Do Me a Favour, Don’t Join a Start-up

It was 2005 when I joined a start-up fresh out of the college. It was a time when start-ups were yet to become sexy. Facebook was just a year old, and Twitter; yet to be launched.

When a start-up came to our campus, only a handful of us showed interest and only three of us decided to join. Two of them left for larger companies within six months. There were others from different B-Schools. No one lasted more than six months!

It has been now 9 years since my first job and most of my years I have spent working with start-ups. My current employer is though not technically a start-up, the initiative I handle is pretty much like a start-up.

With recent media focus on start-ups, there is a lot of interest among young people on joining start-ups. However, working for a start-up is not for everyone.

So when someone asked me for career advice on joining start-ups, I tried to come up with a few things you should be aware of before joining a start-up.

Start-ups are not for everyone: Why do you want to join a start-up? Is it for money/fame? If it’s fame or money most probability, it’s not going to happen.

As you know on average 90% of start-ups fail. Therefore, you have a much better chance of earning more money working for a multinational.

A lot of people are not comfortable working in an unstructured environment. They get quickly frustrated in a start-up environment where things are changing at a rapid pace. So if you are someone who needs clear directions, a start-up probably is not the right place for you.

In a start-up working for 12 hours a day is quite normal. It’s possible to work for 12 hours day in and day out only if you are really passionate about what you are doing.

If you are OK with working for 12 hours a day in the basement while your friends work from 9-5 in a swanky office, welcome aboard! Or else, find something different to do.

Take proper credit: A start-up is a place where everyone does everything. If you are good at your work and you are a nice person, a lot of people will come to you for help. It’s an amazing thing. You can learn so much just by helping others.

However, make sure that you take credit for the favours. Don’t act smug, don’t look for return favours, but make sure that others understand that it took your time and effort.

I was too shy to take credit for small favours but at the end of the day even small favours accumulate and end up taking a big chunk of your time.

Understand the politics: Start-ups and politics sound two words from two different worlds. However, you need to understand that at the end of the day even the start-ups are run by human beings.

Therefore, they too have dynamics like groups, power centers, heroes and so on. Understanding the dynamics will help you to work more efficiently.

Understand the terms of employment: Have a clear picture of what you are signing up for. Have your documentation in place. Read and understand them. If you don’t understand anything get it clarified from the concerned person

Let’s take an example.

If you join a start-up in all probability, you will earn less compared to an established company. However, you get stock options to compensate for the gap.

Understand clearly what are you entitled to. For how many years you have to work, before you can exercise your options? What happens if you leave early?

In my case, though I have ESOP from one of my employers, I have no idea if I stand to earn if that company ever goes public.

Get things in written: In the rush of a start-up you tend to do things on a verbal agreement. However, get in the habit of summarizing actions and concluding them in the mail.

In one of my early projects, I got a verbal estimation form a product manager and submitted a proposal based on that.

When we got the project, he flatly denied about our conversation and I was in a big trouble.

Maintain a task list: This one sounds boring, but is immensely helpful. When you are supposed to do multiple things a simple task list brings sanity to the chaos. (You can choose to read more about my thoughts on finding focus here.)

These are a few lessons I learned from working in start-ups. Hope it didn’t scare you and will see you working for a start-up soon.

Photo Credit: iNkMan