Posted by Brian McCullough
I don’t know if your cable company has this, but I started watching this new program on the Mojo channel this weekend called Start-Up Junkies. It’s exactly what the name says it’s about: people who love working for start-up companies. The show’s sort-of superficial and fascinating all at the same time… which is exactly like the other show on Mojo that has me hooked: Wall Street Warriors.
Anyway, the show got me thinking about working at start-up companies as a career path… the pluses and the minuses. I don’t think this gets discussed a lot in the general business or career press. People just assume that unless you’re 22 and a coding genius, then you’re not start-up material. This simply isn’t true. A start-up is a start-up COMPANY, which means if it’s going to grow into a grown up company, it needs all the ingredients every other company has: accounting people, payroll people, hr people, secretarial people, custodial people, customer service people, and on and on and on.
So, here are some thoughts and tips on the Start-Up lifestyle and career path. Full disclosure: I’ve founded 3 start-ups in my career, and am batting 1-for-3 in terms of successes. So, while I’ve got a fair amount of background in this area, my experience is as management. Just sayin.
- Start-ups, even failed start-ups look sexy on a resume. Trust me, they’re a conversation topic. There’s a whole air of excitement and risk surrounding the notion of start-up companies. The only other jobs I’ve seen get so much attention from employers: work on national political campaigns and personal assistant work for celebrities. All I can say is, even if the company crashed and burned… even if you were only there for six months… your experience with a start-up is all good on a resume. It shows you have initiative, drive and ambition.
- Start-ups are not for the faint-hearted. More than 90% of startups fail. And before the failure comes, there is an incredible amount of turmoil: bouts of layoffs, followed by hiring binges; sudden downsizing because a round of VC financing falls through; the founding executive team get’s wiped out and replaced by “grown-ups” appointed by the board; payroll gets “delayed” for 2 months or more; yesterday your product was a social network for left-handed belly dancers? Forget it. Today the company is relaunching as pet food emporium.
- But… for some people, start-ups are the only way to go. The start-up life is very much a trade-off of risk versus how much juice you get out of the excitement of your job. If you prefer a guaranteed paycheck and no surprises at work, then the start-up life is not for you. If, however, you thrive off of energy and excitement… if a boring, repetitive, “safe” job is an anathema to you… If you’re one of those people who would prefer to make up the rules (your own rules) as you go along, then the start-up life is the only life for you. If you can handle chaos because you thrive on building wonderful things from absolute scratch and elbow grease, then the start-up life is the only life for you. If you can handle 48-hour deadline-intensive work days and a crazy, almost college-like, partying social atmosphere, then you might be a redneck… I mean…. a start-up employee.
- Those crazy offices with the nerf wars and hammocks and non-existent dress code… they’re real. If that kind of thing floats your boat, the start-up life is for you.
- If you ever wanted to bluff your way into a career you’re otherwise not qualified for, start-ups are the way to go. Start-ups are like young job searchers. They’ll take anything and anyone they can get. It’s very much a “Hey kids, let’s put on a play!” atmosphere. Took an accounting class once? Know how to do spreadsheets? Fine! You’re our accountant. You might not last forever: one day the company could actually grow up and grow beyond your skills to bluff. But if you’re the sort of person who can adapt, learn on the fly, and grow with your position and your increasing responsibilities, start-ups allow people to get big-time career titles in the shortest amount of time.
- It’s hard to tell a good team from a crazy team. The best thing you can do is decide if you feel passionate about the product or your role on the team. I’ll let that one speak for itself. If the normal rules of decorum or behavior or best practices meant anything in the start-up world, no one would ever have worked with a young Steve Jobs. Or Bill Gates. Or Mark Zuckerberg. In the start-up world, reputations mean nothing. There is a high-tolerance for risk-taking, unusual decisions and behavior. And results… results matter above anything else… even body odor and poor-social skills.
- Only the earliest people at the company get really rich. Assuming the company is a success. You can be the mail room clerk, but if you are employee number 8, you’ll probably end up with more money than the CFO the company hires 5 years later. This is because stock options (the gold everyone chases) is based upon whatever the most recent valuation of your company was when you were hired. So, if you get in when the company is still in the angel round with only a couple hundred thousand in the bank, your options are going to be worth tons. If you get in after funding round “D” and the company is valued north of $100 million, then you better hope that your company is wildly successful and one day does a $20 billion IPO. I’ve seen several people cash out of companies with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stock after only a few years work. But they had good timing in got in early at good companies.