Jobs at startups are some of the most coveted in today’s job market. Working at a startup is rewarding and fulfilling. Employees at startups are working at companies that could radically impact society and people’s lives for the better.
As we are constantly inundated by stories about the early employees of startups celebrating successes and riches, the prospect of working at a startup is often idealised. Employees enjoy working hard because the work is meaningful and exciting. Startup employees also have some of the most outstanding benefits on the job market like stock options (so employees can get a slice of the pie in the riches), unlimited holiday allowance, ping pong tables, dogs running around the office, beer on tap, and so on. So what could possibly go wrong for employees working at a startup?
In this article, we shed some light on the reality of working in a startup as one of the first founding employees, before all the glory hits. Here we unpack the common challenges that early employees of startups have encountered.
You will need to be comfortable with constant uncertainty
The reality is that most startups fail. In fact, around 89% of startups in Europe fail. And it’s typically a long road to success with multiple roadblocks and speed bumps. One day, you could be finding your first customers, finding champions that are excited about what you are building, recruiting new team members, and securing funding. And the next, you could find your customers churning, your colleagues leaving, and your term sheets from investors not coming through. As an early employee, you should be prepared to ride the emotional rollercoaster.
You will be expected to go above and beyond
Your hours will likely not be 9-5. It is kind of an unspoken startup rule that you are expected to work beyond what is expected to get the work done. You and your colleagues will be giving their all to make ambitious ideas come to life to help the company succeed. Although the majority of startups encourage their employees to maintain a work-life balance (which indeed is important!), you should expect some unusual hours and longer workdays.
If you are in a junior or mid-level role, you may think that because you do not manage others that you are less significant to the overall success of the company. However, you are still a key piece of the puzzle. Your work – no matter how small the task may be – will have an intrinsic impact on the success of the company.
You will be required to take on tasks outside of your responsibilities and capabilities
Early-stage startups likely have a small foundational team that covers the core requirements of their business to help them to get off the ground in key areas like sales, marketing, operations, and engineering. Among this core team, there will be skills and knowledge gaps. Your role can also change based on what is required of the business. You should be comfortable to take on tasks that are outside of your job description. You could be tasked with something that you perceive you are ‘underqualified’ to do, like being a manager, hiring a team, or speaking to investors. Taking on a task outside of your depth can often lead you feeling uncertain and confused. But you will be required to quickly learn these tasks to be able to learn how to tackle these responsibilities.
On the other hand, you may also be asked to do tasks that you are overqualified for. At times, everyone is required to pitch in and help things run smoothly. For example, what we see commonly in the early days of startups is that everyone in the company including the CEO and software developers help with responding to customer support queries.
You should expect things to be scrappy
Within early-stage startups, there is a lack of capacity and time to create perfection as companies are moving fast. As a result, growing companies are known for being disorganised. What this means is that there will be perhaps no formal processes and procedures formally documented while the culture and the conduct of the company are still being honed.
Most startups also won’t have full-time finance, HR, or payroll department. Your HR, payroll, or administrative queries will likely be handled by a founder who handles these responsibilities on top of their extremely busy schedule. It’s likely on your first day that you may not have a formal onboarding. There is also a fair amount of ‘learning on the job’ and you likely won’t have any formal training sessions. You probably will also be given new tasks and projects with minimal direction on how to execute them.
Startups are also financially strapped as well. They are trying to keep their burn rate low and extend their runway as long as possible. You will have access to fewer resources than you would at a larger, more established organisation. You will learn to be the master of being resourceful at a minimal budget. Also, expect your compensation to be lower than the competitive market rate.
You should set your ambitions high and believe in them even during tough times
Because you spend so much time working and are often compensated at a lower salary than at a more established company, you have to believe in the mission and what the company is trying to achieve. You should be able to perserve and believe in yourself, your team, and the company even when times are tough and when you encounter failure. Many successful startups had to encounter failure before they found success. All companies that have succeeded have this one trait in common – even after companies encountered critical obstacles, the founders and employees at these companies stayed committed and strongly believed in what they were doing and what they were trying to accomplish.