Should I work for a startup? Pros and Cons?

engineering Nov 05, 2020

Having worked in a few startups in my lifetime, I thought I'd share my experience, and also some things I wish I knew before joining. When I say a few, it's more like 2 and a half. Anyway, with working in a startup or any type of job, there are always going to be some trade-offs, advantages, and disadvantages and sometimes just being aware of them helps.

Also, I don't think there is an ultimate right or wrong answer here. It all depends on you, your expectations and the key is to find out what they are, so that you are more informed and at least then you can decide and ask questions when presented a chance to interview at a Startup.

First, a little background

What I would like to highlight here is what I'm sharing is by means not expert advice. However, at the very least, it does come from experience. I should also disclose that my experience has predominantly been in tech-related startups. So what I share here may be different on the type of industry and startup.

Okay, so, let's get straight to it.

How to identify a Startup when they say they're a Startup

Now, the definition of a startup can be rather loose or have various definitions, but I think everyone can agree that a startup is a small company that has just "started" it's business and has a handful of employees.

It can be funded from outside investors or self-funded, or even a mix of both.

If a company has say 10-30 people and has been incorporated and trading within 2 years or so, it may have received funding or self-funded, I would safely say, yes, it is a startup. I would even go as far as within 5 years, I would still classify it as a startup. Others may disagree, but that's how I would interpret it. You get the idea.

Let's say there is a company with about 10-30 people but has been trading for let's say over 8 years or well over 10 years, then it would be difficult for me to say it's a startup. However, I can imagine some companies in certain industries, perhaps medical or robotics that may take many years of research or before any revenue is generated, then it's understandable that the company may call itself a startup.

If a company has been running for several years, let's say 10 plus years, have paying customers, has a healthy number of employees, well established in the space, then it would be difficult to call it a startup.

There are no strict and defined rules of what defines a startup, but generally, the three factors are age, finance (funding and revenue), and the number of employees.

The reason for stating this is so that you are not deceived by an organisation claiming that they are a startup and try to acquire and lure talent when they are not a startup.

Take Google for example. Would you consider them to be a startup in this day and age? I didn't think so. Back in the early 2000s yes, they were classed a startup. Right now? Not so much.

10 Reasons you should work in a Startup

So I've broken it down into 10. It seems popular among the internet space to add a "Top 10" so here it is. I thought it might be more impactful. There might be more, but these are the best 10 I can think of. So, in no particular order:

  • πŸ’» Small teams. Depending on the size of the startup you join and depending on what stage, I assure you, it will most likely be in a small team. The company may be large, say 50+ people, but the internal teams will be small. This is good for a few reasons. Small teams are more effective. As Jeff Bezos states "teams should be small enough that it can be fed with two pizzas". Teams tend to be more efficient and productive as there is less communication that is needed across the team since it's small.
  • πŸ‘¨β€πŸ’ΌπŸ‘©β€πŸ’Ό Work closer to founders. What does this mean? Well, it means, the owners or founders will know your name. This is a good thing. You will receive more recognition as well as praise, which is rare in large corporate organisations. You may get recognition from your senior team members but founders and co-founders? Well, you can't beat that.
  • πŸ‘¨β€πŸš€ No defined career path. Now, depending on how you look at this. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. Hear me out. In my experience, some startups have no specific career path for some team members. Others have defined a career path. For startups that do not have a specific career path, I don't think it's intentional at all. It's just that with a startup, they have so much going on such as hiring, building, funding, establishing market fit, and lots more, and unfortunately, this tends to either put on a lower priority or forgotten at times. Especially in the early stages of a startup. However, just because it's not been defined, it doesn't mean you can't define it! This is where you can take the opportunity and craft a career path with the startup, and this is a very rare opportunity.
  • πŸ•΅οΈ Multiple roles and responsibilities. As it’s a small team, you’ll probably need to put multiple hats on. Depending on how you feel about this, this allows you to learn much more and experience things you may not have had the chance.
  • 🀝 Hiring. Did I mention working in small teams? Well, as startups have small teams, you may be given the chance to be involved in hiring. This might be for either your team or for another. Generally, you would think that interviewing is for senior members right? Well, if your team was say 3-4 people, the likely hood of you interviewing either a candidate in the first round or subsequent interview rounds is likely as they would need to make sure people can work well together. This reinforces the previous point in terms of multiple roles and responsibilities and gives you valuable experience in the hiring process.
  • πŸ’Έ Salaries. I think there is an ongoing myth or rumour that startups don’t pay well. Well, I cannot say it isn't true. But, what I can say is that generally, a well-funded startup can reward their team competitively. So if you think, "oh no, I'm going to have to sacrifice my salary for working at a Startup". Well, the sacrifice may not be as much as you think. Payscale shows that the average salary in the UK, for a Product Manager ranges from Β£32k - Β£64k, and for Senior Engineers anything from Β£48k - Β£118k. Β For the US, PayScale shows similar averages for US startups. Hopefully, this demonstrates that they can be competitive and it's not entirely down in the dumps.
  • πŸ’΅ Equity or options. On a good chance, and if you join reasonably early, you may be offered equity. Now, this does not mean there is a guarantee that one day that these options will be worth something. It's rare, but at the same time, how common is it that you get the chance to obtain equity or options? It's kind of like holding a lottery ticket. Sometimes it’s nice to have a lottery ticket in your hands rather than not. Keep on the lookout for the terms of the options as most likely you will have to stay with the company for a certain number of years before they vest.
  • πŸ—³οΈ Politics. I would like to say there aren't any. But, I will be lying. I would like to say that politics may be for best intentions, but sometimes it can be taken the wrong way. Am I being political here? Maybe. Either way, it's a lot less I would say when compared to large corporate organisations. Much much less.
  • πŸ€“ Knowledge. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you will learn a lot more and gain a significant amount of knowledge. The key here is to ask questions. As the company grows, there are opportunities to ask questions about how things were done or just seeing that growth is important. This is rather broad, but depending on the field of expertise area, it's an opportunity to not just gain knowledge in your specific field, but you could learn something, for instance about marketing (if that's not your field). How social media accounts are managed? How are does the company talk to customers? What's their approach to dealing with complaints from customers? What kind of software do they use to deal with X and Y? With this, you can arm yourself with this knowledge so you know what worked and what didn't.
  • πŸ™‚ New projects. I'm not sure how to word this one, but whatever field or market the startup is, and especially if you're in tech, it will most likely be using new technologies as well as working on new projects. With more established companies, new projects may not be as often or opportunities are slimmer, and you may have to work with legacy systems. With a startup, you have this opportunity and in most cases, it's generally more fun to work on new projects than perhaps say a legacy system that you have been tasked to revive. On that note, what you may work on now, it could be considered a legacy system in a few years.

