When Picking a Startup to Join, Focus on the Company (Not the Role)



Startups are really risky.  And, if you are looking to join one, know going in you have a nine in ten chance that company won’t be in business within a couple years from now, and you’ll have to look for a new job again.  Venture capitalists can get around these odds by investing in ten companies, hoping one hits it big, with a portfolio driven mindset.  Unfortunately, you as an employee only get one “bite at the apple” at a time, since you cannot concurrently work for ten companies.

That means, if you are looking to join a startup: (i) make sure you interview at least ten companies before picking one to join (yes, I said YOU interview them—you are not picking a job, you are making an investment bet); (ii) make sure you  pick one that has solid fundamentals in place for success (be sure to read Red Rocket’s Definitive Checklist for Startup Success, to learn what that means);  and (iii) you can’t think about it with a specific role in mind—with an early stage company about to take off, sometimes you just need to jump on board anyway you can, buckle up and enjoy the ride.

This is an entirely different mindset than most people have when looking for a job.  We have been programmed to look for job postings of hiring companies, apply for those specific roles and hope we get a call.  That process, in general, is broken, even for big companies, with too many applicants and not enough returned phone calls from your applications.  And with thousands of startups hiring and placing job postings, you have no idea which ones of those have a fighting chance at success.

What I am suggesting is to think like a venture capitalist when looking for a startup to join.  A VC may look at 1,000 business plans a year and only invest in ten of them.  And they don’t want to invest in strangers; they prefer to invest in successful people they know or who were credibly referred to them (so work your networks).  And, let’s face facts, they often follow a herd mentality, and they want to find the “hot” companies.  Often times, that means following the money.  If other respected investors have cut a check into that company, assume they have done a lot of due diligence and that company must be on to something interesting. If a startup has successfully raised professional capital, they are one step farther along in their development curve, lowering their odds of going out of business, and increasing your odds your career move will have longevity.

So, with this all said, once you have found that company to “invest” your time in, make sure you get a meaningful equity stake to make it worth the risk and effort, and jump on board in whatever opening they may have at that time. Even if they don’t have an opening, figure out how to create a role for yourself.  In early stage companies there is often a wide range of work to do, and “jacks of all trades” can come in handy, especially those willing to put in some “sweat equity” (work without cash salary) for some period of time.

I am not saying you as a technologist should try to fit into a finance role, as those skillsets are too far apart. What I am saying is you as a proven marketer may be able to fit into a marketing, sales, business development or general management role.  So be flexible in your thinking, as it is more important to find the right company than the right role at these early stages.  Happy hunting!

This article was originally published on Red Rocket VC, a consulting and financial advisory firm with expertise in serving the startup, digital and venture community.

Image credit: CC by bpsusf


About the author: George Deeb

George Deeb is a managing partner at Red Rocket Ventures, a Chicago-based startup consulting and fundraising firm with expertise in advising Internet-related businesses. More of George’s startup lessons can be read at “101 Startup Lessons — An Entrepreneur’s Handbook.”

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