6 Honest Truths About Working for a Startup

work for startups

What comes to mind when you think of working for a startup?

Tech-savvy millennials on a mission to change the world? Ping pong tables and beer kegs in the break room?

Startups have a serious cool factor in our imagination, but startup culture isn’t for everyone. While all startups are different, many share the same pros and cons. Read on to learn about startup culture and whether working for a startup is right for you.

What’s it like to work for startups?

1. You’ll wear a lot of different hats

Because startups tend to be small and scrappy, each employee often wears many hats.

Student Loan Hero editor Rebecca McCracken worked at six startups between 2009 and 2014. At one of those companies, her role required her to work in public relations, marketing, event planning, and content planning. She even set up photo shoots and assisted photographers.

In more established companies these departments tend to be separate, but roles can blend together in a new business. To work in a startup, you have to be willing to step outside of your purview. You may also have to adapt to a lot of change in a short period.

This could be stressful if you prefer consistency in your role, but it can also be an excellent learning experience. By taking on different responsibilities, you’ll develop a variety of marketable skills.

2. You might work long hours

Bloomberg suggests that eight out of 10 new businesses fail within five years. To avoid that statistic, new companies often call for long hours from their employees — but they’re not always upfront about that expectation.

Startups often advertise that they care about the work you produce, not the number of hours you put in. But sometimes this rhetoric is code for an expectation that you’ll put in even more hours than the traditional nine to five.

Startup culture also commonly blurs the line between life and work. With ping pong tables, hammocks, and beer kegs in the office, why would you ever need to go home?

“I had a boss who would call, text, and email me at 2 AM about a work crisis,” McCracken recalls. If work-life balance is important to you, ask about it before you work for startups.

3. Your coworkers may all be recent college grads

Startups — especially those in the tech industry — often hire young employees. Data scientists at Namely found that more than half of employees at startups are in their 20s.

While you might enjoy this young atmosphere, you may also miss the chance for mentorship. Says McCracken, “There’s a lot of learning on the job, but you don’t learn from older people. You don’t necessarily get opportunities to work with seasoned professionals who know what they’re doing.”

4. You might get great perks, but terrible benefits

Some startups offer sweet perks such as game rooms and catered lunches every day. But sometimes these offerings replace more traditional benefits such as health insurance and 401(k)s.

This fact may go hand in hand with the age of employees. When you’re just out of college, you’re more willing to work hard without benefits. This reality, though, can become burdensome as you get older and have more responsibilities.

If the pay is low, you’ll have trouble saving money or paying off student loans without another source of income or support. McCracken says there were times she would have struggled to support herself without outside help. Now that she has a child, she wouldn’t work for startups that didn’t offer benefits.

Some new companies promise to introduce benefits in the future as the company grows. You may have to decide how long you’re willing to wait until that day comes.

5. You might not have a human resources department

Many startups lack the organizational resources of a more established company. Because they’re new and small, they often don’t have established HR departments. You might report directly to the company founder or CEO with any issues or concerns.

According to McCracken, some of the startups she worked in were “the Wild West as far as rules go.” She had to be her own advocate, but she wasn’t always met with understanding from superiors.

If a serious issue comes up, you may find yourself without recourse to solve it if you’re not comfortable bringing it up with your boss. If you experience discrimination, sexual harassment, or a violation of labor laws, you may not get the help you’re entitled to.

6. You could end up rich (or out of a job)

Being part of a new venture is exciting. The company could experience tremendous growth in a short amount of time. If you have stock options, you could strike it rich when the company goes public or gets sold.

On the flip side, the company could fail. After all your hard work, you’d be back on the job hunt. Of the six startups McCracken worked at, two lost funding, one was sold, and one ran into legal issues.

When she went back on the job hunt, she was worried that interviewers would be concerned about her job hopping. She had to explain that she left because the companies closed.

At the same time, she became more comfortable with change. Even though she was out of work, McCracken says, she felt confident she could easily get another job at a startup. If you’re interested in working in startups, you must accept a certain amount of risk.

Is working for a startup right for you?

As with any company, there are advantages and drawbacks to joining a startup. You could get huge rewards or find yourself out of a job. But if you believe in the work, the risk could be well worth it.

Before taking on a job in a startup, learn more about the culture and expectations. Ultimately, whether or not you work for startups all depends on your unique goals and needs.

Are you a new college grad on the job hunt? Learn how to market your skills to new employers.

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