You know startup fever is rampant when The New York Times is writing articles about bankers leaving Wall Street for early-stage tech companies and HBO follows “Game of Thrones” with the celebratory satire of startup culture that is Silicon Valley. The result is that startups are ‘cool’ again in some circles, and there’s renewed interest in leaving cubicles behind to build innovative new companies.
Overall, this trend is a good thing, enabling more innovation and creativity in a way that creates real value for founders, employees and the country as a whole. Institutions are sprouting up to fill this need as well, with places like Startup Institute helping bridge employees from big corporate cultures to the startup world.
Having made the transition as a founder, and having hired a fair number of people, I think it’s important for individuals who are thinking about being startup employees to go into this type of situation with eyes wide open to both the risks and rewards. The benefits are undeniable — you will almost certainly be surrounded by higher quality people than in the corporate world, and will have the opportunity to work very closely to build something meaningful. There are almost no roles you’ll find in a big company that will teach you as much as living on the edge while at a startup.
That said, there are three primary reasons why sticking with a startup is dramatically different than a corporate gig. They boil down to fluidity of roles, frequency of battlefield promotions and size of the stakes. The combination of these three elements often drives out exceptionally talented individuals who might be great employees in larger companies but simply aren’t cut out for the world of startups.
Fluidity of Roles
Fluidity of roles means that you may not know what it is you’ll be doing when you show up for work in the morning. In a startup, particularly in today’s world of the Lean Startup, the company’s mission may be changing rapidly while the tactics taken to realize that strategy evolve even faster. You might be hired for client support only to find yourself in sales, or be shocked that the company you thought was going to focus on SMBs is all of the sudden selling to enterprises. As a startup employee you must be comfortable working within an environment of tremendous ambiguity and change. Worse yet, when you get thrust into a new role, there will almost never be training or processes to define how you execute. It’s up to you to figure it out.
If the fluidity of roles forces you to move laterally within an organization, battlefield promotions will often force you to move up in a company at a dizzying pace. The Peter Principle talks about workers rising to their level of incompetency, and in the startup world this entire concept is rapidly accelerated. Are you performing well in your role? Congratulations — you’ll soon be managing folks. Don’t know the first thing about management? Well — we hope you’ll figure it out! We’ve had interns in college lead meetings with Vice Presidents at key companies. Startups inevitably have far more to do than time to execute on those opportunities, and the result is continuing to thrust responsibility on key employees until they’re completely overburdened.
Size of the Stakes
As if all that wasn’t bad enough, this takes place within the context of ridiculously high stakes. The opportunity size is of an almost unimaginable scale — hundreds of millions, or billions, of dollars. Startups truly have the opportunity to change the way the world works. Failure means an unceremonious death to the company with either an orderly winding down (if you’re lucky), or more commonly, a dizzying transition from going 100 mph to unemployment. This heightens the stresses dramatically. If you’re not pulling your weight, and you’re not putting in the effort expected of everyone in the organization — which sure aren’t bankers hours — there’s nowhere to hide and you won’t be in the company long. As CEO, it’s incredibly obvious who is generating results, who is putting in the effort that will eventually generate results and who is going to be fired in the next few days or weeks.
If the ideas of ambiguity and rapid promotions in a high-stakes environment gets you fired up, you might be right for an early-stage company. If it works out, the personal satisfaction, development and rewards can be almost unlimited. But if you can’t rapidly adapt to these key, and oftentimes unstated, parts of the job description, you’d be better off steering clear of the startup world.