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Everything you need to know about working at a startup

Ian Walker | November 30, 2016

Over the past ½ decade or so the term “Startup” - specifically “Tech Startup-” has taken on an almost mystical status. Insane exits and IPO’s have created an explosion of interest in the general public and in turn, has put the viability and profitability of startups on a pedestal.

Here’s a graph from Google that shows the frequency of search for “Tech Startup”.

Search Results for Start Up

See that jump in 2011? That was tied some massive success in startup land. LinkedIn and Groupon IPO’d that year, Radian6 was acquired by Salesforce for $300M+, Facebook was prepping for their public offering and the term “tech startup” has been on the rise ever since.

Now what does this mean for someone looking to apply to a startup for work? Two things:

Competition - The more popular and desirable it becomes to work at a startup the more you, as a job seeker, need to be on top of the latest and greatest in your field.

Opportunity - As more tech companies find success and that success is brought into the public eye, a greater number of startups are created. And new businesses need workers - that’s you.

Before we get into what working for a Startup can do for your career, we first need to break down what a Startup actually is and what actually happens.

Demystifying Startup Culture

First off, Tech startups (or “startups”) are simply a “small business” with a side of tech. Sure the founders might be wearing an Apple Watch and everyone is on a new MacBook Pro Retina, but that’s more indicative of new workplace norms than the business itself. In spite of appearances, most startups don’t earn revenue for their first few months, even years.

Does that freak you out? It shouldn’t, and here’s why. Startups have gotten so much media love that job-seekers are conflating their perceived success with actual stability. While you might be signing on to work on some cutting edge technology, there’s an inherent risk involved in working with a brand new product, as there is with any small business. The company can run out of money, the product or service might not be a good fit for the market, the culture and people haven’t been able to produce great work, and sometimes, the world just isn’t ready.

So when you’re looking at a startup, you need to evaluate a few key factors:

  • Funding (can they pay you each month?)
  • Business Model (are they making money? If not, what’s the plan?)
  • Work Environment (do you get your own area or do you have to work on a foosball table?)

These are all important questions you’ll need to ask to understand the actual opportunity. Don’t be distracted by the image or the interesting offices that many startups seem to be in. Your time needs to be valued and you need to have an environment you can focus in. Don’t let the promise of beer-Fridays influence your decision, no matter how great the work-life-balance sounds.

Startups Can Boost Your Career

Now that we’ve broken down the image of a Startup, let’s build it back up again. Working for startups can have a tremendous upside from both a financial and career experience perspective.

Sweat Equity

The majority of startups will offer options along with your salary or in place of salary that’s lower than the industry standard. Stock options can pay off in the long run if the startup you’re applying to is working towards an exit. Options like this are usually labeled as “sweat equity” since it’s your blood, sweat, and tears that go into the investment.

Getting options in a startup is great but if you’re unfamiliar with the investment terms related to employee equity, take the time to go over the documents carefully. If you don’t understand it, bring someone in that can give you the rundown so you can be sure that you are making the right decision.

Invaluable Experience

The term “wearing many different hats” is something you’ll start to get familiar with once you start working at a startup. You’ll soon find out that the job you were hired for also includes a host of other responsibilities that may or may not be under your umbrella. While this can be frustrating at times, it’s a great opportunity to spread your wings and get some diverse experience.

You’ll likely be your own manager. This offers you a great chance to run some unique programs, and take risks that can have a huge payoff for your company. These opportunities aren’t exclusive to startups, but their bootstrap nature and small team sizes makes these companies more inclined to offer such opportunities.

How to Get Hired at a Startup

Once you’ve done your homework and ensured that this start-up is a good and fair place to work, there are a few more things you need to take care of:

1) First and foremost, attitude: It’s not just the company that has to have an entrepreneurial state of mind. You have to be ready to take initiative within the company without pretending you know more than you do. Don’t be afraid to question ideas, keeping in mind that startup founders are in pitch mode 100% of the time. They will appreciate your point of view, as it challenges them to make their product better.

2) Have an online presence: If you’re applying for a role at a digital company it should go without saying that you need to have a presence online. Feel free to bring a paper resume for formality, but don’t expect them to spend too much time with it. It’s effective to have an updated Linkedin, an active (and appropriate!) Twitter or Instagram page, and even a personal website or portfolio. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at outdated websites or resumes; it’s a telltale sign of someone who doesn’t pay attention to the details.

3) Engage with the startup’s web presence: Almost all startups are active on social networks. Follow, engage and promote what they’re doing but don’t over do it. If the company you’re applying for has a blog, take the time to read it. The blog is a good place to dig into the company’s culture and brand position. It also gives you some anecdotes to use for interview questions. Note that checking out their online presence isn’t just to impress them - it should also serve as a gut check as to whether you jive with the company or not.

How to Not Get Hired at a Startup

Culture is hugely important to startups because their teams are so small. Therefore, avoid the following:

1) Ego: startups are small tight units that rely on every individual in the group. There’s no room for egos to get in the way of decisions that can literally make or break a company. If you tend to like your ideas and generally feel that your opinions are fact, a startup isn’t the right place for you.

2) Not proofing your work or application: I’m hoping this is a given, but you’d be surprised how often I see spelling mistakes, copy-paste emails with the wrong company name, or just straight-up sloppy work. This is the fastest way to get your application to the very bottom of the trash can.

3) Lying about your experience: Everyone embellishes on their application and that’s expected, but don’t lie. If you’re desperate to get a job and you don’t have the experience, be honest. Startup founders will appreciate sincerity and genuineness more than larger companies. They’re bringing you into their life’s dream. Respect that opportunity and have an open conversation about your true talents.

In the end, remember that startups are made up of people who are likely a lot like you. They may seem glamorous with the potential to change your life, which they can, but in the beginning, they all start the same. A small business that’s hungry, passionate, and looking to change the world.

Blost post author Ian Walker

About the author

Ian Walker

Ian calls Squamish, BC home and has had the pleasure of working with some of the most talented people in the Canadian startup world. He's worked in marketing, operating and founder roles with Hootsuite, Perch, Invoke Media, Control and is currently working with the team at Function Point as their Director of Marketing.


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