Why work for a startup?

Why work for a startup?
Photo by Israel Andrade / Unsplash

I worked for a startup for six months before the company closed. Despite the result, that short tenure was a highlight in my career to that point.

While the motivations of an entrepreneur to commercialise a product might be obvious, it’s interesting to consider what drives employees to join their team. In particular, what inspires people to move from the relative comfort of an established setting to the incertitude of an unprofitable or unproven business?

I was the fourth business development manager at a small, four-year-old technology company. The business model had evolved considerably over its history and was in the third or fourth iteration by my arrival. I hadn’t personally invested but the company’s success or failure mattered to me because the work represented necessary change in my industry: social recruitment. Working in an emerging space was attractive and proved motivational.

I was going into my first full-time startup proposition with the right attitude: I purposefully set my expectations low in order to 1) qualify the value of the opportunity beyond remuneration and 2) anticipate and manage risks. If the gig lasted three months minimum, I was sure it would be interesting and worthwhile.

One of my business mentors said that however it worked out, I would learn a lot. This had real value at a time when I could have moved into a role similar to my previous position. I also felt that I should get at least one startup under my belt as part of a well-rounded career profile.

In the wake of the company shutting down, a number people in the technology sector assured me that in the USA a “failed startup” is simply part of earning your stripes as a professional. Perhaps in New Zealand we struggle a bit more with the concept of failure. In any case, I appreciated the comment.

What I learnt from the role was the result of working in a smart, aspirational team on forward-thinking ideas. That experience was enabled by the agility and coming together of talent in a startup environment.

For anyone considering a job with a startup company, or attracting talent to one, here are my observations.

A pragmatic vision is inspiring

If the balance is right, you’ll work harder than ever before--and like it.

It was great to be working at the sharp end of the talent acquisition market. Everyone’s roles in our company actually supported the effort to see positive change to how New Zealand people found job opportunities by engaging with employers/talent. The work was further motivating because we had a leader who got it--the vision, the strategy and also the more practical stuff around business, mentoring and work culture.

This created real meaning for me. Ambition was tempered (but not curbed) by pragmatism and a philosophical outlook. I was more ready to trust the experience and that qualified the natural excitement I felt for the career prospect.

Then you stop watching the clock.

Budget for the experience

If the opportunity to grow is good enough, create a financial plan to permit it in your career.

I’m a more interesting person having had the experience of working in a startup. I was involved in new thinking every day. Also, limited resources provided opportunities to work with a broad complement of my skills and develop a few new ones too. I was networking, developing leads, managing accounts; I was also copywriting, media planning and project managing.

Importantly, I don’t think I could have properly embraced the benefits of the experience if I didn’t have a safety net. That is, a timeframe and budget in which all my obligations would be met, that my partner totally understood, so that I could be flexible where and when the business needed.

Some startups motivate staff with future rewards of equity and bonuses. There was a more intrinsic exchange happening here. A little financial freedom through rigorous planning can give you the flexibility to benefit from the wider value of the work, giving you permission to do something amazing for your career.

Jonathan Rice wrote a fine piece on the history and impact of jobs.co.nz. In the those last six months, the team redeveloped the product offering and value proposition, pitched for and won ambitious projects and billed the biggest month in the the company’s history. Sadly the growing success of the latest business model succumbed to a legacy of debt.

But what a ride it was.

What's your experience of working in a startup? I'd love to hear about it.

Originally published on Tumblr.