Grads — 7 must know things before joining a startup

In the run up to launching my latest 10 Minute Guide 🚀 “Your first startup job”, I wanted to post some general thoughts on things you need to know before you join a startup.

As for the book, it covers everything from the basics of how to identify the good startups from the bad, through to the more advanced, such as what to look for in your option contracts, and everything in between. I then run through each of the main roles and areas in a startup, what (generally speaking) are the key metrics for that area and how to make an impact on them.

Also I didn’t pick the number 7 for any particular reason, simply to give the article some structure and to stop me rambling on. If you enjoy these 7 things, you’ll love the 10 Minute Guide, it really is essential reading (if I do say so) for anyone joining a startup.

There will be little to no structure

If you’re joining from university / college where you have thrived in an environment with structure, control and clear goals — a startup (most of the time) is the complete opposite of this.

Of course, it all depends on the size, stage, structure and management. For example, you might be joining Dropbox as a Intern. I’m pretty sure they have a robust, tried and tested program for onboarding Interns. You will have a set plan and goals for your entire internship within a few days.

At the other end of the spectrum is the scrappy 8 person startup who’s just been through Techstars with £500k seed round — this startup might even forget that you’re turning up on your first day! From my experience, the one area where millennials — and yes, I’m sticking you all in that bucket — struggle is the lack of constant feedback and attention. If it’s an 8 person startup, that probably means that everyone reports into the Founder(s) or CEO — and with that in mind, the CEO is probably already stretched meaning that you’re going to be reporting into another junior team member, who may or may not have any management experience.

How do you thrive as an employee in an environment that’s always changing, where priorities are always shifting, and where the goals are changing constantly, based on pressure from founders or investors? You must be mentally prepared to walk into a very fluid environment.

You have to be relentlessly resourceful

So maybe you’re a marketing intern at an “Uber for X” startup for the summer. Your manager wants a heatmap of local traffic for the peak times. What’s a heatmap? How do you even approach trying to do this? This is the sort of stuff that will be put on your desk, and the survivors / value-add team members will immediately start to methodically craft a plan that will get them to their goal — they’ll relish being out of their comfort zone. You can definitely ask for advice and get pointed in the right direction, but remember everyone else will have their own goals and objectives to complete.

Go work for a big company, and you’ll have plenty of resources — an HR department, a tech department, a marketing team. If you don’t know how to do something, you can tap into a training budget that will let you develop your skills at conferences or workshops in fun cities. But work at a startup, and you are the department.

Establish, and make it known, how you work early on

Are you grumpy in the morning? Do you like to get absolute clarity on something before starting — e.g. asking lots of questions? Are you a night owl? Everyone has their own specific work traits.

The key thing is being as effective and efficient as you can. As a result, through my experience, I’ve learned that establishing these vocally up front really does help the team. It helps reduce bitching, it helps reduce people thinking that others in the team aren’t pulling their weight, etc. As a result, at the bare minimum, ensure your manager knows how you work best — that will set the goal posts early on and reduce frustration on the managers’ side, and enable you to thrive and not be worried that you’re not performing.

Culture is constantly evolving

You always hear the startup world talking about culture. CEOs will be touting how their culture is better than those of typical companies. Journalists will be writing about the toxic culture of some high growth startup, everyone is fixated on culture… what exactly is it anyway?

Culture is created from the way everyone interacts with one another, the daily practices they establish, the way they handle certain issues, and the way they work together. Did someone make a joke about flamingos on the third Wednesday of the month, and now it’s a thing that everyone takes a shot from a plastic flamingo on said day each month — that’s culture, norms and bonds being made.

To continue the Dropbox vs. smaller startup example above; Dropbox will already have their culture pretty much established. At the 8 man startup, you are very much part of creating the culture. That can be a disorienting feeling for anyone, but even more so if it’s your first job. And if the company has a high turnover rate, as a lot of startups do, it can be even harder to establish any sort of culture.

Be able to live with uncertainty

You have to be comfortable with knowing that there may be a time when the startup simply can’t pay you the next month. Throughout all of the startups that I have had and managed, I always try my utmost to monitor cashflow, meaning that I have a trigger point of being able to pay everyone their notice period in the event we had to shut the company — thankfully it hasn’t happened! Other founders or CEOs may not be as generous, some may even be sly and not even let you know that they won’t be able to pay you at month end — we cover this in my new book, how to pick good startups to work for, and how to avoid the bad.

A well funded startup can change overnight; it just takes one cornerstone investor to change their mind or have some externality impact them. You can work your socks off, and through no fault of your own be laid off. You’ll have to be prepared for this possibility, no matter how hard you work.

Again, in my new book, I run through strategies on how to mitigate the risk of this happening, how to keep in contact and network with other startups and founders who you know will hire you should anything happen.

Clearly understand your options package

In the book we go into much more detail — running through different scenarios and making sure we engineer the best possible package for you, but here I’ll keep it simple.

Startups often don’t have much cash; as a result, they bolster up uncompetitive base salaries (what you receive each month) with offering a part of the startup should it flourish and grow (in addition to providing expedited career growth). This part of the company, or equity, usually comes in the form of stock options. Meaning that once certain amount of criteria are hit, you will have the option to sell equity in the business should it be bought or listed.

For 99% of people, this will be the first time they have heard of an options contract or equity — they’re usually caught up in the excitement of joining their first startup that they’ll blindly sign anything. It’s worth doing research, understanding the terms, and doing scenario analyses. What you thought is good and generous, could actually turn out to not be that meaningful at all, especially when you start to calculate the hours put in. On the flip side, if you’re there just to build up experience, you can — for the most part — completely ignore this point!

Understand what you want from the startup

Are you joining the startup world because all your friends are? Are you joining this specific startup because they were the first to offer you a job? Are you joining because you fundamentally believe in their mission and want to work there for the next 10 years?

You have to ask yourself and understand questions such as those above; they’ll deeply impact how you act and work in your startup. Are you there for the long haul? Are you thinking of working in that specific startup for a year or two, so that you can eventually leap frog and take a specific role somewhere else?

Once you understand this, you’ll be a lot happier. You’ll see yourself moving and progressing toward those goals. Without this sense of progress it can start to grind on you and your morale.

P.S. congrats on reading to the end. As a reward for the dedication, the first 5 people to tweet me @ScottTaylor with something relating to this article, will get the book for free. Cha-ching

Founder & maker // Forbes 30 Under 30