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Hannah Neep (Strategy & Operations, vexev)
When people say “come work in a startup! It’s great!” I’m like, really? What specifically about the stage or age of that company makes it so special to work at? Isn’t it wiser to look at the mission of the company, or the people, or the specific role?
Moreover, ‘startup’ is a term that is applied pretty broadly. Some people still call Atlassian a ‘startup’, despite the fact that it was founded in 2002 and it IPO’d in 2015. That’s pretty different to the just-started bootstrapped, or pre-seed ‘startups’ that also exist in this universe.
When thinking about any change in career or job, I think it’s good to start from first principles: “What do I want to get out of this next step?” A lot of career options, including working in a startup, can be surrounded by hype or legend, and on top of that, not all startups are the same. To make the most out of the change, and to assess on an ongoing basis whether the job is worth it for me, I need to know what my objectives are to begin with.
One way I like to break this down is by thinking about the following criteria, from both a short-term and long-term standpoint. Before applying these questions to a specific organisation, it’s useful to first think about what success looks like for you across each of these criteria:
- Mission: How aligned are the organisation’s activities, objectives, and values with my personal values?
- Impact: Will working at this organisation allow me to directly influence outcomes I care about at a meaningful scale?
- Skill-building: What, how, how fast, and how deeply will I learn new skills at this organisation?
- Brand-building: Is working at this organisation or in this role going to put me in good stead for where I want to be in the future?
- Compensation: What’s the financial opportunity at stake, and when is it likely to pay off?
- Lifestyle: Will I have the time and space to dedicate myself to other areas of my life which are important to me?
- Team: How inspirational are the people that work at this organisation?
- Culture: How much will I enjoy the culture and working practices at this organisation?
- Role: How much will I enjoy the day-to-day activities that the role entails?
Now, let’s look at what can makes startups different to other organisations across these elements:
- Mission: This comes down to the individual startup, but generally startups have an element of disruption, innovation, improvement and customer obsession about them that can be harder to find in some established organisations. That doesn’t necessarily make their missions more worthy - but it might give it a sense of newness and excitement. If mission is important to you, I think it’s also important to carefully consider roles in the government and not-for-profit space, which may be a better fit than some of the for-profit startups in the growth-hungry VC world.
- Impact: This can be a big trade-off in a startup: while you’re making a bet that one day, the product, solution or technology that your company is driving will have a huge impact, generally startups are just starting out on their journey - and therefore will be having an impact on a much smaller scale than established organisations which have already scaled up. However, due to the size of the company and less ingrained hierarchy, a junior employee might be able to have a much more direct impact and influence bigger decisions in the company than they might get the chance to elsewhere.
- Skill-building: Early-stage startups have a reputation for being places to ‘learn by doing’ - generalists can get exposure to a huge range of functions, and often be trusted to transition into new roles they haven’t performed before. However, working with deep subject matter experts or doing structured learning & development or leadership programs can be harder to find at organisations in their early stages.
- Brand-building: On top of industry or functional fit with your overall career trajectory, consider how working at a startup fits with the story you want to tell about your career. Startups can be amazing places to manage transitions and lateral moves, allowing generalists to slot into new functions often without previous subject matter experience. Also, they can be great places to explore ‘the future of’ an industry - whether that be energy, agriculture, healthcare, or something else. But if your medium-term ambition is to be top of the corporate ladder at a big company, it might be better to start climbing that ladder than spending time in a startup.
- Compensation: Generally, upfront cash and benefits at a startup is a fraction of what you might expect at a later-stage organisation. But the good news is that compensation usually comes with stock options, which means that if you stick around for a few years and the company grows, you could earn something much more valuable than your cash salary would have been worth.
- Lifestyle: while hours of work and benefits differ between startups and roles, one thing that many startups don’t have is a ‘safety net’ of lots of other employees around you. With fewer layers of hierarchy, team members, and a thinner track record to fall back on, personal ownership and responsibility is high. This can sometimes mean spikier working hours, running at a fast pace of change for weeks on end, or finding it harder to ‘switch off’ at a time that suits you.
- Team: there are inspirational people everywhere, across all sorts of organisations. In startups, you might find more of the slightly ‘crazier’, ‘risk taking’ type of person than you would get in more safe, traditional roles across larger organisations.
- Culture: While culture differs widely across organisations, in startups this may be more nascent - allowing you to play a role in shaping it.
- Role: due to the rapid pace of change and small size, startups can be a good place to experience a more fluid role and try your hands at a range of things. This might include things you don’t enjoy doing, when everyone needs to pitch in to get a big project done.
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