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Jackpot or quite a risk to take a job at a startup?

Jackpot or quite a risk to take a job at a startup?

Agne Sokolov
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In recent years, while working in startups, I have explained to hundreds of people what it means to work in one. Of course, I admit that sometimes I’ve sugar-coated some topics to get great people on board. Especially, when your brand is not well known and you need to sell your company hard to get people as excited about your mission as you are.

Lately, I find myself more and more explaining both the pros and cons to make people understand the concept of a startup realistically and the actual consequences of their choice of work. Despite the efforts I still see some people get frustrated and unhappy because they had different expectations and dreams when starting a job in a startup. So I thought to put down my thoughts and hope that they will support someone’s decision-making.

Startup work is fun

It seems that in startups the work is fun, you get to work with talented and passionate people, you get unbelievable benefits, and even the opportunity to become a shareholder of the company via options and thus possibly share the future upside of success. On top of everything the company’s vision and mission are innovative or even world-changing and you can be part of something bigger or even revolutionize an industry. Make no mistake, that is all true! If the startup has a great product/service, the right people on board, and investors believe in them - then that is the path to success. Money talks and lets people in startups achieve great things, enjoy the cool work environment, have crazy parties, and follow their dreams.

Usually, there are few or no rules at all and yet everything gets done in time. People take on various responsibilities and learn on the go. Your career might skyrocket in a short time period and you can find yourself dealing with expansion, leadership, or product management although you’ve had no experience in these fields before. People just grow together with the company, learn and develop on the way.

Therefore in my mind, people in startups have some common traits, like resilience, perseverance and passion. They dream big and are high performers. There is no hierarchy and people feel more trusted to share ideas, give feedback, and question decisions. This all seems even unrealistic when you first hear about it, but it might excite you enough to want to experience it yourself.

The secret behind success or the ugly truth?

Now there is another part when deciding to work in a startup. It is related to the amount of work, different tasks, and constant change. There is always a lot to work on, especially at the beginning when a startup is getting started and you need to make investors believe in your product. At this stage, the company depends on the capital from friends, fools, and family, afterwards early investors, and then series A, B,.. until the final breakthrough either through an IPO or a successful exit.

Until then there are lots of long working hours because building a successful startup is a race against time. Also there is never enough money to hire more people or buy all the needed software to make your work easier. There are usually different, challenging tasks and the job description is as general as possible because the existing people need to do what needs to be done to get the business growing and scaling. Simple as that. If you add constant changes to this mix it gets even more exciting. People working in a startup have to be amazing at change. The skill of how the team is able to adapt to change can make or break a startup company. Changes can be made overnight by people who might have never done these things before. Everyone just gives their best and hopes it will work out. Fortunately in startups, it is also more common to allow people to make mistakes and learn from them. If you want more stable work and assurance that your  job responsibilities will not change every quarter then you need to think twice before accepting the job offer. If you feel that you can’t spend long hours at work because something is constantly on fire, then again think twice.

Now and again I hear stories about enormous salaries in startups. I have worked in startups and seen them growing from a group of hustlers to billion dollar companies, but in any of them I have not spotted a money-tree growing in the middle of the office. Usually, the package consists of salary, benefits, a cool work environment, and colleagues. And the most desirable part of it is the opportunity to get equity options - the possibility to get rewarded in the future if the startup becomes successful. The salaries might be even lower than the sector average. Again think twice because accepting a lower salary which you actually cannot afford and expecting it to start growing fast is not realistic. It might happen but no one will guarantee this.

How big is your risk appetite?

I have talked to people who have worked and then left startups and often they still end up with another  startup. The same has happened to me and I understand that once you experience this exciting environment and startup atmosphere, a kind of a pleasant chaos, and the opportunity to be part of creating something new, you realize that it is hard to accept less. You get the experience of a lifetime with all the great fuckups and in the next startup you can start fresh with a bit more accurate experience.

When thinking on the opportunity to work in a startup I would suggest deciding how big your risk appetite is. I would think of it the same way as when deciding upon a pension fund or choosing insurance. In this process, you decide how much risk you want to bear or how safe you want to play. Of course, you need to take into account your family and current resources.

As mentioned above, the startup might be the next unicorn and you will get a juicy reward one day for the long working hours you put into this success. Or it will not fly or needs to change the course and you find yourself looking for a job again. No one, neither your colleague, the HR nor the CEO, can promise you fame and glory. It will be your decision only whether you want to take the ride or choose a safer job - and both choices are okay. You can win a jackpot with your next startup job, but you also have to be willing to take the risk of the unicorn dream fading away.

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