Why should you join a startup?

One of my best friends who work for IBM Rational wanted to ‘try’ a start-up. After months of study and seeking different opinions he had his ideas which he shared with me. I realized that despite all the time and effort he spent, he had no clue about how it is to work for a startup. I gave him some honest suggestions and I thought I ll share it here so that many others like him will also benefit from it.

First and foremost, this post is NOT about starting a startup. You can read about starting a startup here, here and here.

This is about working in a startup or planning to work for one.

Before I get into the reasons why you should work for a startup, let me distinguish certain pitfalls about working in a startup.

Pitfall 1: I want to have some startup experience

Not a good enough reason to join one. There is no one thing called a ‘start-up’. When I think of working for a big organization, what comes to my mind are the common practices that everybody need to follow, weekly status meetings with management, yearly review for promotion and bonus, crafting personal strategies for growth in the company, internal politics and etcetera. While big organizations may be very different from one another in many ways, the manner in which you work in these may generally be the same. This is the reason why many times, a successful manager at HP when he moves to IBM hits the ground running and continues to produce similar results.

Welcome to the startup. People who have not worked in a startup or have worked in only ONE startup will not grasp this. From my experience of working in 2 startups and being associated closely with another 3 of them, I can’t think of any major similarity between any of them. I experienced the work culture in my current startup is radically different and diametrically opposite to my previous startup even though both of them are in the same industry (virtualization), similar team sizes (about 20 people) and the similar type of customers (enterprise software consumers).

So if you catch yourself generalizing on why you should work for ‘a startup’, please don’t do that. Every startup is different. Totally different. Please take your time and attention to understand the culture from outside by speaking to the employees (not the founders or some pundits). What you hear will be different from what you perceived.

Pitfall 2: I ve been advised to try a startup

These days, one of the most popular career advices that I come across (atleast in India where I live) is ‘Try a startup’. Even though there is nothing wrong with that and it may actually be right thing to do, the very person who had advised may not be eligible to do it at all.

Let me create a short list of people who are not the right people to advice about ‘working for a startup’.

  • Start-up founders – Disqualified. Starting a startup is like giving birth to a child. After bearing a child for 9 months and going through all the labor pain, no startup founder is ever going to remember what it is like to work for a startup. Because working for a startup and founding a startup are two different things. Eventhough a startup founder may have worked for several startups before, the moment he starts a company, his relationship to a startup will alter forever.

I ve always known what founders bring to the table to be much more and very different from what the employees bring forth. So looking through their lenses, you will never get the correct picture about working for a startup.

  • People who have worked for just ONE startup – I was one and when I was in my first startup, I had encouraged a lot of my friends to join startups. I found the hard way that their experiences were totally different from my mine. When you have just associated with one startup, you tend to generalize what a startup is and every other startup looks in many ways like yours. Always talk to people who have worked in multiple startups.
  • Big company boss – When I was working for Accenture, one of my bosses and some of my teammates who never worked for startups used to have an illusion that you get to learn much more in a startup and they highly recommend ‘young’ people to join a startup if they were tech savvy. Maybe there is some truth to it but that fact is that their advice is just from a reflection of the inadequacies of working for a big company. More like ‘The grass looks greener on the other side’.

So the real people who you should seek advice are employees (not founders) of startups who has worked in more than one startup.

Pitfall 3: Interesting people.

Valid reason. But this is not going to carry the day. When I joined my first startup, I was so impressed by the team and want to be the part of a team, who used only Gentoo Linux, ride only Royal Enfield, was part of real rock band, masters of interactive Ruby and were graduates of Landmark Education. I couldn’t possibly think of another group of more interesting people. I enjoyed and cherished every single second I worked there and learned so many things (outside work also) and made many friends for a lifetime. However, I just couldn’t adapt to the work culture at that point in time. Nightouts and coffee were great for the first 6 months but I just couldn’t cope up with the intensity and work patterns of the team because of which my work, family, health and the company suffered. So I had to quit.

Also, please be aware that it is highly likely that some of the key people (those same interesting people) may leave in the middle of the journey. It may be that key developer, that Board member, the only investor or may even be the co-founder. So if you get attached to people, be prepared for a heart break.

So if you want to meet interesting people, I suggest you do that outside work. Look for interesting place to work than interesting people to work with. Working in a startup may sometimes turn out be like getting married. It may be really interesting to have a Hollywood wife but will that really forward your wedding?

Pitfall 4: Startups are about new ideas.

