So you want to work for a Startup

You started out after college directly with a Fortune 500 or perhaps you started out with a Startup back during the dot-com days and now midlife crisis has hit, and you want to get back to those fun days. Prepare for a culture shock.

  1. Being ChallengedWhile in a large company many people settle for a cushy job, in a Startup you are always on the bleeding edge. You are on the bleeding edge of you organization but also on the bleeding edge of technological development in your area. Unless you work for an exciting new business unit clearly venturing into the unknown, in a large company innovation is usually incremental and slow, but also well funded. At a Startup you have to do the incredible on a shoestring. No corporate politics are holding you back, but you simply do not have the budgets and need to prioritize. You have to set the priorities yourself and pivot in a jiffy. You never stop running.
  2. Being RecognizedIn a large company, recognition is typically equivalent with time served on a project. In a Startup nobody cares whether your “worked so hard” on something, but only what came out of it at the end of the day. In large organizations you find individuals making a career out of taking credit for other people’s work. In a Startup, frankly people do not care because you are all a team, which succeeds or fails together with each member. In a Startup, you do not have to be afraid that a boss-boss-boss steals credit for your work, but you also will not be celebrated as a super hero just for doing your job. On the other hand, if you do not deliver, you cannot hide behind excuses, title, or rank. You are gone faster than in a blink of an eye because a single rotten tomato can bring down the entire venture.
  3. Getting AheadYou will find that in large organizations the ratio between creating shareholder value and serving your own agenda shifts with rising up in the ranks. In order to rise up, you will spend significant time engaging in politics, networking, and self-promotion while defending your job and trying to get ahead. In a Startup, there are not that many people around. Everybody is hand selected and a star. The founders are typically the honorable top-dogs, otherwise Startups are typical quiet flexible with titles and flat in hierarchy. You can make a title up, but do not expect other people in your venture to pay you any different respect just because of your title. In a Startup, your influence grows with the bottom line you bring to the table. This is good if you have not risen through the ranks, yet, but could be quiet some culture shock if you come in with a fancy title and expect the red carpet treatment.
  4. Learning new Stuff As long as it serves the goal of your Startup, you are free to follow your interests. So more you learn so better, and so more your influence will grow. In a large organizations you will be in a well-defined position and guided, or trained. More freedom in a Startup but also significantly more self-initiative – and do not expect to be sent to those $5k classes. You are more likely to get SXSW ticket paid by your employer while having to stay with friends. While in a big organization you get away, or may even be encouraged, to stick to your job description and shut up, a Startup needs you to grow to survive.
  5. Time CommitmentA big organization often provides a 9-to-5 work environment which is family friendly and comes with benefits such as telecommuting. In a Startup your job never ends. You will not be able to just switch off that BlackBerry. Your iPhone or Droid will be switched on day and night and your schedule is determined by how close you are to milestones or new rounds of funding. Telecommuting might not be the time to scratch your behind and get away from the office, but to engage via social media with a global team of contributors.
  6. CompensationDuring the dot-com days, Startups were well funded. The medium first round was something around $10m. Today, the medium first round is in the six figures. Even if you survive the angel stage, your first round might likely only yield a low seven figure. For that reason, you may not see the same base salary, bonuses, or benefits. If you are in a strong position, you might get stock options, which might be enough to retire, if you guys are successful one day. A large organization will usually be well capitalized and even a down cycle may not put you in an excessive risk losing your job, however, a failure, a wrong move, a wrong strategy, or some external market change, all might wipe out your business model and might mean the end – for all of you.


Joining a Startup can be an exciting life experience. It can be very satisfactory: you will rise to new personal levels and your self-confidence will grow. You will stop wasting your precious lifetime with political fluff getting you nowhere or part from the idea that hard work gets you ahead. In a large organization, politics is essential for survival. And no, in a large company, you are not getting ahead by working your butt off, but in the Startup universe you will if you can translate effort and time investment into bricks to build you startup. Your self-awareness and your respect for people who accomplish things and their ideas will grow. You start to see who moves the world and who bluffs. You will feel set free.

Nobody is holding you back. But this can be scary. If you are a person who prefers following the rules out of the book instead of questioning rules and rulers, a Startup is not for you. You have to be self-driven, self-organized, and thrive on reaching new limits. You will work long hours and spend less time with family, but you may be much happier and enjoy the more compressed time more intensely. You will not constantly have to defend your accomplishments or forced to cover your butt if thins go south. You might be encouraged to know that your influence and rise in the company is directly related to your bottom line contribution and instead of your ability to bullshit and become part of the right club. Your success and your failure, and that of your peers, directly translate back to the success of your Startup.

A Startup is no place to retire, you will get less perks, and likely for some time (much) less compensation, especially if you are midcareer. Whether you will do better on the long run is a question of definition. In the current environment, financially, perhaps, if you move fast and stick to the winners of tomorrow, which you have to be able to predict. For sure, you will be much happier if you feel the creative drive of an artist and are ready to experience the ride of your lifetime to explore the unknown. (SB)


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