The Unknown Benefits of Joining a Startup

7 min read
benefits of joining a startup founder network

For many people, working at a startup is a dream come true. Startup jobs offer the chance to explore your interests and collaborate with many smart and passionate people—not to mention the chance to make it big with an IPO or acquisition. But is working at a startup really all it’s cracked up to be, or should you join a large company instead?

There are many reasons to join a startup, but also reasons to not join a startup depending on your situation. Either option—working at a startup, or joining an established company—is completely valid. However, it’s likely that you’ll find one of these experiences a better fit for your personal goals and character.

Before you make any hasty decisions, it’s a good idea to think through your options and weigh the pros and cons of joining a startup. If you’re joining a startup for the first time, this article will walk you through what you should expect from your job at a startup.

What should I know before joining a startup?

Joining a startup can be tremendously engaging and rewarding, but also stressful and frustrating. Much of your experience will depend on factors unique to each individual startup: the executive team, the work culture, your team members, your job description and responsibilities, etc.

Before joining a startup, you should evaluate the criteria below:

  1. Executive team: A startup’s executive team is a crucial ingredient, perhaps even more important than the product itself. When searching for jobs, look for a winning startup team whose personalities and aspirations are compatible with your own. Founders without previous startup experience aren’t a death sentence for the company by any means. However, it does mean you’ll need cofounders, executives, and advisors who know about product management and building teams.
  2. Company culture: Even if you’re not a startup founder, working at a startup requires creative thinking, a go-getter attitude, and a great deal of independence and self-sufficiency. Startup jobs may seem chaotic at first glance, and employees may need to wear many hats throughout their tenure. However, many people find this freedom liberating and can lean into the chaos. In particular, junior-level startup employees should
  3. Work-life balance: If work-life balance is important to you, know that startup jobs will likely have you putting in longer hours than positions at larger firms. Spending a lot of time working late into the night or on weekends is far from uncommon. Make sure you understand what’s expected of you before signing up. In addition, good time management and organization skills can help mitigate the amount of overtime.
  4. Long-term goals: What do you hope to get out of working at a startup? Some employees are looking for connections with fellow entrepreneurs, others are hoping for a monetary windfall, and still others want to hone their technical skills. Make sure that your vision aligns with that of the company’s leaders.

Is it a good time to join a startup?

The question of the “best time to join a startup” will heavily depend on three factors: your personal situation, the broader economic climate, and the stage of the startup you’re joining.

First, you’ll need to decide whether it’s the right time in your life to join a startup. In particular, startup employees often accept a lower salary in exchange for equity in the business, with the hope that this equity can be cashed out after an IPO. However, there’s no guarantee that you’ll strike it rich, so you’ll need to have a healthy tolerance for risk.

Second, there’s the issue of business climate. While investors’ enthusiasm for startups may wax and wane, there’s always room in the market for companies with the next big idea. Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic disruption, startups have continued to set new fundraising records. In 2021, for example, startups received $621 billion in funding worldwide, shattering records and more than doubling from the $294 billion in 2020.

Finally, startups at different stages may be better fits for different types of people. Here’s what you should know about each one:

  • First hire: If you’re the startup’s first employee (or one of them), then the company is very close to a blank slate. The founder may be focused on finding a co-founder or CEO, and “departments” like sales, marketing, HR, and IT may consist of a single person. The product itself may be just a concept, or there may be a bare-bones MVP built. As one of the first employees, you’ll have massive amounts of autonomy, and can exert serious influence over things like the company’s business plan and product-market fit.
  • Early-stage: Early-stage companies have typically generated some momentum: winning a major customer, securing venture capital, receiving media attention, etc. You’ll learn a lot by working at an early-stage startup, and you can still enjoy a large degree of independence and flexibility (and larger amounts of equity). However, this is the “make or break” stage for many companies, requiring long hours and being comfortable with uncertainty.
  • Mid-stage: Mid-stage startups may not yet be profitable, but they’ve typically secured at least one substantial funding source. While the initial product and company vision are solidified, long-term strategies and roadmaps (e.g. for sales, marketing, and product management) may still be up in the air. The company may have dozens or hundreds of employees, which makes your job easier but perhaps less interesting and exciting (and with less equity).
  • Late-stage: Late-stage companies have settled down into a linear (rather than exponential) growth curve. Working at these startups is the closest thing to a position at a large company: departments are well-staffed, managers are even hiring interns, and employees have more job security and benefits. The downside, however, is that you’ll receive the least amount of equity by joining up later. You’ll also have less autonomy and less chance at upward mobility within the company.

Is it worth joining an early-stage startup?

Different startup stages are better for different people. If you’re a startup’s first hire, you have the unparalleled chance to mold the company in your image, as well as a healthy chunk of equity. However, this comes at the cost of longer hours, lower salary, and greater uncertainty.

Working at a late-stage startup, meanwhile, is closer to an established company. Employees enjoy higher job security and better salary and benefits, but receive less equity and have much less input on the direction of the business.

Given these differences, what kind of person should think about working at an early-stage startup? If you’re interested in the world of entrepreneurship, joining a rapidly expanding early-stage startup can be the perfect opportunity for career growth. The lessons you’ll learn as a member of an early-stage startup are invaluable, and can be taken with you for the rest of your career. You’ll also have the chance to network and make connections with the startup community.

In addition, early-stage startups often recruit younger employees and people who are early in their careers. These candidates tend to have lower expectations for salary, and may lack external financial obligations such as a family or mortgage. Employees with a higher appetite for risk are more willing to accept a slice of equity and take a chance on the company.

With the right team, a lot of hard work, and a dash of luck, early-stage employees can be very successful. Ultimately, there’s no single right answer to the best time to join a startup. Thinking about your personal goals and priorities is the best way to determine the right company for your career.

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