With many startups offering fantastic work cultures and lucrative stock options to attract talent, corporates are struggling to keep up. The dream of cashing-in your shares when a company sells or announces its IPO is a much juicier prospect for many than staying within the perceived safety of a corporate job.
However despite the media’s portrayal of startups being all beanbags, brainstorming and ping-pong, working life in a startup can be just as unforgiving as the corporate world. We explore 6 themes to consider when leaving corporate life for startup success.
1 – Be prepared to take a pay cut
I don’t need to tell you that most startup jobs won’t pay as well as some of the bigger corporates. You may be worth more than a startup is able to pay, but working at a startup offers a different type of reward: a meritocratic system that isn’t based on money, but rather in skills attained and opportunities grabbed.
While fair compensation is important for us all, an increasing number of employees now prioritise career growth and company culture over salary. Startups operate more democratic structures than corporates, who benefit more from hierarchy. This creates more equality when it comes to pay, meaning no jealousy-inducing commissions for the sales departments, but depending on the maturity of the startup, weaker fringe benefits like healthcare and pension contributions.
2 – Learn how equity works
Owning a piece of the company is one of the defining aspects of working at a startup. It is attractive not only for its potential monetary value, but for the sense of ownership it gives employees.
However, employees should know that there are risks involved with any equity deals. For example, some employees of ‘Good Technology’ actually lost money on their stock options when the company sold to BlackBerry for less than half of its private valuation.
I could, and probably will, write an entire blog post on this subject alone, but in short you need to understand the basics, including:
- The number of shares you’re being offered, the buy price (if being bought) and their current valuation
- The type of those shares (ordinary/preferred, A/B etc)
- The vesting period of those shares and if vesting accelerates on company exit
- The estimated future valuation of those shares and whether they dilute or not
- The tax and other cost implications of those shares
3 – Prepare for failure
We hear a lot about startup success stories, but the fact is that most fail. Different statistics put the average failure rates from 40 percent to as high as 90 percent, but depending on what stage you join it’s safe to say that there’s a large risk of things not working out. What does that mean for you? It means you’ve got to do your research and make sure the company you pick has the best chances of survival. If the startup has no clear benefit over existing competition, the company may struggle to find customers. Whilst a belief that the company will break through is significant, the most important question to ask yourself is whether you believe in the company mission. If the answer is no to this, then don’t waste your time.
4 – Expect long hours
Startups are fast-paced work environments where employees are responsible for the success of the company. It’s not about lining shareholders pockets; it’s about contributing to whether the company sinks or swims. The stakes have never been higher. In exchange, startups tend to offer perks like free food, ping-pong tables and other recreational items, making it enjoyable to stay longer and, in theory, work harder. These perks are used to create an atmosphere of collaboration and innovation, but ultimately that means more time at the office and less at home. Those who are all about work-life balance might find this aspect of startup life distressing so don’t say we didn’t warn you.
5 – Office politics won’t work
Startup founders are ideologists with disruptive ideas and heaps of passion to see them come to life. New employees are therefore expected to care more about the company mission than their own agendas.
In corporates, there’s a glass ceiling. The glass ceiling is that you aren’t allowed to overrule your boss, even if he’s an idiot. Progression can be sluggish and creativity is usually discouraged. So in order to get places, you have to be tactical and, at times, Machiavellian. Startup philosophy dictates that business is achieved through continuous learning and evolution over self-preservation, therefore be prepared that your old office politics won’t have the same effect. In fact, they’ll likely turn you into enemy number one pretty quickly.
6 – Prepare for genuine friendships
In the corporate world, we are often deluded into thinking our ‘job friends’ are our real friends, but in most cases of corporate life we are competing way too hard against each other to be friends. There are exceptions in every workplace, and you do make some long-term friends, who make the rest of it worthwhile, but there is often a ton of backstabbing going on which, more often than not, gets in the way.
Joining a startup doesn’t guarantee you real friends, of course, but being part of a small team creates more genuine feelings of togetherness. With everyone’s backs against the wall in a combined effort to succeed against all odds, people tend to consolidate and collaborate in a more genuine way.
Working at a startup also means that you and your small team are the only people responsible for your success. Generating results means increased career opportunities for yourself and your colleagues. For some, that may trigger a response to go crawl into a corner and hope someone will come and spoon-feed them their pay check. For others, it’s the greatest motivation there is.
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