For many years, the startup ecosystem has been defined by some key buzzwords: “disruption,” “innovation,” and so on. For those who want to help create something new—and potentially jump aboard something big on the ground floor—joining a startup might seem tantalizing. However, before you trade your cubicle for an ultra-hip office space with an arcade machine, it’s crucial to understand the difference between startup and “standard” corporate life.
With many startups, it’s time to forget your rigid hierarchies and pre-defined career paths. Startups are full of passionate individuals dedicated to a singular vision, fueled by boundless enthusiasm and (often) lots of coffee. A startup’s core product can evolve quickly, moving from whiteboard scribble to working prototype practically overnight. The competition is fierce, but the long-term rewards can be vast if you have equity.
What are the benefits of working for a startup?
Innovation: When you work for a startup, you're shaping the DNA of a product or service that could potentially change the world (or so you hope). Your ideas can directly influence features, marketing strategies, even the company's core direction—not something you can do at a larger company unless you’re a member of senior leadership.
Personal Growth: Startups operate at warp speed, which means you must display agility and adaptability in order to succeed. You’ll quickly learn new skills and techniques.
New Connections: In an early-stage company, you’ll bond quickly with your colleagues, sharing triumphs and defeats. If you’re lucky, that’ll translate into lifelong friendships and professional networks.
Equity: Startups often give equity to their earliest employees. If the startup succeeds (i.e., either becomes publicly traded or is acquired by another company), you could end up with a huge payout based on your shares.
What are the downsides of working for a startup?
No Work-Life Balance: Startup life involves long hours, severely blurred lines between personal and professional spheres, and an undercurrent of uncertainty. You’ll likely end up sacrificing nights and weekends.
Less Job Security: Unless a startup is absurdly well-funded and/or has the revenue to self-sustain, it could implode on relatively short notice, especially if the market pivots. You need to be prepared for things to change suddenly.
Insane Learning Curve: If you’ve never worked for a startup before, the speed at which you’ll need to learn things and adapt to new circumstances is often crazy.
Money: Depending on your skill and experience levels, you may end up with a smaller salary than you expect. Some startups try to make up salary shortfalls with equity, but equity doesn’t always pay out.
Should you join a startup?
If you have an appetite for risk (and you think stability and predictability are boring), then the startup life might be for you. However, if you prize work-life balance, you may need to debate an offer to join a startup, especially a small-staffed one that’s moving fast.
If you receive a startup offer, you’ll need to weigh your career goals, risk tolerance, and financial needs against the potential rewards. Do your due diligence, research the company's culture and vision, and don't be afraid to ask any and all questions of the hiring manager and recruiter. Listen to your gut about whether you truly want to ride this rollercoaster.