Working for a startup: Is it right for you?

By Robert Half

Beginning your information technology career at a startup company may sound like a dream job. There’s the opportunity to hop aboard a fresh venture, have your voice heard and skills appreciated and shoot up the ladder. You also have the potential to make a difference, a bunch of money and important decisions that could steer your own future and that of the company.

Working for a startup is very different from being part of a large, established corporation. Hot, young companies often break the mold in terms of business ideology, culture and modus operandi. On the flip side, startups typically demand 110 percent of each team member’s passion, perseverance and dedication. What’s more, they’re notorious for their lack of guarantees.

How can you gauge whether you should work for a startup? We’ve all heard stories about ones that changed the world, made millions overnight and showered their team with unbelievable perks. But what is working for a startup really like? Here are five things to expect.

1. Inspiration
Working for a startup is exciting. You’re building something from the ground up, and the fruits of your labor could become something truly meaningful. You’re surrounded by passionate, hardworking people who are rooting for the company to succeed. If you have your own ideas for launching a business someday, working for a startup is the ideal training ground.
2. Intensity
Most startups are built on their founders’ determination … and piggy bank. And because they’ve devoted so much time and energy to their “baby,” many founders expect you to do the same. Make-or-break goals, irregular hours, heavy workloads, tight deadlines, close-knit relationships and plenty of ups and downs — working for a startup is rarely part time or halfhearted. If you’re ready to give it your all, a startup may bring out the best in you. However, if you have other major commitments or like being able to clock off at five o’clock on the dot, this culture may not be for you.
3. Empowerment
Besides putting your IT knowledge to excellent use, you’ll have a hand in shaping not only the company’s products but also its culture, goals and values. Your opinions, outlook and personality will be crucial to building the company. Your input will be welcome, and you’ll be given greater responsibility and decision-making capacity than you’d get at a “traditional” company. What’s more, you can bet you’ll have a great chance of road testing and refining your ideas in real scenarios.
4. Variety
As startup teams are generally small and dynamic, you will probably wear several hats. If you’re keen to venture into new territory, startups can offer a spectrum of experiences. You could find yourself programming, interviewing job candidates, leading a brainstorming session and giving your input on product design — all in the same week or even day.
5. Risk
Startups are risky. Seed funding doesn’t last forever. If a company takes off within that make-or-break period, it’s cause for champagne. However, money may run out before the venture sees a profit, or the product or service may never gain traction with consumers. You can win big or lose big through no fault of your own.
Working for a startup: Pros and cons
While every company is different, the following advantages and drawbacks are fairly standard elements of a startup:
  • A cool, open-minded work environment
  • Being part of a close-knit, dynamic team
  • A large amount of responsibility and decision-making capacity from day one
  • Opportunities to grow quickly and move up in your career
  • Greater transparency than in many larger companies
  • A chance to be part of something potentially major from the beginning
  • Irregular hours and the need to be “always on”
  • Less-than-spectacular pay and benefits, especially in the beginning
  • Little job security
  • A lack of structure and direction, and unclear roles

If you believe working for a startup might be right for you, look at it from all angles: What is important to you? What do you want to prioritize? What are you prepared to compromise? Are you ready to take the risks? You may find it helpful to make your own pros-and-cons list and speak with others who work for a startup. If a new company has offered you a job, do your homework. And don’t be afraid to ask — the startup and yourself — plenty of tough questions before saying yes or no.

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