Are You Suited for a Start-Up?6 November, 2017 / Articles
When I finished business school, I had two job offers. The first was from the Boston Consulting Group, where I’d worked before my MBA program—the obvious choice for a young professional in search of a stable, lucrative career. The second was from a Series A–stage venture-backed start-up with only 30 employees that wanted to transform the internet into a secure business environment—a much riskier bet. I accepted the second offer and never looked back.
In the years since, I’ve worked for three start-ups and, as a venture capitalist, invested in more than a hundred. I’ve learned a lot not just about how to found a company—raising money, finding initial customers, hiring a team—but also about what it takes to join a start-up and help build it into a large, successful organization. Joiners are employees number two to 2,000 who work alongside founders to develop their ideas into real businesses.
Making this leap is rarely easy. Relative to established organizations, start-ups can be hard to figure out. What are the jobs to be done? The best entry points? How can you tell whether a company has potential for success and is the right fit for you?
Start-ups have no clear hierarchies or paths to advancement. But from their embryonic stages through more-mature ones, they need good managers to create and effectively run departments such as marketing, product development, and sales. And one can accrue numerous personal and professional rewards working for these young organizations. In nearly every interview I’ve conducted with start-up joiners, they have emphasized how much they value the autonomy, creativity, and growth they experience in their jobs—all elements critical to fulfillment.
Start-ups represent giant experiments. Every initiative is new.
So it’s important for those in business—from newly minted MBAs and junior executives to seasoned leaders—to better understand how these companies operate, to envision how they themselves might contribute, and, if the situation feels right, to make the leap.
Assessing Your Fit
To work at a start-up, you’ll need to do three things you might not have learned in school or in jobs at larger companies: manage uncertainty, push the limits, and think like an owner.
Start-ups represent giant experiments. Every initiative is new. One hypothesis after another is being tested. Titles, functional boundaries, roles, and responsibilities are often fluid. The team works as one, inventing, creating, moving toward shifting goals—all while working without a playbook. Given this organizational dynamism, which continues even through the later stages, anyone working for a start-up has to be comfortable with large doses of ambiguity and uncertainty.
Push the limits.
My father was an entrepreneur, and I remember that whenever he was confronted with an obstacle—having to stand in a long line at a popular museum, for example—he would look for a way around it, not by cutting in line but by testing assumptions. “Can’t we design a more efficient system?” he would ask. “How can we get around this obstacle and speed things up?” This tendency to actively question rather than passively settle is key to success at a start-up. If you want to work for one, you should be the sort of person who’s always looking to solve a problem, make the solution more efficient, make it repeatable, and keep iterating from there.
Think like an owner.
Working at a start-up, you’re expected to become emotionally invested. The sense of mission and adventure is greater than at a traditional organization, and your efforts are clearly and directly linked to the value and success of the enterprise. You must therefore be someone who can care deeply about not just your own work but all aspects of your company. My dad’s measure of employee commitment involved a hypothetical staple on the rug near the front desk of his company: He wanted people who, no matter their position, would stop, pick up the staple, and throw it out. At a big company you might walk past thinking, Someone else—the cleaners—will get it. But not at a start-up. In an entrepreneurial organization everyone must think like an owner, always asking, “What can I personally do to make this place even more awesome?”
Picking the Right Company
If you feel that you’re right for a start-up, you next have to choose the right company for you. My advice is to approach this important decision methodically, in four steps.
Pick a domain.
First, find a field you’re passionate about. This means asking yourself a series of questions: “Do I prefer a business that focuses on consumers or on businesses? What kind of customers would I like to serve? Which brands do I admire the most? What are my favorite websites, apps, or subjects to read about?” These questions can force you to think very tangibly. For example, if TripAdvisor is your favorite app, you clearly love to travel and should perhaps look for a start-up in that sector. When you’re reading a newspaper, a website, or a magazine, which stories do you read immediately and thoroughly? If you tend to skip past headlines about, say, the media business, you shouldn’t join a new online video service. If you dive into stories about autonomous vehicles or virtual and augmented reality because you find the subjects intellectually stimulating, narrow your focus to those domains. I suggest limiting yourself to three areas; otherwise your search will become too broad.
Pick a city.
Not everyone can relocate anywhere for work. But for those who do have that flexibility, I recommend thinking very carefully about where you’d like to live. If you’re not currently based in an entrepreneurial hub such as Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, or Berlin, you should consider moving to one—not only for the job you are about to take, but to position yourself for the next several jobs, since start-up life can be fluid and unpredictable. These hubs are tight communities, often clusters of local universities, established technology companies, venture capitalists, and successful entrepreneurs. Each has its own pros and cons, quirks, and vibe. For example, L.A. blends media, entertainment, and technology while offering the benefits of the beach and an active lifestyle. Boston is the world’s best intersection of health care and information technology and represents a more professional environment. Tel Aviv is the cybersecurity capital of the world and crackles with raw energy. Figure out in which place you’d like to settle and build relationships. Once people choose a start-up community, they tend to stay. Your coworkers in one company could become your cofounders in another.