Should Everyone Work in a Startup? At Least for a While?

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The answer is: It’s probably a good thing but it’s not about the money.

Certain experiences shape a career. Some are in the “you-will-be-a-better-person-for-this” category. Getting fired and really bad bosses tend to top that list. Conversely, a special relationship with a mentor or time spent in an exceptional training program can propel a career in the positive direction. But mentors and cool training can be hit or miss. The alternative for pure career shaping moments: time at a startup.

Career shaping moments are built on day-to-day experiences where the requirement is to be able to drink from a fire hose. Many would say that time spent in an early stage company is that fire hose. Time spent there beats an MBA, beats any training program and can propel one’s career into a leadership role and create wealth (if that’s what one wants) more than any thing else. That’s what many would say and most in Silicon Valley.

There is a certain cache to working at a startup. Friends are jealous and assume you might be the next Facebook zillionaire. Other friends are always and willing to lend advice – in exchange for equity. Hot new technology abounds and cool snacks might be in the kitchen. You can probably build an entire wardrobe around logo riddled clothes you receive.

But working at a startup can be risky. Pay and benefits can be less than market rate. The CEO might be twenty-five years old and learning on the job. Venture capitalists and bankers might be annoyingly in your way. More conservative friends may wonder, WTF?, you are wasting your talent. But if you are ready to deal with the risk/reward equation and build a career around the experience, it will pay off. Here is why it can be worth it:

  • You are always dealing with the biggest business lesson of all: Business is about making stuff and selling stuff. If you are not doing one of those two things, what are you doing?
  • You learn that cash is king and every nickel counts. Any one in a startup knows two of the most feared phrases are “We are running low on cash”, or “Our runway is two months”. Living with those phrases will definitely shape a career.
  • You learn that there are lots of details in any enterprise. You might have to name the company, design a logo, find office space, figure out the legal entity, find an insurance carrier and all the thousands of mundane activities that one takes for granted in a larger company.
  • You learn that meeting payroll is not an automatic God-given right.
  • You learn that results matter and shape the company. As in, results count, not effort.
  • You learn that every situation has an upside. You may not get paid a lot but maybe you can take your dog to work. You don’t have to dress up and will save money on clothes. Really close quarters could mean really close friends. You see the results of your labors.
  • You learn that if you don’t make coffee or get the dirty dishes out of the sink, no one else will. There is no maid. You learn that if you call in sick your team will suffer because no one has any extra capacity.
  • You learn that business is sometimes a series of forced choices. Should we have free snacks or revamp the website? Should we have free coffee or hire another engineer? Should we launch early when we are not quite done, or wait?

Maybe the thing about startup experience is that it almost always happens early in a career and the positive shaping can last a long time. You learn that leadership matters, even if you are twenty-four years old.

Working at a startup is a simple equation. The numerator is risky. The denominator is an experience that can shape a career. You make the decision. And there is that Facebook zillionaire thing.

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