Cooking Up a Theory: What Does Working in a Startup Mean?

One of my favorite pastimes growing up was cooking with my mom. Whatever the dish, her and I in the kitchen together was a staple in my upbringing. However, we had two very different styles. My mom would meticulously follow each step of the process outlined for her. I on the other hand, would often eye ball measurements and add other ingredients not included in the recipe, in random order. This would often lead to amazing new concoctions that I never would have discovered if I had followed the recipe. On the flip side, I also experienced my fair share of horrid outcomes. Regardless of the outcome, the learning process set my interest in cooking into motion, which is now one of my favorite hobbies.

So what does cooking have to do with startups?

When you search “startup definition” Google defines it as the action or process of setting something in motion.

The word startup is a frequently used word these days. Your opinion of what a startup means could depend on a number of factors including benefits or perks of working in a startup, industry stigma, company size, your previous work experience, etc. For example, I would argue the more popular names like Google, Facebook, or Twitter have now surpassed this phase of their business. They are now large publicly traded companies operating in a more mature product and business capacity, not setting anything additional in motion.

After over half a decade of working in the startup space, specifically focused on hiring and growing companies from the 10–200 person size, I am frequently approached with the question What does working in a startup mean? A literal way to explain what it means is to discuss what you gain from the action or process of setting something in motion. From my childhood cooking example, I gained a life long hobby. When applying this thinking to startups, four specific areas that I’ve personally gained from working at startups come to mind. Keep in mind, these are my opinions formulated by my personal experiences, and not meant to be a generalization.

Context. I’ve been fortunate to work at very supportive organizations filled with entrepreneurial minded individuals. I believe these are the type of folks that thrive in an open structure. At a startup, you have the opportunity to make your own path. There is no one standing over your shoulder and telling you what to work on — it’s left up to you. This fosters ownership and gives you experience with a variety of projects which span the company. Given the nature of larger companies, there is a natural need for more structure and specialization. You might be able to go deeper in one specific area, but you will not likely be given the context as you would if part of a smaller company.

Responsibility. At a startup organization you are personally responsible for creating its success. That doesn’t have to be specific to your job function or department, you have the room to expand out more broadly. If you allow yourself to, you will have the chance to greatly impact where the company goes. On a daily basis you might bring up new ideas, create new processes, or spark a new product improvement that was overlooked.

Maturity. All companies, large or small, have ups and downs. In a startup, you will probably feel the impact a little more, and need to be able to adapt to the continuous change. You’ll be challenged in ways you didn’t know possible. Some examples I’ve personally experienced have been product segues, reorganization, budget cuts, and funding. The fun part of these fluctuations are having a chance to push through and learn as you go. I guarantee this will ultimately make you more mature in not only your career but as an individual as well.

Ownership. At many companies as part of your compensation package you receive ownership in the form of equity. The main difference between publicly traded and privately traded companies equity is the risk associated with the privately traded market. So, when thinking about the monetary value, you really can’t compare the two. You can compare the valuated strike price of the stock, then plug that number into a potential exit price to come up with estimated value of the package — but none of that is tangible unless the company exits the private market. Public companies on the other hand have public data, so it’s easy to see what the value of your equity in the company is worth. Instead of looking solely at the monetary value when comparing the two opportunities and how much ownership you have, I encourage you to think of the opportunity as a cost benefit analysis. What is the value of the different areas you’ll gain experience in by working at a startup compared to the cost of not getting that exposure? That analysis can give you a more holistic view of ownership.

So back to the initial question: What does working in a startup mean? Working at a startup means being able to set something into motion, similar to how I set my hobby of cooking into motion through the learning process of cooking as a child. While working at a startup, you’ll gain company wide context and the opportunity to be directly responsible for the organization’s success. You’ll also become more mature from the flux of natural growing pains you’ll experience over the course of the ride. This will offer you an ownership opportunity that surpasses the strict monetary value solely connected to equity, and extends into your personal growth. Ultimately working at a startup means setting your own career trajectory into motion.