10 Reasons that may put you off working in a Startup

Now what I state below is by no means what every startup suffers or lacks. Some may not even have any of these issues and that's great! But it is worth mentioning and these may not even be startup specific and apply to jobs in general. Also, depending on what stage you join a startup, the issues not even apply.


The list below is by no means to depict startups as a bad place to work, nor does it apply to startups specifically and it can even occur in jobs in general. Also, depending on what stage you join a startup, or organisation the issues may not even apply.

So, here they, are, another 10 and in no particular order:

  • 😧 Hectic. There will be ups and downs. Expectations can be very high at times, delivery, overloaded or overwhelmed, and countless deadlines. All add to the stress and the pace can be fast. But it shouldn't be like that at all. Not all the time, and it's not healthy, nor sustainable. Be sure to look out for this. If the startup becomes too hectic and doesn't slow down in a way that gives employees to breathe, then they and you are going to burn out. This takes me smoothly onto the next point.
  • πŸ˜“ Burn out. If you're not careful you could end up all burnt out. It may be fun at first and getting deadlines smashed and onto the next project or task, but everyone has a limit. I did. Don't get burned out. It can be difficult to recover from.
  • πŸ’² No bonus or overpay. Now this will vary among companies. Some do pay for overtime and bonuses, others, unfortunately, don't. I would say not to expect any would avoid disappointment. If they do, great! Otherwise, if you come from working environments where you get an almost guaranteed bonus at the end of the year, then you most likely miss this perk and so will your bank account.
  • 🎁 Limited employee benefits or packages. Something to look out for and each startup will vary. If you have had the luxury of working in a large co-operation, they will usually come packed with perks such as health insurance, dental, employee share scheme (if any), maternity or paternity packages, life insurance, gym, car, book allowance, gadget allowance, the list goes on. These benefits do help from day to day, and this one is not to be ignored. Generally, at early-stage startups, benefits are limited, but once they become more established there are some competitive packages.
  • πŸŠβ€β™‚οΈ Thrown in the deep end. Now, you may not get support such as a large company where there are managers, senior team members, full training courses, and guides, and at times it might be a sink or swim situation. If you are used to guiding assistance and structure, this will be something to consider.
  • 😞 More responsibility. As well as being thrown in the deep end, you may find yourself taking on more than you can chew. This may not be startup specific and can occur especially when certain team members move on and their roles are not filled in. This could mean taking on more responsibilities that are not of interest to you at all. But one would hope this kind of thing is temporary.
  • πŸ’Έ Salaries. Now, I did put salaries as a positive point, but it can't be ignored that they also fall under as a negative. Some startups may not offer competitive salaries and this could be down to the financing situation. They may not be funded and just starting. So this is something to consider. However, for those well funded, then they would be in a better position to offer a competitive salary.
  • 😞 Startups do fail. This one can't be ignored and there is a risk that a startup has to shut down. Some homework into the founder or co-founders would help as well. Have the founders done something like this before? How much funding have they have received? This should be able to give you a rough idea of the runway (i.e. how long they can last with the funded money) before (a) they need more funding, (b) they have established healthy revenue (c) they will shut down.
  • πŸ’» Equipment. No fancy standing desks. Dual monitor, ergonomic or mechanical keyboard mouse, latest MacBook's, Dells, Microsoft Surface laptops, whatever it may be. Again, this will vary from startup to startup, some will be able to provide excellent equipment, others may not. To avoid disappointment, don't expect the latest and greatest.
  • πŸ₯΄ Lack of process. At the early stages of startups, teams will be in small numbers. The entire company could just be a handful of people. This generally results in a lack of a process when it comes to doing things, completing tasks, or assigning each other work. This can be chaotic at times. But as time goes on, as teams grow larger, processes are needed. If you are the type where you can need a refined and regimented process regardless of team sizes, then startups may not be for you. Again, each startup will vary, and you may find that there might be a regimented work process.

Final note...

I hope that has been helpful in some way and not everyone is going to agree or be the same, so be sure you join a startup for your right reasons. It can be the most rewarding experience and gain heaps of knowledge without you even trying at times.