Joining a start-up used to be considered a risky, or even foolish, career choice. That’s no longer the case. As organisations of all shapes and sizes seek to become more agile, for example by setting up informal and fluid project teams that have a start-up mentality and a mix of skills and attributes among the team's members.
Nevertheless, if you are thinking of joining a start-up you are definitely going to need a very strong spirit of independence. Is it for you?
You need to do a bit of soul-searching. Generally speaking a small company with big ambitions has a strong entrepreneurial culture, one that is constantly evolving, one that is less tied to process than a large company, and one in which people need to get by with limited resources. Be honest with yourself: are you going to thrive in this environment?
And one other thing: in a start-up, there is nowhere to hide. If you are used to working in a big company this can be a huge culture shock. Here’s the good news though: In a start-up you are likely to make a large and visible impact on the company’s development, in an open, highly collaborative environment, with less time spent bogged down in tedious meetings, less irritating office politics and proximity to the company’s senior leadership.
If that sounds appealing, you are the right personality type. Now you should find the right kind of employer and seek to mitigate any risks with the professional advice and support of your Career Ally.
Let it be known through your network (online and offline) that you are enthusiastic about working for a start-up and the sort of challenge that you are looking for. Sometimes the best opportunities are right under your nose and if there is a personal contact you are more likely to be engaged. If you consult a recruitment specialist like Morgan McKinley, we will probably be able to introduce you to several suitable companies immediately while providing advice on what kind of company would make a good match for your skill-set.
Start-ups have limited resources and they need to balance their risks. Therefore they can only offer full-time employment with all the associated benefits to a limited number of employees. If you are extremely risk-averse, then working for a start-up is probably not for you.
If you can tolerate a certain amount of risk, there are some ways you can give yourself the option to disengage if things don’t work out in your favour. A short-term contract might be a useful way to get your foot in the door and prove your worth while pursuing other potential opportunities. A freelance arrangement is less likely to lead to a full-time contract, so do not put all your eggs in one basket: get several clients, and do not make too much of a concession (e.g. on hourly/daily rates) just because a particular client is a start-up. Be aware that an employer cannot expect freelances to work on terms (for example hours worked and place of work) similar to an FTE, but you might look for a halfway house such as being paid at a freelance rate but with a contractually guaranteed minimum number of hours per month and the option to buy into the firm’s equity plan.
If taking an FTE position but with limited benefits and perhaps a lower salary than you might expect elsewhere, it is reasonable to negotiate a deal that gives you, on the one hand, a stake in the company’s long-term success, such as share options, and on the other hand, an easy way out should you decide to jump ship, such as a short notice period.
Start-ups are not suitable environments for the kind of specialist who says (for example), “I am a qualified accountant so let me focus on what I do best”. Start-ups tend to look for FTEs with a “T-shaped personality”. The deep theoretical knowledge of a mathematician, or the qualifications of a finance accountant, for example, must be combined with the broad knowledge of a management scientist or the creativity of a marketer, in order to move the organisation forward. A willingness to take your turn making the tea is no bad thing, either, even if you do have a PhD in particle physics.
Your prospective employer will probably say that you need to be “highly motivated” and “able to hit the ground running”. If you are neither of these things, don’t even consider joining a start-up! But think about it from your perspective. What are your motivations? If you are motivated to strengthen your abilities as problem-solver, or help create something entirely new, flexibility is a key attribute. If you think you might like to set up your own venture sometime in the future, the experience you gain will be invaluable.
Start-ups hire when they are ready to go into scale-up mode. This means that you may be stepping into the boss’s or one of the founding partner’s shoes (or taking some of the responsibilities off their shoulders). They have encountered situations that you probably haven’t yet. They know how to handle awkward situations. It has probably already become second nature. So when interviewing, be ready for some specific questions such as: “What would you do in X situation?” and think nimbly. Your prospective employer will be testing you to see if you are easily flustered. If you have had experience of similar situations, by all means draw on it, but be ready to show that you can think outside the box.
Ask your prospective employer to describe as accurately as possible what will be expected and how you will be measured. For example, will your core role be to work on product development or to win new business? Think long and hard about whether you have the technical skills that will be required. Ask searching questions about the company’s vision, culture and objectives. Great start-ups have a very clear proposition and a good idea of where they want to be in five years, so you should expect more than platitudes and management-speak.
Ask to spend some time with the team before you accept an offer – that way you will get an opportunity to decide if you will really fit in.
You don’t get what you deserve in life, you get what you negotiate. You might be really impressed by a start-up and so keen to take the job that you offer your services at well below the market rate. However, be fair on yourself. Compare with other start-ups in similar lines of business. Look at what your prospective employer’s competitors are offering. Keep your options open and ask your preferred prospective employer to match the best offer on the table: emphasise that you will be of most value to a company that you are really enthusiastic about.
There is an assumption that because they are less bureaucratic than big corporations, the hiring process will be faster with a start-up. This is sometimes the case, when there is an urgent need (for example, if the start-up lands a big new account and cannot handle the new workload). On the other hand, any new headcount is a major investment. Small businesses are often too inundated with their own work to be able to conduct a thorough and rapid recruitment process including first and second round interviews. They can be indecisive when it comes to making an offer due to other distractions, and this may leave you feeling that you are not a priority. Don’t let it get to you. Instead, pursue other possibilities – another good reason to work with your Career Ally, who will keep you informed of the situation and help you to expand your options.
You don’t want to be confronted in your first week with one of two awful extremes: wondering what you should be doing and why nobody is paying you any attention, or alternatively, being dumped on with a lot of work and not knowing where to start. So, if you are offered the position, it is reasonable to ask for some quality face time with team members in your first week. There will probably be no formal “onboarding” process as you would expect in a large organisation, but don’t be afraid to raise the issue. Ideally, you will want to start in a week where key people are present but not under pressure of deadlines so they can invest time in bringing you up to speed.
Is your prospective employer going to be one of next year’s Top Ten hottest new companies or a complete dud? Probably, neither of these extremes. Nothing in life is certain but you need to exercise due diligence to gauge the probability of success. Ask about the company’s financials. The data probably isn’t public, so you’ll have to pose questions directly to the founders, such as: What is your current revenue stream? What is your present and future source of funding? When do you expect to break even?
Finally … whatever you do, don’t assume you’ll become fabulously rich because you’re joining the company at the start-up stage or you’ve been offered stock options. For every Google and Facebook there are hundreds of companies that don’t make it. Be realistic and focus on what you personally can learn over the next couple of years to advance your career and build your skill-sets.