Two months ago, I took a massive risk: I quit my job with a government organization and took a job with a startup. I left what many would argue is the safest job, to go work for a company with little job security. My parents thought I was insane. Was it worth the risk? I sat down with my friend Sean Michael, who also recently transitioned to a role at a startup, and we came up with 5 things we think you should know about working for a startup:
Anything is possible, money and time are your only constraints. During the interview process, Empire Startups Founder Jon Zanoff asked me what my ideas were. I rattled off a few things I knew would make a tangible difference, and Jon said “Great, now you just have to make them happen”. At the time, I didn’t realize he wasn’t listening to my answer, but rather gauging my reaction to having that much autonomy. Startups are high growth organizations, so the possibilities for improvement and growth are limitless. The number of hours in the day and the costs associated with these changes are usually the only barriers. It was really easy for me to propose the launch of a blog and make the case for the value it could add, but after adding a few more projects into the mix, on top of my standard workload, I see how my own time and energy is a limit to how much we can do.
Bureaucratic hoops are replaced with rings of fire. Start-ups require quick, on-the-spot decision making. In larger and more hierarchical organizations, projects get held up while getting proper-signoff. It can be frustrating to put forward a proposal you’re enthusiastic about, and then realize it will take several months just to get approval for the project, let alone implementing it. In startups, you’re frequently the decision maker and the rescue squad. You have to put out fires and make rapid-fire decisions while giving every decision its due diligence. You can put an idea forward, get the go ahead, and begin implementation all in the same day. The question isn’t whether you have ideas, but rather do you have what it takes to deal with a crisis while also managing several timelines.
Throw away all notions of the 9-to-5. We all know that work-life balance is important, but that balance shifts when you work for a startup. If your startup-up is scaling quickly (which you hope it would be!) you’re almost always on call. Every issue that pops up is urgent, and requires your immediate attention, which means answering emails on weekends and solving problems in your pajamas. Perhaps you work entirely remotely, so you’re home becomes your office. This all sounds daunting, but as most startup employees can tell you, is also incredibly rewarding. I found that being entirely in charge of a project meant that I was happy to take a call on a Saturday, or in one case, even teach myself enough Python in one evening to complete a project. When you have autonomy over your work, you feel responsible for it, and at the end of the day, proud of your organization.
If you’re really worried about losing all work-life balance, or even worried of burning out, ask about the company’s flexible working policy prior to taking the job. Can you work from home, or take work home in the evenings instead of sitting at the office until late at night? At the same time, you need to be realistic about how much time you are willing to dedicate to your job. Startup employees are passionate about what they do, and that leads to more than 40hours a week, almost every week. Only take the job if you’re passionate about the mission, and ready to do whatever it takes to help the company succeed. Everyone around you expects hard work, but it’s because they love their job, and expect a similar level of commitment from their colleagues.
Making waves is encouraged. In government and corporate environments, the challenge is to be innovative without rocking the boat too much. The bureaucracy involved in making even minor changes are enormous, and can be exhausting. In startups, however, you want to make waves – and lots of them. Every process is always up for reevaluation, and flat, agile organizations are always interested in looking at new ways of doing things. This can be really exciting, since you have more room to think creatively and will see your ideas being incorporated, but it does take time to take a risk and shift away from the sense of security and stability of corporate guidelines.
You will become your own teacher and boss. Resources and time are stretched thin at startups, so you’re expected to take initiative and make things happen yourself. This isn’t to say you will not get training or that you’ll be left to flail in the deep end, but rather that you are expected to look for your own answers. At times, you’ll feel like you’ve been abandoned, left to your own devices, but think about the tools at your disposal, and be prepared to make mistakes. Case in point: We recently switched over to a new CRM system at Empire. I was tasked with migrating information from one system to another. I was expecting guidelines on what information we want in the new system, but I was basically told to just make sure the new system had everything we needed, and was easy to navigate with a clean format. It was on me to learn how to do this migration and to set up the new CRM as I saw fit. I created my own criteria for the database, and set myself goals and deadlines. I knew I could reach out for help at any moment, but I was energized by the process of finding my own way to the end goal.
Working for Empire Startups has been an incredibly rewarding experience, but startup life was definitely a significant adjustment. A job at a startup gets you a lot of autonomy and responsibility. It can be an incredible growth opportunity, as long as you’re prepared to be flexible and change your mindset towards what office culture looks like. Startups are for you if you’re ready to work hard and let your passion fuel you, to push yourself harder than you’ve been pushed before. If you’re balancing different things, and are not sure that you can dedicate your entire self to this role, working at a startup probably isn’t for you. Startups really value diversity of experience and perspective, so if you’re worried that you’ve never worked for a startup before, don’t be. A fresh set of eyes is always welcome, and a focus on the future is paramount.