March 8, 2013
Is working for a startup right for you?
Molly Epstein loves her job. Since last May, she has been creating computer-aided 3-D models of jewelry for Ritani.com, a high-end diamond and jewelry e-commerce company. Working for a tech startup -- among user-interface designers, programmers and marketing whizzes -- has been a wonderful experience, she says.
“They’re open to my ideas,” Epstein says. “They listened to me about which programs to buy, and they have the money to back my ideas and what I wanted to do.”
It’s an autonomy and openness that may not be found in larger businesses with multiple layers of management. Epstein says the enthusiastic, collaborative spirit extends to the daily meetings, where every employee updates one another on progress, challenges and successes, and to the weekly meetings, where the executive team updates all the employees. “It’s nice to feel included, instead of just working on your thing and not talking to anybody else,” she says.
Of course, she has also burned the midnight bytes -- before the launch date, Epstein and other co-workers would stay until 10:30 p.m., and the programmers were on call throughout the night.
The startup environment isn’t for everyone. Those who like the extra perks that come with a large business, such as a workplace cafeteria, might not be as comfortable at a startup, Epstein says.
Are you ready to work at a startup? It comes down to fit.
Starting up in Seattle
Perhaps because of the successful hive of big-tech players in the Puget Sound region (Microsoft, Adobe, Google, Amazon), creative minds buzz in the area. People are willing to start their own company -- or get hired by the Next Big Thing.
“In 2011 and again in 2012, there were 113 deals into companies in the Seattle area [in the 206, 425 and 253 area codes] that got venture funding,” says John Taylor, researcher at the National Venture Capital Association. Those statistics are based on the PricewaterhouseCoopers/National Venture Capital Association MoneyTree Report from Thompson Reuters data.
An ability to be self-directed is critical, says Ophir Ronen, who has worked as both a founder and an employee at several Seattle-area startups. “‘Fire and forget’ is the term that comes to mind,” he says — meaning a manager can fire off tasks to a resourceful employee, trusting him or her to possess the ingenuity to accomplish the job, no matter what skills or resources it takes.
Employees at startups “should be able to dive in and discover the resources that they need, even if there is a lack of documentation,” Ronen says. “They should be looking at ways that they can improve existing processes, documentation -- essentially anything relating to the scaling of the company.”
Young people are a great fit for tech startups, says recruiter Kim Frost, who works with startups in the tech field, including the gaming industry.
“Millennials tend to be risk takers,” Frost says, which makes sense for someone with a budding career. There’s social clout in being able to say, “I was instrumental in developing that; that’s mine,” which builds an early-career employee brand. But all ages are attracted by stock options and opportunities for continuing education and paid-time-off flexibility, she says.
Learning multiple skills
At a startup, employees can improve their skills in multiple areas simultaneously. “The lack of a pigeonhole means that you can rapidly gain experience in areas that you would not get exposure to in a typical ‘Bigco,’” or corporation, Ronen says.
Their resumes will reflect that versatility and real-world knowledge, while it could take years to gain equivalent experience at a larger business.
Startups may also support a variety of remote work options. Ronen’s current company, Cascadeo Corporation, employs about 80 people, a mix of full-time employees and contractors who work in the U.S., the Philippines and Israel. “We’ve been virtual from inception, and all of our systems support working from anywhere, anytime,” he says.
Three out of four startups fail, according to recent research from Harvard Business School. “Of those that do eventually succeed, most endure rejections and failures along the way,” says Shauna Causey, vice president of research and marketing at shopping service Decide.com.
So pack a good attitude and a sense of adventure for time spent with a startup. “Long before customers and the market validate what you’re doing, the optimism you bring to work every day allows you to enjoy the journey,” Causey says.
That often-hectic journey -- from incomplete org charts to desk space -- doesn’t scare off startup employees, although it might worry or discomfit some. “People coming from large organizations typically have a very hard time fitting into these environments, because they are so chaotic,” Ronen says.
And about that desk? “People are sitting on top of each other and the workplace is bursting at the seams” at many startups, recruiter Frost says. Tech startups sound glamorous, but in reality, you might be opening your laptop in a crowded conference room if employee hiring has outpaced seats.
“The most important trait is being able to thrive on uncertainty,” Causey says. “Specifically, the ability to see uncertainty as a future that hasn’t been written yet but is full of opportunity,” along with a willingness to learn. “If you’re not willing to learn and adapt quickly, it can be a frustrating experience,” she says.
The startup market
If you think you can handle the perks and pitfalls of the startup environment, hot jobs include Web app developers, software engineers and infrastructure engineers, according to Frost. “Startups still want to hire good people,” she says, “and they can’t hire people fast enough.”
“It’s vital to be able to play multiple roles,” Causey says. “So having generalists -- a technical generalist, a communications generalist and people who can support the business in multiple roles -- is really important. With priorities changing frequently, the scope of work often changes much more rapidly than an established, large company.”
Recruiting isn’t often done using Facebook or Twitter; conventional networking and LinkedIn are more popular. To find a tech startup job, attend Meetup groups (for example, Frost says there’s a PHP developers group) and use social media to figure out who’s hiring.
Before applying for a job at a tech startup, make sure you believe in the business and the business model, Frost says. Employees need to invest plenty of enthusiasm, so the business must make sense, from funding to vision.
If you don’t enjoy games, a position at a gaming startup might not be a good fit, even if you would be working with cool tech or pull in a decent salary, Frost says. Understand the problems to be solved, the opportunities for growth and how you fit into the business’s vision.
On your interview, ask how the business is funded or about backers, Frost suggests. “If a company doesn’t want to divulge, I would pause,” she says, particularly if you have an elderly parent or children depending upon your income. If you’re more comfortable with risk, the position might still be a fit.
Startups are difficult, time-intensive investments and rarely make money, Causey says. “You’ll only last if you love it, so we want to hire people who have ‘a love of the game,’” she says.
At Ritani.com, the executive team of five employees has expanded to 20, and Epstein is now more than 30 weeks pregnant, expecting twins within weeks. “I was really nervous at first about how they would react to my pregnancy,” she says. “But the executive team are all parents, and they’ve been super supportive.”
She’s finishing out her last few weeks at home, thanks to her employer’s creative, problem-solving approach.
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