What you should know before working at a startup
Are you thinking about working at a start-up? Vicky Anscombe (@VickyAnscombe) gives us the lowdown on what to expect!
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Is a startup right for me?
It all depends on what you want from a job. Start-ups tend to be fast-moving, energetic, and often have an ‘always on’ culture - so if you want a job that will excite, challenge and inspire you, you’re on the right track. You may want to think again if you’re after a comfortable 9-5 where you can cruise through the day eating biscuits and Skyping Michelle from the marketing team.
However, don’t be fooled into thinking they’re all work and no play. You may sacrifice a few lunch breaks to get projects delivered to spec and on time, but you can expect to be rewarded for your hard work. Fancy 3pm finishes, meetings in the pub, and the chance to go to networking events? Then a start-up may be just the job for you!
What’s it like working at a start-up?
The beauty of start-ups is they tend to do away with all of the stuffy protocols that plague most offices - they just want the job done. If you’ve ever had to fight an ongoing battle with an IT department or spend hours playing email tennis with a faceless HR person, you’ll be delighted by the refreshing lack of red tape.
The atmosphere is often very relaxed and normal office dress codes may not apply - you might be able to come in wearing jeans and a t-shirt if you want to. People just expect you to get the job done - how you do it is up to you.
You’ll need to be almost fanatical about the product you’re developing and have bucketloads of enthusiasm and great ideas. If you want to hit the ground running - and believe me, there’s no other way - make sure you understand the entire history of the business. Why it was set up, how they developed the product, any issues they’ve come across, and plans for the future. You won’t be a tiny cog in a big machine - you’ll be expected to turn up, pitch in and work as hard as the CEO. Everyone works hard, knows what everyone else is doing, and will expect you to pull your weight.
Here’s a brief run-down of what to expect at a start-up:
● You’ll work hard, but people will notice - and you’ll be rewarded for going above and beyond.
● Don’t expect glamour. California’s Silicon Valley has perpetuated the idea that all start-ups are comprised of glass meeting rooms, endless rows of Macs, slides, on-site gyms, and ‘napping pods’. You might find yourself working in a fairly ordinary office with a substandard PC.
● Occasionally you might find the job differs wildly from the job description - that’s to be expected. Consider it an opportunity to learn something new and boost your skillset.
● You’ll meet some great people who share your interests and passions, and you’ll probably make some friends for life.
● Sometimes you might be expected to work unusual hours - or extra hours - in order to get a project finished, but many companies allow staff to work from home and choose their hours when there are deadlines looming. So if you’re a night owl and most productive from 11pm - 3am, you can do the bulk of your work then and sleep in the next day. As a general rule, bosses don’t care when or where you do the work, as long as it gets done.
● You’ll have fun. Lots and lots of fun. Start-up employees tend to think of their office as a home from home, so expect Spotify playlists, snacks, team lunches, and the chance to enjoy a drink or two after work.
● You’ll learn communication skills that will set you up for life. From dealing diplomatically with problems to setting realistic expectations, your people skills will come on leaps and bounds.
What kind of skills do you need to succeed in a start-up?
● You’ll need to be self-sufficient and adept at problem-solving. Everyone will be super busy, so you’ll need to be able to work through issues alone sometimes.
● You must be good at communicating and making it clear what you need from other people - managing expectations and being honest about timescales is essential.
● You’ll need confidence and a willingness to come forward if you have an idea or you spot a potential problem. Be prepared to challenge other people - and have your ideas challenged.
● Flexibility is key - you may find your workload changing at a moment’s notice - and you’ll need to be able to prioritise your work, depending on what other people need.
What to ask at the interview
Your interview isn’t just about persuading the company that you’re right for them - it’s also about seeing if they’re a good fit for you!
The company should be willing to answer any relevant questions you have and be able to show you that their ideas and ways of working are sound. Here are some ways to see if you’ll be a good fit - and to show your interest.
● How are you funded?
● What’s your plan for the next 5 years - and what’s the overall plan?
● Do you have plans to expand, and recruit more people?
● Who are your competitors?
● Does the team get on? Do you socialise together?
Signs things are going well at a start-up
The interview is probably the only chance you’ll get to see the start-up in action and get a feel for the office dynamics.
You won’t get the full picture of how the company’s doing for the short time you’ll be there, but you can definitely spot signs that things are going well.
● If appropriate, ask if you can meet other members of the team. Do they seem happy and able to talk about their role? Can they explain in what way they’ll be working with you?
● Are the other team members talking to each other, and do they seem cheerful? Do they look like they’re enjoying what they do, or are they slouched over their laptops, listening to music and looking miserable?
● Ask people about any issues or setbacks they’ve faced. If they say brightly, ‘What’s a setback?’, beware. A start-up with confidence in its product will openly admit to difficulties they’ve faced, as they’ve been able to tackle them.
● Engaged, happy employees will take the time out to come and meet you, and will ask you questions about yourself. They’ll want to see if you’ll fit into the company culture, and if your personality will gel with theirs.
Benefits and perks
● Startups tend to operate with minimal bureaucracy, so you’ll find there’s a lot of freedom to work the way you want to. Smaller start-ups just want you to do the job with minimal fuss, so you’ll be free to get things done without cost codes, briefs and endless meetings.
● You can bring ideas to the table and make suggestions - even if you’re the intern, people will take you seriously and value your input.
● You can shape your role and really make your mark.
● You can be part of a business that is still learning and growing, not a stale company that is set in its ways and unwilling to change.
● Many companies will offer you the chance to travel and take on extra training - every person counts, so they will want you at the top of your game.
Signs that a startup has issues
If you’ve never worked in a startup before and you land the job - congratulations! You’re in for a whole new world of incredibly rewarding work.
However, if you’re new to startups, you might initially struggle to notice if something’s amiss. It can be difficult at first to tell if a job’s incredibly challenging - or things are falling apart, and the company’s in trouble. Here are some warning signs to watch out for.
● Nobody can explain what the product is in under 15 seconds - and everyone’s explanation of what it is is different.
● You have no faith in the product and wouldn’t recommend it to family or friends.
● The focus changes wildly every day and there’s no consistency. Beware of any company which uses Agile terminology to explain away issues - ‘pivoting’ should just be ‘making a slight change’, not ‘changing the entire product’.
● There are long meetings with plenty of talking and ‘mind mapping’, but no resolutions are reached.
● New plans and ways of working are hastily drawn up and then forgotten the next day.
● The company is not making money after several years and has no plans to start charging for its product.
● There’s a high staff turnover and absence is common.
● People seem unhappy, stressed, or are frequently tearful and angry.
● There’s in-fighting, a blame culture, and the atmosphere in the office is toxic.
● You’re made to feel uncomfortable for pointing out issues and accused of ‘rocking the boat’.
● You’re spoken to disrespectfully or people use offensive language towards you. Start-ups often have a more relaxed culture and many employees welcome the chance to speak freely, but if you start to feel like a line’s being crossed, it’s probably time to leave.
Treat the list above like an airline safety card. There’s very little chance that you’ll ever need it, but just in case, it’s good to know what to look out for if something doesn’t feel right.
Finally, enjoy! Start-ups are a great way to get your teeth into the world of work and develop streamlined, productive ways of working which will stand you in good stead for years. Who knows? You may even find yourself developing the next big thing. Apple had better watch out...