This is a mere myth. 99% startups work on solving problems (with existing solutions) in a new way and there is very little novelty around it. Those1% of startups that may bank on entirely new idea may end up in a niche that can hardly be monetized or may fail to convince customers, investors or users about their solution.

Also, startups change directions very often. You may start with an entirely new interesting idea but it is likely that you may change course and do something which may not be entirely new.

Bottom line, don’t get attached to ideas.

Pitfall 5: Freedom to work on MY ideas.

Startups are not the place for ideas leave alone ‘your’ idea. Startups are about executing ONE idea very well and it may not be yours. Most likely your great feature suggestions and company strategies will not be worked on. This is the very nature of startups. The resources are scarce and focus is everything. So at any given time the entire company will be only committed to execute ONE thing and it may not be your thing.

If you want to work on your idea, I suggest Google, Adobe or Sun Microsystems which encourage employee projects and the company is willing to fund your project if you establish the feasibility of your idea. Don’t go to a startup to do that. If you are so passionate, I suggest you start on your own but not work in one and expect your idea to be worked on.

Pitfall 6: Lot of fun

Sure, startups are lot of fun but not just fun. It can graphically represented by spikes of nirvana and extreme stress and frustration. When one of my friends came to see me at my startup 3 yrs ago, he was pleasantly surprised to see me working sipping my Gatorade with Mayank’s St.Bernard besides me. He thought it was such a cool thing. What he overlooked was why the dog was there in the office in the first place(it was much better for the entire team to have Mayank focus on shipping the product than worrying about how his dog is doing at home, so it absolutely made sense for the team to have the dog in the office). When my Mom used to ring me on my cell phone, very often she could see hear sounds of loud laughter and she was glad I was having fun. But what she overlooked was the fact that it was 11 PM at night and we were still at work.

Startups can be a mix of extreme fun and extreme pain. This is because in a startup you are always dealing with ‘uncertainty’. Uncertainity about the market, your investor, customer acquisition, your next month’s salary etc… Sometimes you don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel and you begin to question why you made that choice and endured so much. Sometimes, you pride to have the 6th sense to identify this opportunity and convinced that have the magic touch. I am addicted to emotional roller coaster. Please prepare for this before you join a startup.

The above are some of the common pitfalls around working for a startup. In my opinion there are just two reasons that you should ever work for a startup.

Reason 1 – I want to start a start-up in the future; hence this will be a great training ground.

This is my favorite reason. If you are person who is aspiring to startup some day, this is the next best thing to actually bootstrapping. No amount of work experience in a big company or a Ivy league MBA or book knowledge will be anywhere close to actually going through the ups and down of a real startup. This is no brainer advice to a person who is serious about starting up.

Reason 2 –Have a specific reason to work for a specific company.

My ideal start-up friends when asked what keeps them going say things in the following lines.

“Out of college the only thing I wanted was to write lots of code. I didn’t quite care about anything else and that is when I heard about ABC startup and I ve been here for the last 3 yrs”.

“I want to be system administrator and I figured about that virtualization and cloud computing is the next big. So I better be with XYZ startup because they are building a product which is in the cutting edge and I get so much exposure”.

“I wanted to be a marketer and found this startup which gave the responsibility to market the product online and allow me to understand all the nuances of web marketing using free tools like WordPress, Facebook, Twitter”.

If notice all the above statements, you can find two common things:

1-    Each person is very clear on what they wanted to do.

2-    Once they knew what they wanted to do, they saw a startup as a pathway to fulfill on what they truly wanted and cared for.

I believe the above are the only two real reasons why a person should work for a startup. All the other reasons are great to have and certainly tempting but they are NOT going to carry the day.

Needless to say all the above are my opinions and my views. Feel free to let me know what you think.


3 thoughts on “Why should you join a startup?”

  1. Arun
    This is a very succint and valuable piece to anyone considering the startup journey. You have made some very astute observations and recommendations – I particularly like that a startup is there to actualize a single idea and not everyone’s ideas. This is true and any contrary illusions will quickly be dispelled in any startup that is real about its chances of success.

    Keep the fingers on the keys and churn out more of these posts 🙂


  2. @Arun

    A valuable post, where most of your views matches with that of mine.
    Myself being your colleague in one of the start-up and after working
    with yet another start-up, I do think that they should provide training.

    I think most of the properly run start-ups pay more emphasis during the interview process in order to build their talent base. This actually helps them measure their progress towards their target or goal. It is here where they loose sight of value of training. Or probably they do not want to invest their time in training.
    You cannot tell someone how to ride a bicycle.
    Atleast train employee on founder’s expectations for them. If this is done, I believe my work, dos, to-dos is giving a silent feedback.


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