Don’t Work for a Startup You Wouldn’t Start Yourself

October 22, 2014

12:30 pm

From the outside, startups appear to have none of the rules that make corporate life such a drag. They shun dress codes, knock down cubicle walls in favor of open floor plans, and replace the tired cafeteria menu with free catered food. Most importantly, in just a few years’ worth of work, the company’s first few employees can potentially walk out with millions of dollars.

It sounds like a dream, but the employees behind these businesses don’t just hang around from 9 to 5 in their loungewear.

According to John Rampton, startup employees tend to work an excessive number of hours to create a product before the money runs out. Startups may require employees to wear multiple hats and work in a chaotic environment in return for equity in a company that might not even make it off the ground.

If you’re undaunted by the fact that three out of four venture-backed startups fail, it’s important to remember one key piece of advice: Never work for a startup that you wouldn’t start yourself.

To Work at a Startup, You Need More Than Ambition

While many people join startups because of the perceived fun factor and the opportunity to make it big, you need passion and understanding before you even consider coming aboard.

The fact is, cool startup perks wear off quickly. At a burgeoning company, you’ll work long hours and face a high level of uncertainty. To survive, you need to believe in and be passionate about the work you’re doing. This passion is the only thing that will allow you to ignore likely failure and make you believe that your dreams will come to fruition as long as you work hard enough.

Along with this almost blinding passion, you need a deep understanding of what the business does. Everything the company creates will revolve around its core concept, so you need to understand the business so you can embody it in all your actions.

Unless you’d be willing to trade places with the CEO and bring that same level of passion and understanding to the business, you really shouldn’t consider working for that startup. Here’s why:

1. You Won’t Be Creative

If you don’t understand the company’s business model as well as the leadership team does, it’s going to be very difficult for you to add real value to the team. Like a well-trained jazz musician who’s practiced scales for decades, you’ll only be able to improvise and think up creative solutions when you understand the business model and are passionate about improving it.

2. You’ll Make Poor Choices

When you look at a startup from the outside, you can’t see that each employee has thousands of things he could do with his days. If you’re in the thick of things, you must know enough about your company to choose which actions to prioritize and be invested enough to do things that may be outside your comfort zone. You need to think about the business as if it were your own because that’s the only way you’ll have the knowledge and commitment to make the best possible contribution.

3. You Won’t Fit In

When you join a startup, the other employees are the team you’ll be working with day and night. Look around. Are these the type of people you would’ve hired yourself? If they aren’t, you probably won’t enjoy riding with them for the long and difficult startup journey.

4. You’ll Quit

Even with a dedicated team working tirelessly to build the business, startups are notoriously difficult to get right. Without dedication to the business and what it stands for, the lows will be unbearably low, and you may question the work you’re doing. When times get tough and your faith unravels, you may consider an early exit.

Keep in mind that if you bail from your startup job, it may be difficult for you to return to corporate life. Your skills from the position may not transfer, and you could end up with no income and no easy job to fall back on.

Joining a startup isn’t about minimal corporate structure and the ping-pong tables in the break room. It’s about finding like-minded people who share your passions and goals.

Startups are risky, but that risk is greatly reduced when you’re working on a business that you understand and are intensely passionate about. You may not earn millions, but you’ll make progress on solving a problem that you actually care about — with or without dress pants.

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Stirling Cox is the managing director of AlphaSights USA, a company that connects today’s business leaders with the insight and expertise they need to prosper. The company assists a global client base, including private equity firms, asset managers, strategy consultancies and corporate executives, in making more informed decisions.

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