What you need to know to work at a startup

I work at a startup. Not a tech startup or, to be honest, according to some, any kind of startup at all. I help lead a growing, young, small media business that happens to cover technology companies and startup culture, so I’m around conversations about definitions a lot.

Let me be clear: in this post, I’m using the definition I use for ‘startup,’ meaning a young company testing a business model. I’m writing here about what type of person I’m finding can work best in such an environment, which is different (but neither better, nor worse) than a large corporation or even another smaller, but more stable and more clearly defined, organization.

Now that we’re at nine paid staff, we’ve had experience hiring a few times ourselves and I’ve covered growth companies for years now. I’ve learned a lot about how unprepared people can be to join a startup business in any industry, particularly now that there’s so much interest in entrepreneurship.

Many push back on whether working for a startup is even worth its shortcomings. What I do know is there is a trade off and similarities between a lot of different young companies. Here are some thoughts on what you should be prepared for if you join a team that identifies itself as a startup:

  • versatility — your role will change, expectations and directions will alter. your job description will likely not fit exactly what you end up doing, particularly if you’re the first one to ever hold the role you interviewed for. If you need clarity and certainty, don’t take the job.
  • persistence — I use the word ‘nudge’ a lot in my office. Any young company at a growth stage requires staff to play a lot of roles. That means your supervisor is likely doing more than one job and trying to do too much in too little time. She isn’t ignoring your requests out of spite, she is ignoring you because she forgot about you or your ask. Nudge her, a gentle, friendly email nudge every seven days is deserved. (or more frequently if time matters). If you need direction from above and struggle with taking initiative to lead an effort, don’t take the job.
  • action — Most startups don’t have a lot of policy or culture or tradition that keep things the way they are. If you see a better way for almost anything, ask permission to, or, hell, just do it a different way, show everyone and it most likely will change. If you prefer established policy to shaping it yourself, don’t take the job.
  • passion –You have to be excited by what you do or else everything you’re giving up to be at that startup isn’t worth it. If you’re not proud to talk about what you’re doing with friends or at a party, then you ought to give it all a second thought. If you don’t already talk with friends at parties about what you’re going to do (or even want to to talk about it at parties), then don’t take the job.
  • flexibility — Projects will start and stop. It will move fast, but goals will also change. You need to remember what your mission is and defend it, but be willing to reorient if priorities change, so long as that bedrock mission is still being met. If you prefer focus over experimentation, don’t take the job. I want every employee to be able to say this sentence: “this task does not fit in my job description and/or strengths, but I will do it until we have the appropriate staff in place.”

To work at a startup, you’re likely giving up salary, security and regular hours in exchange for impact, flexibility and fun. If you’re coming from an established company to a new one, your experience is going to be different. You need to know it, or no one will benefit.

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