’s you, an early stage startup won’t be a good fit. If, however, you thrive in fast, dynamic environments that value initiative and creativity, an early stage startup just might be right for you.
Successful startup employees are self-directed, says Brian Tait, cofounder of FounderTherapy, a team of professional cofounders, product developers and engineers that build companies from prefunding to market adoption, with a focus on B2B and Marketplaces. Tait often helps founders understand the roles that a startup needs to fill and the capabilities that a successful developer candidate must have.
Tait says that great startup employees don’t wait for somebody else to initiate; rather, they exercise good judgement on what actions they need to take to move their projects forward. Good judgement requires an ability to map their responsibilities to their goals and the ability to collect the necessary bits of information to inform the decisions they make. “Team members who ‘grok’ this way of working are priceless,” says Tait, “as they will always make sure their project is not only moving forward, but is doing so in a directionally correct way. Sometimes moving forward requires lots of ‘heads down’ time… Sometimes this means getting the right people in a room to address a project blocker and sometimes it requires lots of ‘managing up’ or ‘managing sideways.’” The critical point is that these employees have the initiative and confidence to determine—and take—the best course of action.
If you’re bored in your current role, or looking for a new opportunity, think long and hard about whether an early stage startup environment is one you can be happy in. There are a thousand different ways to be a software developer, and some are safer and more predictable than others. But for the right person, a startup can offer enormous growth and opportunity.
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