Startups Are Terrifying

There is no shortage of blog posts or Quora answers about why working at startups is better than working at big companies. These answers always discuss the same factors. You’ll have a big impact. True. Your work really matters. True. You’ll learn a ton. True. You’ll have days where you have no idea what you’re doing and you feel like you could bring down the company with a mistake. True.

You may have noticed that the last point isn’t exactly like the others. For all the incredible benefits of working at a startup, it’s absolutely terrifying. Some days it’s like jumping out of a plane with a backpack full of parts instead of a parachute and having to build a hang glider before you hit the ground. All of that responsibility that makes your job fulfilling and makes your work feel meaningful also means that your mistakes are meaningful. All of that learning that you do as you encounter new tasks means that you’re constantly working on things that you could really screw up.

If you work at a startup or you have friends that work at a startup, you know the hours are long. Usually you hear that the hours are long because small teams have to work extra hard to achieve big things. That’s true, but speaking personally, it’s not the whole truth. I work late because learning something new takes a lot longer than working on something familiar. I work late because my work doesn’t get double checked by a senior partner. I work late because I’m absolutely terrified of what I don’t know.

I love working at a small company, and I love playing with live ammo, but mistakes are demoralizing and occasional failure is inevitable. You will have tough days. You will learn lessons that you never forget. You will have days where your mistake loses money for your company. You will find your voice and style early in your career. You will find out that some project you felt confident about was a disaster. You will get to test yourself against your own expectations. It’s really hard. It’s really rewarding.

I wholeheartedly endorse the value of working at a small company, but if you’re going to work at a startup, it’s imperative that you understand that working at a startup isn’t just a better or more fulfilling version of working at a big company. It’s a different beast entirely. The same magnifying glass that amplifies your successes amplifies your failures, so be prepared to get beaten up from time to time. You aren’t going to live the life of a stress free tech millionaire-in-waiting, so don’t expect that. Expect to work hard on projects, and learn to appreciate your wins and be thoughtful and honest about your losses. You’ll love it, but don’t let anyone tell you that it’ll be easy.

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