As a headhunter for startups, small, medium, to global Fortune 500, publicly-traded businesses, I’ve seen firsthand the realities of how your employer can CHANGE the trajectory of your life, for better or for worse.
Venture capital firms, entrepreneurs, and investors are creating startup businesses every second. You may have received many recruiter calls, newspaper mentions, and friends’ recommendations on the next trending company that will “revolutionize” your industry.
At the receiving end of watching my candidates’ emerge from their life decisions, I would like to warn that even if “bring your pet to work day”, “free catered lunches” and “ping-pong tables on every floor” sound like fun, the startup world isn’t always full of rainbows and unicorns.
In fact, a sustainably successful startup IS a unicorn.
Consider these factors before taking an opportunity at the next startup that wants to make you an offer:
#1. Management team. Your manager*, no matter at a startup or established business alike, RULES your life and your career (until you become CEO, then the board is your master). This crucial person(s) will be either opening doors for you, teaching you new capabilities, or draining your SOUL. The #1 factor ANY CAREER DECISION should be based on is who is running the show here.
*Manager is defined as anyone who has an influential impact on the trajectory of your career. Could be formal or informal. I.e. your manager has little control, but his/hermanager runs the show, then I’m talking about that manager. In short, the manager should be someone that actually makes decisions, not just a figurehead.
Factors to consider:
- Do you actually like the people you’ll be working with? Don’t underestimate how important this is. Work gets pretty miserable when you’re spending 8-12 hours a day, 5 times a week with people you despise or disdain. No amount of money or stock options will hold you over. Chances are you’ll quit before your stock is even worth anything!
- Do they teach you something new or better? Is your manager able to improve your skills and provide value to you? Do they command your respect? If not, why should you work for someone subpar than yourself? How can you progress if you’re working under a dud? You can bet that if your manager sucks, they’ll rely on stealing YOUR thunder to maintain THEIR job security. No surprises there!
- Are they part of the popular crew at work? You want to be on the winning team under a winning leader. Not someone that constantly fights against all the other departments and upper management rolls their eyes at. Remember, office politics trumps capability ALL the time. If your manager can’t get you the promotion you want or obtain the best projects for your team, how in the world are you supposed to progress your career?
- How legit are the founders? Their track record is CRUCIAL to understand before joining them. They can run out of funding, slack off, or lose their minds! THIS happens. You can’t rely on someone who isn’t serious about business and acts like a child. It doesn’t matter how much money founders can raise if they have bad personal habits like financial irresponsibility, laziness, egotism, or a serious vice. Those type of leaders CANNOT survive, no matter how great their pedigree is. You sure as heck don’t want to be stuck with them when the poop hits the fan!
#2. Product, service, site capability, something that defines a clear and advantageous competitive edge. Does this company actually provide a truly valuable XYZ that the world needs in some way? Or are they just seat-warmers, crowd-followers, and greedy corporate clowns who scam investors and essentially money-launder?
Decade after decade, Silicon Valley and Wall Street are littered with the corpses of companies who have wasted peoples’ time, energy, money, and careers.
Thus, make sure you:
- Take as long as you need to truly get to know the culture, people, and attitudes of this startup. Are they trying to do fancy-work so someone bigger will buy them out? Is this a case of a stock pump and dump? Or are they serious about creating a product/service/site that truly derives value for their stakeholders?
- Do your values, passions, and objectives align? Are you passionate about the product, brand, or service? You’ll have to derive meaning from your job to truly bring a startup to success past doing the bare minimum. If you don’t, someone else will surpass you in terms of enthusiasm and dedication.
#3. Financial health and trajectory of this startup. Especially if you have someone other than yourself to take care of, you’ll need to be responsible to your livelihood and wealth accumulation goals. Most people can’t afford to NOT GET PAID! So, yeah, money DOES matter. Here are some questions to ask during the interview:
- “What is the current financial situation? Please provide some financial documentation as to how much the “burn rate” is, how much we have left in reserves and projected revenue numbers. As much as you’re allowed to share. I’m making a big decision here and I’d like to understand the stability of what lies ahead.” ANY employer who gives you hell for this is ONE TO RUN AWAY FROM because it’s such a logical request they MUST have something to hide if they respond negatively or sensitively. Rightfully so, gather as MUCH documentation as you can before you sign on the dotted line or write your resignation letter.
- What equity/options lie in store for me? The only true tangible value a startup CAN provide to you is the value of your risk manifesting in owning a part of the company, then the monetization of that equity into actual money in the bank. Otherwise, why in the world would anyone join a company without a strong track record? I have to get something other than just a 401k and a measly bonus that I’m already earning! PLUS, most startups usually can’t pay well on base as more established businesses can, so what am I getting in the future for taking this short-term step back?
#4. Personal situation – Are you in a position to take on a startup job? If you’re in the process of buying a house, you may want to make sure you secure the loan first before leaving your position. Is your health in a position where you can afford to take a step back on your insurance options? Startups rely on YOU to take the company to the next level; there are no departments with 15-20 people who can step in if you drop the ball. Are you ready for that level of commitment?
FINAL NOTE: No matter what the outcome is, don’t ever blame companies, recruiters, employers, or coworkers for “selling” you on their company or the job. You make your own decisions. So take every step carefully and accept responsibility for your life’s choices. You’ll be much happier when you release grudges towards others!