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The Truth About Working At Startups

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Kids, working at startups is not much different than working for a regular old boring run of the mill company.  Sorry to burst your bubble.

I read that PandoSilly article. I cannot tell you though the number of articles published by them and others glorifying startup life.

”They got free flowing beer in the lounge!”
”They can take vacations for as long as they want!”
“Look at their cool new office…and it even has a built-in tree house with swings!”

All the tech blogs are guilty of this. It is a sham and a shame.

Here is a question for you: who is the boss at a startup?  Let me help you here, it is a human being.  That human being comes with all the wonders and all the flaws of being human.  When you are working for a startup founder, you are not just getting a boss, but you getting a whole boatload of psychological baggage.  Plus, adding onto that baggage is that whole emotional stress of actually building a company from scratch.  And I forgot one other thing, if it is a first time entrepreneur, they are doing all of this for the first time.  Cue scenes of chaos and destruction.

You know what people have the most fulfilling careers?  The people that do something that they enjoy doing and get well compensated for their effort.  That can apply to startups, small businesses, or multi-national corporations.  Maybe you have more flexibility at a startup, but that is not always the case.  Sometimes it can be the opposite, particularly when you have a bat-shit crazy, control-obsessed founder.  I have seen these folks and they might be successful at business but they make really horrible bosses.

When people ask me if they should work at a startup, I turn the question around and ask them why does company stage matter? Then I tell them to pursue something that best fits their talents and can help them grow in their career.  Startups in many cases are not that avenue because a startup is not about nurturing one’s professional growth.  It is about survival and that is not a great environment for most people.

If you are still gung ho about startups, join a place that has already gotten their Series B or C round of funding.  These near startups bridge the world of corporate and startup.  They have processes and procedures.  They know their customers and markets and are more stable employers.  Yet they are still that “flexible” startup that is working on the future, which is still very exciting.  If you like it there, then maybe you can cut it at an early stage startup and get the benefit of building something from the beginning.

Who thrives in startups?  People that are cool with risk and adapting.  People that have little regard to job descriptions and are focused on executing any which way they can.  These folks are good at directions on the fly.  They can fix the jet engines while the plane heads for a crash landing.  These are the types of people that thrive on chaos and have a can-do spirit about them.  They may not have great depth in a subject, but they can learn quickly and are generalists that can contribute in numerous ways.

Still interested?  If you want to join a startup and believe you have what it takes, you need to really dig into companies to understand their culture and their founders.  Interview the hell out of everyone you meet, do not just let it be a one-way conversation.  Research the startups, talk to employees and ex-employees, read through the online footprints of the founders.  Do not let yourself be surprised by the culture on day one of your employment.

This article was originally published on Strong Opinions, a blog by Birch Ventures for the NYC tech startup community.

Image credit: CC by Travis Isaacs

About the author: Mark Birch

Mark is an early stage technology investor and entrepreneur based in NYC. Through Birch Ventures, he works with a portfolio of early stage B2B SaaS technology startups providing both capital and guidance in the areas of marketing, sales, strategic planning and funding.

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