Don’t work for a startup if you don’t want to think about work before 9 am or after 5 pm. There simply aren’t enough people to do everything that needs to be done in order to hit the aggressive goals, so a heavy workload is inevitable. It’s not just the late nights in the office, it’s sending out emails during happy hour, being engrossed in endless to-do lists on Lyft, and before falling asleep in bed, Slack-ing with coworkers who are doing the same.*
Don’t work for a startup if you’re looking for a quick way to make money. Lots of it. Sure, a thousand millionaires may have been minted on the day of the Facebook IPO but let’s face it, that’s probably not going to be you. Not only do most startups fail, but even the “successful” ones don’t create the financial windfall of Facebook or Google’s magnitude. Most startups pay lower salaries than what tech giants can, and the tradeoff is in the potential value of your stock options. But they could very well be worth nothing in the end, and you should know that before taking the plunge.
Don’t work for a startup if you want to keep the personal and professional completely separate. You can get away with it in corporate, keeping it “Strictly Professional.” But in startups, you’re truly in the trenches with your team. Spending all those hours together as a tight-knit group, they’ll make you laugh, see you cry, and support you as you get challenged beyond what you thought were your limits. These people aren’t just co-workers; they’re your friends, and some of them, probably for life.
Don’t work for a startup to escape a crappy, unfulfilling job. Ask yourself if you’re really ready for the hours, the intensity, and how much you’ll find yourself caring about work. When you feel stuck in an uninspiring workplace, the grass sure looks greener on the other side with all the carefree optimism of ping pong tables, free lunch, and beer pong tournaments. But in reality, startup life is more “work hard” than “play hard.”
Don’t work for a startup if you just want to be part of the “Next Big Thing.” Building a good business takes many years, and overnight sensations are largely a myth. Behind every unicorn are the quiet years of toil and grind put in by nameless employees who will never get enough credit. Some of the most successful companies were considered unsexy and unrealistic when they first started. But in the end, they outperform those with business models based on what was shiny and trendy at the time, e.g. “Uber for X”.
Don’t work for a startup if you find constant ambiguity unsettling. From the day-to-day interactions, to not knowing whether the company will exist six months from now, the feeling of instability never leaves you. Imagine you asked your boss a question and instead of an answer, she says, “I don’t know, why don’t you go figure it out?” Honestly, how would you react? If you find sheer lack of direction daunting, a startup may not be a fit, and that’s okay. It’s a cliché because it’s true: at startups, the only constant is change.
Don’t work for a startup if you’re angling for a fancy title, the corner office, or other marks of traditional leadership that our parents taught us to value. The day-in, day-out grind of startup life requires discipline to drown out the noise and a focus on long-term gains. Very few of us are the next Zuck, and startups are no guarantees to you making “30 under 30” lists. Being surrounded by 24-year-old founders makes us anxious about our own career trajectory. FOMO is real. So real. Feeling secure in knowing you’re making an impact and growing your skills is what makes you successful — not those who are impressed by what’s on your business card at happy hours.
Instead, work for a startup because it could potentially be the most fulfilling time of your professional career. With the right reasons and alignment, it could be a truly career-defining experience. One year at a scrappy, hyper-growth startup provides experience and learnings equivalent to a much longer tenure in a larger company. We idolize the flashy IPOs and idealize the latest billion-dollar acquisition, but ironically, the best companies are largely built by teams who put in effort because they were driven by desire for impact, not because they were chasing glory and a windfall. Even startups that eventually shut down can offer employees unparalleled levels of growth, leadership opportunities, and expanded horizons. Whether or not the investors get their sweet exit, you’ll gain some of the most memorable and fulfilling years of your life.
Work for a startup because no matter how special it is, it will all end at some point. Some day you’ll walk away, but with the experience and the confidence to go do something bigger and better. And I can’t imagine a more valuable thing to gain from your job.
But that’s ways down the road. Cherish these moments in the meantime.
I write about startups, the future of work, leadership development, and diversity & inclusion in tech. I’m @jenistyping on Twitter.
*Burnout culture is real, and I don’t aim to glorify it. Growth is great, but burnout is not worth it. Learn about the signs and ask for help when you need it!