Is Working At A Startup Right For Me?
Startups can help right-skill the workforce for an impending ‘new normal’
By Sharon Lewis
Two decades ago, few people would consider working at a startup to be their dream job. Without the fat paychecks, perks, and comfortable work-life balance afforded by roles at bigger companies, startup life certainly didn’t paint an attractive picture – quite the opposite, in fact.
But today, every startup has a vision of one day revolutionizing the way the world works, and this in turn is changing the way employment at a startup is perceived.
Startups work in a highly dynamic environment, with field days, challenges and the occasional crisis that bring out the best in people by simply keeping them on their toes.
Jumpstart spoke with CEO of India-based Under 25 Live, Rishab Agnihotri, to understand what it means to work at a startup. As part of the Under 25 group, which creates and curates youth experiences via live events and media, Agnihotri has spent over seven enterprising years building the company from the ground up.
“How I interact with people has been a huge growth point for me at Under 25, in terms of relationship management, closing term sheets, negotiating with investors, even turning down proposals. The learnings have been immense,” he says about his experience so far.
With the occurrence of black swan events across the world, the latest of which is COVID-19, an increasing number of business leaders are preparing for the eventuality that job structures are going to change permanently. Here is how working for a startup can help prepare the workforce for this ‘new normal’.
- Take on greater responsibilities
The amount of responsibilities that a role at a startup entails outweighs a role at a bigger company. Agnihotri mentions that the level of skilling that takes place at a startup is far broader than in ‘regular’ employment.
“Being in a startup teaches employees soft skills that are extremely hard to learn as an employee at bigger companies, such as wild negotiations. Things that may take a decade or more to do [at corporations], are daily fodder at a bootstrapped startup,” he explains.
Startups are all about getting things done in the best way, with great speed. This helps to create a meritocratic environment where even very early employees can make substantial contributions. There is no waiting line when it comes to doing fulfilling work – rather, it’s often trial by fire, with the challenges coming in fast right from the get-go.
- Step up the game
Putting a spin on the oft-quoted Spiderman maxim, with great responsibility comes great power. Working at a startup opens doors early on for employees to seize significant opportunities, such as receiving stock options, forming prime business networks, or passes to that big tech conference everyone has their eyes on.
This can be construed either way. It is true that startups provide access to opportunities that, at a bigger company, would come several years later. The pitfall is that due to financial constraints, startups sometimes pay employees less than they should, in a kind of tradeoff for paying lower than market rate.
- Wear different hats
By nature, startups need to be agile to succeed. And so, they need people who can take on different roles at a time to keep the momentum going, especially during the initial months.
This means that a finance person might shadow a human resources meeting, or someone in a technical role may be expected to chip in when planning a communications strategy, and so on until the startup reaches the stage where specialists need to be brought in.
“The number one demand at an early-stage startup is for a flexible person – someone who can make sure a cost sheet is ready, make a presentation, knows how to collect data and work with it, knows the basics of social media and so on,” Agnihotri says.
He adds that startups also expect employees to have flexible hours, an excessive amount of commitment, a pivot mindset, and a readiness to tackle challenges every day.
This cross-pollination of abilities does translate to extra work, long hours, and the occasional burnout. However, the efforts tend to be extremely rewarding and learning curve is bound to take a steep upswing.
- Keep close to the company vision
One of the reasons why people who work at startups love their jobs is because it gives them the feeling that they are working towards a larger collective goal.
The distance between what they do and their direct impact on the company is very short, so employees closely experience the company’s vision and goals every day. By contrast, at a bigger company, the clear division of labor can often leave employees feeling like cogs in a wheel, disconnected from the organization’s greater purpose.
This sense of belonging is what makes startup employees excited to get out of bed every day and show up at work with fresh ideas and a do-what-it-takes attitude. There is no substitute for that kind of motivation.
- Be your own boss…
… because the boss is busy with something else. At a startup, no one has time to engage in micromanaging one another.
Some believe that it’s better to allow employees to experiment within a controlled environment. In fact, it’s the approach that Co-Founder and CEO Jonah Peretti’s Buzzfeed takes to increase innovation within the company.
However, there is a difference between free rein and no rein. When employees are allowed to manage themselves and try new things, it is a mark of the company’s trust in their competency and reliability. But having no direction or management can turn the arrangement on its head and put the team in an uncomfortable position.
Working at a startup is not all sunshine and roses. Volatility at the company level can easily trickle down to employees. Agnihotri himself has had friends who have worked at three different startups within a year.
“Security is a huge downside. When someone joins a startup, it is an implicit understanding that they agree to take on the risks of uncertainty within the startup,” he says.
Another potential pitfall is the gap between ideating and executing. Agnihotri mentions that “having ideas is one of the easiest things a person can do. The execution is where the hard part begins.”
This is partly because some tasks require upgraded skills, and employees do not have enough time to equip themselves for those tasks. Additionally, even with a great idea, a working prototype, and a strong team, scaling the project may not be smooth sailing as expected.
However, working with a startup is also about personal desires and goals. The paycheck and the purpose are both important, especially for those ready to take the plunge in a high-risk-high-reward ecosystem.
For Agnihotri, it is all about channeling an inner drive toward something aspirational.
“Working at a startup is the answer for any person who in their current life journey are ready to give in their all, and invest their time and energy towards a certain purpose,” he says. “Find an industry that you are passionate about, find a startup that you can trust, and dive deep.”
Header image by Yanalya on Freepik