Why work for a startup?
When someone asks me what I do for a living, I don’t tell them I sell digital signage or software-as-a-service. I say I work for a tech startup. It’s easier and much cooler.
On the surface, this might seem like a self-evident question. Working at a startup has become something of a status symbol. It seems a bit like asking someone why they would want to become a professional football player.
But the thing is not everyone wants to kick a ball around for a living. The startup lifestyle doesn’t appeal to everyone. It can mean taking a pay cut, less job security, more pressure, limited career prospects and a lacking social life.
Yet these are all just sweeping statements. Before I share my personal reasons for working at startup, there’s an important preliminary question to address:
What do we mean by startup?
When does a startup become a started?
You could measure a company by how long it’s been around. But since when? The conception of its business idea? The company’s registration? Its first sale?
This is not an easy metric.
The company I work for has been operating for over 5 years but we still call ourselves a startup. In fact, it was a one-man band until I joined as the first full-time hire 2 years ago. If it’s a question of team size, when do we outgrow the label?
It seems just as arbitrary to define a startup by the number of employees.
Some business models require many personnel, others can operate with very few. As a software company, we could probably x10 our turnover without needing to grow the team beyond half a dozen people.
That seems to leave financials like revenue or the company’s value.
But again, we run into a grey area. Is a startup a company with a small revenue and limited value? You could define any unsuccessful or failed business, of any size or age, as the same. That’s overlooking the fact that value is highly subjective.
Is a startup then a company with great potential that is just starting to take off?
This is perhaps the closest we have come to putting our finger on it—potential—but I’m not entirely satisfied with this either. Most businesses think they have great potential, with their real growth to come. No matter how long they have been around, how many employees they have, or however much they are worth.
It quickly becomes apparent that “startup” is a pretty meaningless label.
Rather than abandon this post there. Let’s change the question:
What does a startup mean to me?
For me, working at a startup means being personally invested in the company’s performance and growth.
At a large organisation, it is easy to feel detached from the bigger picture. If the company has a bad quarter and it had nothing to do with you, does it really matter?
Unless it was such a bad quarter that it affects your job security, you are still getting paid. Likewise, if the company breaks records, you probably wouldn’t mention its success on your own CV, not without belonging to senior management.
At a startup, you feel like you have an impact.
The growth of the company is an achievement that you all share together.
If you aren’t pulling your weight, you probably won’t last long as little goes unnoticed in smaller teams. Your salary, however humble, will have been scrutinised by those signing your pay cheques. What do you bring to the table?
Ideally, you can measure the value of your contributions. This is especially easy for me in digital marketing as it’s data-driven. I know which leads and deals I helped to generate. I can record a % of the revenue growth I played a part in.
Working at a startup means you care about your work.
It’s ringing your boss 30 minutes after you get in from the office to find out how his meeting went, and reporting what you achieved this afternoon while he was out.
In a small company, you often need to become a jack-of-all-trades. This doesn’t appeal to everyone.
If you are the first full-time hire like me, you might find yourself writing project proposals, giving sales demos, drafting legal contracts, interviewing for interns, setting up an eCommerce store, writing Christmas cards… The list goes on.
My job title might say “Marketing Manager” but it could say sales, business development, website design. Or less glamorously, administration and support. When it comes to experience for my CV, I wouldn’t change this for the world.
Startups are exciting but they can be stressful too
When you work side-by-side with a founder, you realise how the performance of the company directly affects them and their livelihood.
Big wins are highs for everyone and losses are taken personally.
My boss is getting married this year, with hopes to buy a house and start a family. I am acutely aware of how much the business’s performance could have an impact on this. We have some huge deals in our pipeline that could quite literally be life-changing. I don’t have skin in the game per say, but it raises the stakes for us all.
Working at a startup can also mean fire-fighting.
Between 11:00am and 1:30pm today our office phone rang 14 times and I was the only one there to answer it. My planned tasks went out the window.
A lot can go wrong in business and every day brings new challenges.
Often when our founder is engaged in meetings or out of the office, not to mention rare instances of annual leave, I am left to man the business.
At 22 years old, this isn’t a responsibility I was expecting straight out of university. Stepping into the shoes of the MD during his upcoming honeymoon.
Why work for a startup company?
Above all else, working at a startup is about collectively building something.
In the process, you grow as an individual, professionally and personally, and that’s why, pretentious label aside, I would never swap my first job at a startup for a graduate scheme with 30% more pay, a company car and benefits.
Job hunting? Check out my interview advice for getting hired at a startup.