What To Know Before Joining a Startup
Working at a tech startup has been and always will be appealing to the young, the hungry and the slightly crazed. Stories of being unable to easily discern who the CEO is because they’re wearing sandals and shorts. Seeing pictures of teams huddled closely together, surrounded by whiteboards with what seem like nonsensical blueprints. Walking past over-the-top snack bars with an infinite supply of la croix and quality coffee. You imagine yourself on a beanbag, building the product of the decade through the lens of a brand new Macbook pro. That tech-crunch article is going to help sustain your company to new highs, you tell yourself. You envision an acquisition by Google, Amazon or Facebook. Soon your mind wonders. Ideas of a buying Tesla or making a down payment on your first house circulate incessantly.
But it’s not always what it’s cracked out to be. For one, most startups fail. Granted, I have worked for startups my entire career. However, working for a startup is not as glamorous nor laid back as many portray it as. It’s a career decision that is by no means for the faint of heart. Working for a startup has implications far beyond the workplace, of which tend to seep into your private life. The concept of having work life balance will, at times, become decimated from your lexicon. Joining a startup typically means being ready to commit most of your life to a chaotic and often, losing endeavor. Startups require an unrelenting ambition and unfaltering determination to uncover truth. This truth will reveal itself in oneself as much as the product you’re trying to build from the ground up.
Get Ready For Rapid Change
Since startups are by definition new, they will fight tooth and nail to take market share from incumbents whom already enjoy a stable business. This means trying new things really, really fast and discovering small wins. That means you have to be comfortable with failing often and at times, not seeing any sign of growth. The hockey-stick trajectory you conceived fades into oblivion quickly. And that’s okay. It is known startups must push themselves beyond their comfort zone in order to achieve success, which means changing directions quickly and often. Hell, it’s not uncommon for companies to completely change their mission. As a great example, Instagram was first called Burbn, which was focused on checking-in to locations, taking pictures with friends and earning points. Once they discovered users just wanted to use their filters feature to take quasi-professional pictures, they completely pivoted and in less than 2 years were acquired by Facebook for 1 Billion dollars.
The best piece of advice to new startup recruits is to leave your ego and preconceived notions at the door. Your number #1 objective is to learn as fast as possible so you can reach new audiences, activate customers and ensure they convert better today than yesterday.
Just Go Do It
Startups are idea generating machines. Whether that means leveraging the newest technology to scale or to implement an unconventional design pattern that encourages users to come back again and again, your team will have the ability to dream big. What’s important to know is that the ideation process is only secondary to execution. Don’t just sit there and philosophize, model the implications or spend time making things pixel perfect. Quit that shit and deploy your idea, measure, iterate and repeat as fast as possible.
I say this because startups hire talent that are willing to take the bull by the horns with little direction or approval process. There is no bureaucracy or corporate hierarchy when your entire team can fit in a board room. While startups are not entirely egalitarian, be sure to speak to your manager to understand your level of freedom. If you require any kind of hand holding, managerial direction or permission to take action, then a startup is simply not for you.
You will need an entrepreneurial spirit to thrive or the reality of working at a startup will chew you up and spit you out.
There is no “I” in Startup
You’re going to want to love your startup’s culture and team to succeed. Team members should become an extension of your family because they will undoubtedly become your crutch when it comes to putting all the pieces together. No, you can’t do absolutely everything–although, you will undoubtedly need to pickup a lot of new skills. You’ll need the help of your team members to develop, design, fund and market the product. You’ll lean on marketers to help refine the copy to better engage customers for that additional click through the funnel. You’re going to want to work with designers to discover the optimal experience for the user. You’ll need to understand the financial implications of dedicating your resources and marketing money to drive growth. There is no “I” in startup. Be a team player or go home.
You Won’t Have Just One Role
Start-ups attract those who seek to disrupt the way in which we interact with the world. Startups are also, typically strapped for cash. That means you will be wearing many, many different hats. It shouldn’t surprise you when you find yourself packing orders, answering customer comments, preparing for a board meeting and helping stock your companies fridge. You will be doing lots of challenging and fairly ordinary activities, but the need to persevere is what makes startups and their patrons extraordinary.
At ID90 Travel, I’ve launched paid advertising campaigns on Facebook & Adwords, run the product organization across 4-different development teams, built functional prototypes, designed process flows, committed a ton of code, designed email templates and lost tiny bits of my sanity. During my tenure at VMR Products, I ran analytics, tagging, A/B Tests, wire-frames, prototypes, email marketing, product management, midnight releases and eCommerce merchandising. While building RogerXimenez.com, I wielded a Nikon camera to take our product photos, researched keywords, wrote copy, coded the website, implemented email marketing and paid advertising. All the while, I was losing more and more sleep. And yet, even still after the long nights and abysmal work week, I couldn’t fathom any other way to live my professional life.
In all of these examples, a large organization would have a single person focused on a single function. Not at a startup. You must have an iron-clad stomach for change and an appetite for learning new things. You must be ready to challenge your discipline in order to succeed. Why? Because the fate of your company depends on your team picking up the slack they can’t currently afford. Success is somewhere over the horizon and caffeine induced headaches. You must race to get there, as your company burns cash like wood to a bonfire on the beach.
There is no 9 to 5
You just graduated college. You imagine yourself working a cush job that will help fuel the lifestyle you’ve been dreaming of. You’re a corporate veteran joining a startup. You foresee the company being sold soon. Your equity furnishing you with a new house and European sabbatical.
What you may be forgetting is that most startups will intertwine and engrave their mission into the deepest caverns of your soul. You will think about things you can do even after you’ve left the office. You may find yourself committing code or building a new campaign on the weekend to get one more step ahead of the competition.
There is no 9 to 5. There is only delivery and ensuring you hit forecasts to keep the lifeblood of the company going.
This means working crazy hours to the point you have bags under your eyes at the age of 25. That means jumping on a computer at a moments notice to help deploy a prod-fix because your site went down or a critical bug was introduced. That means getting team members to gather around a whiteboard and figure out how they’re going to make an additional Y in revenue or X in users in the next 30 days or they’re finished.
Granted, since there is no 9 to 5, you sometimes can come in later or work remote. I usually come into the office between 9:30 – 10AM. Nonetheless, the key takeaway here is that there is no life balance. Your life and that of the start-up will undeniably become one and the same. This should be okay with you the moment you put pen to paper.
You Need to Understand The Risk
The vast majority of startups fail. Most of the time is because there is no market/product fit. Other times it’s because the company burned all of their cash before discovering market/product fit. Startups have a tendency to be cash-flow negative for many years, requiring the team to raise several rounds of capital to keep the lifeblood of the company going. If the company is not careful, it can close it’s doors within 1-2 years. Most people are not comfortable with the prospect of being without a job–especially after killing it in their role.
Startups attract a lot of risk takers and dreamers as a result. If you have a family, be sure to have an honest conversation with your spouse about the risks. If you’re moving to new cities, states or countries, be sure you do your homework of the company and ask the right questions about financial prospects for the next year or so. Being comfortable with a startup means being comfortable with the prospect of perpetual change.
Working for a start-up requires you to be incredibly strong-willed. Like natural selection, you must adapt in order to survive. Your perception of the typical workday will slowly die as you learn longer days bleed into nights and sometimes weekends. As you constantly switch between hats and push yourself to the brink of lunacy trying to learn as much as possible and achieve breakout success. During your tenure, you can either watch the company you’ve invested so much of your life to grow exponentially overnight or die a rather slow death, fading into oblivion without a trace.
If you accept all of these seemingly harsh truths. Then the startup is one hell of a way to invigorate your career and life.