Working for a Startup: Survival Guide

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Looking through the rose-colored glasses of someone outside of the tech field, getting a job at a startup may seem like an absolute dream come true. Think about it: unlimited creativity, free lunches, foosball, flexible hours – what’s not to like?

The reality, of course, can be a lot more harsh. Working for a startup company can involve quite a bit of risk. In fact, every three out four startups end up failing. Startup funerals have become a common occurrence in Silicon Valley, where CEOs share their experiences and highlight the mistakes that lead to failed products and shuttered companies.

The above doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t pursue a startup job. It just means that you need to temper your expectations and be aware of the very real risks that your company may ultimately fail.

Dreams vs. Reality

Needless to say, a lot of people’s idea of a startup is rather skewed. We’ve all heard amazing success stories about ambitious 20 year olds who turned billionaires almost overnight. So naturally, when we hear startup, we instantly picture a modern office space, game rooms and people riding scooters in the hallways.

Sadly, there are just as many stories about catastrophic failures that don’t get talked about nearly as often. Stories about founders and CEOs who have lost their houses, savings and sometimes friends and families, while chasing their dream project.

Don’t get us wrong, jumping into the startup life can be very alluring. You get to be a part of the company history from its very birth, and work alongside talented and driven leaders with a vision and true passion for what they do.

Startups don’t usually have a lot of people at first, so every person’s contributions to the success of the business are very palpable and immediate. You can see how your work is actually making a difference.

In the startup world, there’s simply no time for corporate nonsense. New ideas, problem solving and getting things done are what’s valued above everything else, so you won’t need to worry about bureaucracy and red tape. Initiative is encouraged and rewarded, which creates a positive atmosphere for personal growth and development.

These are all great things of course, but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows unfortunately.

Since a startup’s primary focus is rolling out a usable product as quickly as possible, things like work-life balance, good pay and benefits get inevitably sacrificed at the hands of this sink-or-swim attitude.

Working for a startup means working HARD. On top of long hours, fewer people also means limited resources, so everyone has to pick up extra slack and learn to adapt to the fast changing conditions. This often results in a rather chaotic work structure, without clearly defined roles and leaders who lack management experience.

Due to their unpredictable and risky nature, startup ventures are not the best option if you’re looking for long term stability. The future will almost always be uncertain, and the job you have today may be gone tomorrow.

In short, startups operate in a non-stop all-hands-on-deck mode, for better and for worse. It can be a very rewarding experience, allowing you to quickly pick up new skills and bolster your resume. On the other hand, this kind of pressure can be quite stressful for someone not used to working under such conditions.

Succeeding at a Startup Job

So, you’ve weighed the pros and cons, and decided to give the startup life a try. Hopefully by now you’re well aware of the risks and difficulties that lie ahead, so the following tips will focus on helping you not just survive the startup rollercoaster, but to excel and succeed at your new position.

  1. Show commitment. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and if your intention is to eventually earn an executive role in the company, you need to be willing to prove yourself and demonstrate your commitment to the success of the startup over a long period of time.
  2. Don’t focus on money. People who join a startup company are usually the ones who believe in the product they’re building. They don’t mind putting in extra hours, or working on the weekend because they’re passionate and excited about what they’re doing. Not someone whose first quest question at an interview is about his or her pay rates and hours per week.
  3. Be willing to sacrifice. Landing an executive spot means having the ability to put the needs of your team in front of your own. Whether it’s taking a lower salary, sharing an office with another employee or doing tasks that you find to be beneath you. Every other member of the management team has made similar sacrifices at one point or another, and you should be ready too, should the situation demand it.
  4. Deliver results. Passion and commitment are great, but at the end of the day it’s all about the results. And there’s nothing CEOs and managers dislike more than an employee with average performance and no results asking for a raise. Don’t be that employee. If you’re aiming to climb the company ladder, have a plan with specific metrics and performance goals, so when (and only when) you hit those goals, you can share it with your CEO and ask if they’d be open to offering you a promotion.
  5. Think ahead. The best CEOs have the ability to grasp the big-picture state of their business, and are always looking to see the long-term effects of their decisions on the company’s overall direction. So if you’d like to stand out as an employee, you’ll need to learn to think ahead: what’s the current state of the company and its goals, where is it going to be tomorrow, and that’s the direction of the market that your company’s in.
  6. Demonstrate initiative. If you want to excel at your position and get recognized for your hard work and contribution to the success of the company, simply doing what you’re told to do is not enough. Ambition is much more likely to impress, so show initiative and identify what needs to be done and do it before being told.

The Big Leap

Most people who say they’d like to work at a startup have no idea what they’re talking about. What they actually mean most of the time is that they would really like to work for Google.

Working at a startup is the furthest thing from a carefree goodtime that they imagine. It’s hard work, often for lower pay and not much in the way of job security. It’s definitely not for everybody, so unless you’re confident you can take this challenge and are ready for the risks that joining a startup presents, maybe hold off on leaving your stable job for now.