Startup Culture: A Retrospective
7 years of working for more and less established companies
Working for a startup vs. a more established employer can be like night and day. Or the differences can be less pronounced, like dusk and dawn.
There’s no rule of thumb for what work culture in any company is like, regardless of its size. However, when comparing the two, there are some areas to which special attention should be paid, depending on the firm’s situation.
Over the past seven years, I’ve had good look at the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly of both sides of the proverbial coin. Here are some things that people looking to break into, or out of, a startup environment should be aware of. These are not general truths in any way, shape, or form. Rather, they’re patterns I’ve observed. There are bound to be many examples of companies that don’t fit into evaluation below. That being said, here goes…
Money, Money, Money
Let’s be honest. Regardless how passionate you are about your work, a job is a means to an end; that is, to make a living. That doesn’t, of course, mean you can’t be heavily invested in your craft. Maybe your company works in renewable energy, maybe it donates to charities or pursues a corporate social responsibility policy, but at the end of the day, a company needs to make profits to survive and pay its employees.
Established firms are generally self-sufficient. They have an established clientele, or an otherwise reasonably constant stream of income. When you are looking for financial stability, this is without a doubt the less risky, albeit potentially less exciting, option. Promotions and cash incentives, if given out, tend to be along company-wide standards, such as an annual 5% raise or end of year bonus based on how well the company or project you’re working on is doing.
Startups, on the other hand, often at first don’t turn enough of (or no) profit to cover operational costs. Every startup, no matter how great the product or vision may be, is a gamble. There are too many factors out of your control, which differ from industry to industry, to be able to make any conclusive statements about future success.
That gamble is both the danger and allure of working for a startup. Most startups fail, for any combination of reasons, but if a startup succeeds or is bought out, you can win big. Just be aware: The odds are not in your favor.
There is another, sometimes overlooked uncertainty to be aware of. If a startup does well and starts to become self-sufficient, it’s bound to go through growing pains.
Successful startups have responsibilities to investors or a board of directors and as soon as red numbers start turning black, favors may need to be repaid. On the race track to becoming a sustainable business, some decisions need to be made fast. In this regard, once the company has room to breathe, costs may need to be slimmed or profits may need to be optimized, often resulting in staff cuts once a product is complete or a service is up, running, and functional. Be aware that, especially if you’re not part of the core group (a.k.a. expendable), you may fall victim to internal restructuring, just when you thought the company you helped to raise from a startup into something more is doing well. The worst thing is, you won’t be able to talk to, negotiate with, or even blame the people letting you go, because they, too, may not be doing so of their own volition.
To nobody’s surprise, work culture in startups is often more relaxed.
Dress code, punctuality, and, to a degree, even the amount of time you put in are less important than getting stuff done. As long as you complete everything you’re responsible for in a timely and functional manner, people will be happy. This can be both a blessing and a curse.
In the absence of somebody to police you, it’s you who has to step up. The startup life is not an easy one — in fact, you will probably work more than you’re required to. Depending on your startup’s industry, the field is probably going to be competitive. That means your employer will often pivot strategy — you’re hired with the expectation that you can adjust. In this sense, it’s also more important to architect systems with simplicity, extendability, and modularity in mind, so as to be able to switch out one part for another with relative ease and speed. Another potential manifestation of all this is that you and your team are probably going to be more tight-knit than coworkers in a larger firm are (but that can be different even between startups).
On the flip side, a larger employer might require you to dress business casual, be on time more regularly, and adhere to coding standards more vigorously. The latter in particular is not a bad thing — structure becomes more important as the team grows. Apart from that, you may also have a manager and performance review meetings, which are not guaranteed in startups. Depending on your startup’s funding, you may even have to be your own project manager.
How a company promotes professional and personal growth is an important consideration when job hunting. A good employer will help in both of these areas.
In larger, more established firms, this usually happens in the form of promotions, but there may be other opportunities, such as letting employees complete cloud, QA, or other tech certifications, inviting them to represent the company at developer conferences around the world, or giving them an allowance to spend on, for example, programming books or other things that will help them become better at their jobs.
Depending on the type of work the company is involved in, it may also be able to let its employees decide which projects they want to be a part of — if a back-end developer can make a case for joining a project’s front-end team, they’re allowed to do so.
Startups tend to have fewer resources available to use on employees’ growth. Yes, there can be promotions, but they are rare in places with finite amounts of profit or investors. Where startups shine is the type of work you’ll be hired to do. Startups often work with cutting edge technology, whereas non-startups tend to stick to tools that have been around for longer, have withstood the unit test of time, or have bigger communities. Getting hands-on experience with the latest frameworks and so on can give you a head start in an emerging field.
On a different note, when working in smaller teams, one can make better connections with coworkers. This can be a big boon if you’re looking to expand your professional network beyond cursory acquaintances. Instead of meeting new people at an expensive conference during the five-minute break between presentations, running from one stage to another, you may meet and actually get to know someone over drinks while hanging out with your team after work.
Naturally, settled firms have more structure in place. That structure comes in many forms, one of which is hierarchies. These can be more or less flat, but in the vast majority of cases you’ll have a manager, supervisor, or someone with a similar role. There could be several managers too, for different work areas, such as a general and a technical manager. Beyond that, there may be project managers, team leads, and people with various other titles that all encompass similar responsibilities.
As with other items on this list, this isn’t either a good or bad thing — the amount of structure that’s comfortable depends on many personal and professional circumstances and is different for everyone. If you like having well-defined tickets with clear requirements and outcomes, then more structure may be preferable to you.
On the other side, startups often give you far more freedom in how you approach things. Meetings often happen unscheduled, nobody tells you how a problem should be solved, and you sometimes even have to help figure out the overarching business strategy a startup should be pursuing. Tickets may come with a blank description that you have to figure out and fill in.
This compromise between structure and freedom tends to define startup culture and, even between startups, it can differ greatly. Part of the appeal of joining fresh companies or helping found them is that you get a say in what that compromise should look like. That’s both an ongoing challenge for a team to figure out, and a great learning experience that will vary depending on the composition of your team.
A company without a constant revenue stream is probably not able to offer its employees benefits. There’s not a whole lot else to say here. If you don’t like risk or need to have health care coverage and so on through benefits, then a young startup may not be the right fit for you now.
Large firms are pretty much guaranteed to offer benefits. However, for some, making a decent paycheck at a startup may be reason enough to tolerate a lack of benefits. Perhaps you’re absolutely sure the startup is about to take off and the time and energy you've poured into it are about to pay off. But whatever your reasons, this decision should not be made lightly.
Looking back, I’ve enjoyed my time at both startups and larger companies.
Of course, this is just my subjective experience, but whether I’d choose a startup over other employers has, for me, always depended on my personal situation. The less stability I required, the more I enjoyed the startup life. In startups, both wins and losses often weigh heavier than elsewhere.
In the end, one needs to be aware of the simple fact that most startups fail. They may not fail quickly, they might be around for some time, but nonetheless, the majority of startups don’t make it. The reasons, again, are manifold and often entirely uncontrollable.
Life in companies that aren’t startups any more can be enjoyable, too. Sometimes, these jobs are just as exciting and work with technology just as cutting edge as those the startups might use. The structure that startups often lack can be a double-edged sword, but I’ve generally found the pros of it to outweigh the cons. As I go forward, both professionally and personally, I find structure is becoming more important, but I suppose that can change at any time.
Life is like a box of chocolates and your control is never absolute. Being flexible — having a plan B and C — will be the lifeline keeping you from drowning when you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place!