Should You Work for a Startup Company?

1 Jul 2022

Startups can be a fun and exciting place to work. However, there is no doubt that turning a business idea into a viable commercial reality is demanding and involves a lot of work. As someone who has been involved with an education startup, here are my thoughts on working in the startup space. 

The first thing I'll mention is obvious: 

Startups are often chronically under-resourced. 

In a startup, there is always a lot to be done with very little human resources or money to do it. Moreover, startups can be chronically under-resourced for a number of years until they start making a profit and can begin to spend money attracting new talent to diversify the workload. 

This can be both a strength and a weakness. Obviously reduced resources will mean that each person working within the startup bears a higher workload which can be a chronic source of stress. This is what makes working in a startup so demanding. 

On the other hand, you also have a greater capacity to learn new things that perhaps you normally would not have touched had you worked in a company that has matured. I can vouch for this personally. I have been able to be far more hands on with marketing in addition to learning new skills regarding project management; areas that I probably would not have touched had I gone to work in a conventional job in a mature law firm or business as an employee. 

Whether this is for you is a different matter. You'll need to establish your position: Can you take on the added stress for a couple of years until the startup matures and you gain more resources to delegate the work? This is ultimately a question of your current life circumstances. Maybe you have a home mortgage and it is safer for you financially to keep working in a mature company. Or maybe you are just leaving university, you don't have any 'baggage', and you're looking for something ambitious! 

Closely related to my first point is the second point:

You have a higher burden of performance.

What do I mean by this? In a startup, your team is smaller but your workload is still significant. The success of the startup therefore depends on everyone pulling their weight. Quite frankly, you cannot afford to have team members that have switched off because someone's failure is highly likely to jeopardise the entire project. This might be different from employment in a mature business where a bad apple might be more containable. 

Now, the 'burden of performance' is not only confined to people 'pulling their weight' in the sense that they are just doing enough that is necessary to keep their heads above water. Rather, everyone needs to be exceptional. They need to show drive and initiative in growing the startup, and a willingness to take risks by capitalising upon business opportunities that may be temporarily available. 

So the question for you is this: Can you take on a higher burden of performance? Are you a team player? Do you show drive and a willingness to do things differently? Or are you normally happy to sit 'comfortable' in a team while others define what you do? 

Think carefully about this one. The burden of performance is not for everyone (and that's okay). What is important is that you be honest with yourself. Nonetheless, if you can take on this high burden of performance, you'll find that working in a startup is one of the most rewarding things you can do. 

And finally, here's the most important one: 

Can you trust your team? 

Yes, you will need to be doing 'more' in a startup than what you normally would if you were to work in a mature company. In saying this, you cannot do everything and you cannot be everywhere all the time. 

What becomes important is that you're able to trust your team. Not only that you're able to work in a team, but trust your team. This comes down to standing behind them in the decisions they make and where they're collectively trying to drive the business. Of course you should vocalise any contrarian views if you have any; however, at the end of the day you still need to trust who your working with. 

Alarmingly not many people know how to trust their team and will often find themselves in situations where they do the work themselves because they don't think anyone else can match their standards. Perhaps an even worse symptom of a lack of trust is sabotage with people sabotaging what their teammates are doing and talking them down to others. Attitudes such as these will not serve you well in a startup environment where there is so much work to do and where risk-taking is necessary. 

Obviously this is all contingent upon you having an excellent team to begin with. Be very selective about who you allow into your team. You are not a charity. Treating the opportunity to enter your team as if it were a charity is a recipe for disaster. You want to attract people with proven track records and with the best talent possible. 

On the subject of teams, I'd also emphasise that your 'team' outside of your startup is just as important as your team working with you in the startup itself. By this, I mean that if you do not have a solid group of friends or family to support you throughout your startup journey and to provide encouragement, you will not last long at all. Support networks are key. 

Final Thoughts

Working in a startup is not for everyone. What is important is that people be honest with whether they are able to tolerate the workload, the burden of performance and the degree of teamwork required to make a startup successful. 

However, if you do decide that startups are for you, all I'd say to you is this: go for it! They are very rewarding to work in and will teach you more than what you could ever imagine. 

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Johnson Chau
This is a great deep dive into how startups work from a team perspective. It is often the case that there are simultaneous tasks and a need to address a variety of stakeholder. I will classify that as the "burden of high performance". But once you complete it, it's an amazing feeling because you know how many people are touched by your solution!
Startups are absolutely exciting and interesting to work for! However I personally always feel like individuals should gain some experience at a larger “corporate” to see how things work and operate, and also observe what doesnt work in a large corporation. There is a risk that if you jump straight into a startup, you might have a narrower view of business and its less systematic and lacks structure. Ultimately, you want to build you startup to a company / corporate and it helps to see the other side! Great article as always