The Unique Culture of a Startup & How to Expand Your Skillset
My career so far has been a wild ride – from working in a research lab at a biotech startup, to office management at a healthcare company, and now being an engineer at a lean HR startup. In the transition from one startup to another, I’ve grown professionally and discovered a job function that I am passionate about. Whether you are early in your career or already well established within your field, there are a lot of potential challenges to consider before committing to working at a startup.
From each startup that I’ve worked at, the experiences that I’ve gained have helped me grow my soft skills and my technical skills. In addition, I’ve developed a diverse skill set and seen the challenges and benefits of working in a startup.
This isn’t your Regular 9-5 Job
The reality is that teams run small, and there will be days where you have to come into the office early or stay in the office late. A small startup is generally less than around 50 people, and because there are so few people, each person individually will have to work harder and generally longer to achieve the required amount of work for the startup to succeed.
Whether it’s meeting a critical marketing deadline, fixing a high-priority bug, or hopping on calls with potential clients about the product, all of these scenarios and many more will most likely occur when working at a startup. Mentally, you must be prepared to work more than 8 hours in a day if it means driving the product and business forward. Typically in a larger company, the likelihood of working more than 8 hours is significantly less than that of in a startup because there will be more people on each team to meet deadlines.
That being said, your co-workers in a startup will usually be respectful of your time and personal space. In the three startups that I’ve worked in, whenever there have been personal obligations that I’ve had to address, my co-workers have always been lenient on letting me take care of them. However, this flexibility may not be the case for everyone, and others might tell you that their personal time is more restricted due to the startup that they work in, either due to co-worker or manager pressure or the heavy workload and deadlines that they must meet.
Your Job Description is Just a Guideline
While you’ll have a job description, it will only serve as a rough plan of what will be required from you at a baseline level. In reality, you will most likely be needed wherever required to keep the business afloat and functioning.
For example, you may be one of two UX Designers on a team of 18 people at a startup. Business priorities shift to where extra hands are needed in marketing and business development. You may be asked to help out with handling marketing needs, something which was not stated in your job description. In another situation, your team of two UX designers may be swamped with loads of work. Someone from another team who has the bandwidth to assist you may jump in and provide support where needed.
During my previous job as an Office Manager, I worked with the UX Design team to implement design changes to the physical office space, something which normally would be done by the People and Culture team. However, because the People and Culture team had more demanding priorities, duties got shifted to the UX team, and they took ownership of some of the interior design projects.
At a larger company, your job description will most likely match your daily responsibilities. You may be doing the same set of tasks for several years, unless team structure changes. At a small startup, your responsibilities will evolve over time, sometimes even weeks. Six months from when you start working, your responsibilities will not match what your job description is. This shift also means that your skillset and your willingness to learn and take initiative must also be present fast for you to scale proportionally with the startup that you work at. Be active and go the extra mile to make the product that you’re working on as successful as possible!
When it comes to mid-sized startups, which is generally around 50-250 people, your role may be more well-defined and consistent with your job description. Departments are defined in these startups, although you will still always have to be ready to jump into action wherever you are needed.
There May or May Not be Mentorship
At a startup, your manager will most likely be too busy to closely manage you and spend a lot of time with you. They may not have as much time (if any) to dedicate towards your career development, so if you want to succeed in a startup setting, you’ll have to learn how to manage your schedule and take ownership of the projects assigned to you. Some initiatives that you can take include setting deadlines for yourself, blocking out time on your calendar, using external resources to figure out questions you have, and probably spending time outside of work to learn new things that will make you better at your job.
At the first startup that I worked at, my manager was extremely loose with managing me, and did not provide me with much mentorship when it came to performing the tasks at hand. I worked in a scientific research laboratory, and was extremely unfamiliar with the nitty gritty details of performing experiments. I did a lot of outside learning and reading up on topics I had previously learned in college, and research papers that were difficult to understand. I spent extra time in the laboratory learning how to do all of the experiments with other colleagues, and learn how to use a certain software for data analysis. All of this learning took time, but eventually I was able to become efficient at performing these experiments.
In my second job at a startup, I worked closely with my manager. He worked with me each week to improve my skills, develop my career, and grow as an individual. Because of this mentorship, there was less independent effort required in order to grow into the role. When it came to career development, he even supported my departure from the company when it came time. When I told him about my decision to leave the company to pursue a career in a different field, my manager was extremely supportive of my decision, and even provided me with job referrals, resume help, and an invitation to come back in the future!
Don’t expect mentorship from a startup. It is possible, but unlikely that there will be time for one-on-one attention. I would suggest to be ready to be self-sufficient and resourceful – there won’t always be a manager or mentor that can support you when you hit a code bug, a business problem, or a lack of knowledge. You have to be the one to dig yourself out of that hole and solve problems on your own.
Opportunity to Experiment
A major upside to having control over your work without a hovering mentor is that you can use your skills to solve problems in your own way. You have the freedom to try new things and experiment with what may or may not work.
If you work in business development or sales, and want to gain experience as a programmer and designer, there is a great chance that there will be opportunities for you to jump in where you see the need. Working at a startup can be an amazing way to learn and grow fast, all the while maintaining your core responsibilities in your original job function.
It is actually more beneficial to have autonomy in the workplace. It leads team members to be more productive! I personally didn’t know that I was interested in software development until I started working more cross-functionally with engineers and designers at my previous workplace. I loved the technical yet challenging aspect of engineering work, and wanted to pursue that interest more as a career.
Passion to Succeed, but Pragmatism to Fail
Working at a startup requires each and every individual to believe in the business and product that they are building. Working at a startup for the simple purpose of receiving a paycheck should not be the reason why you work at a startup – startups require everyone to be ready to overachieve and commit 100% to their product and mission.
Each startup has their own set of values that embody the company’s mission and inspire employees to work their hardest to reach the common goal of making the product succeed. The previous startup I worked at had seven core values – the two that were both emphasized within the company were “Transparency” and “People First”. These two values were extremely important to the company’s overall mission because that company’s product reflected these two values strongly.
Unfortunately, there is always the chance that a startup can fail, no matter how well one seems to be doing on the outside. Startups are run on funding. Funding can come from any person or company, and helps businesses be financially stable and avoid going bankrupt or being acquired.These events are all likely to occur for a startup, with over 50% of startups failing after 4 years. That being said, I believe the pros of working in a startup greatly outweigh the cons, and the success of a startup is a lot of times contingent upon its employee’s efforts. When everyone on the team works hard and believes in the company’s product, the determination to make that company succeed multiplies exponentially. The morale of a team can directly impact the quality of work that is completed, therefore affecting the company’s chances of being successful.
Should I Work at a Startup?
If you want to learn fast, work in an exciting environment, and develop a variety of transferable skills, then working in a startup is the place for you.
For someone who is early in their career, going for a big name company for the paycheck or name is not always the right answer. Working in a startup environment gives you a more diverse skill set and will always make you a coveted hire. You will be set up for success when looking for a job at either a small startup or a big company.
And what makes this even better is that you will be working with like-minded individuals that are also excited about working in a startup environment. Together, everyone will gain invaluable experience by working cross-functionally and collaboratively with one another. These experiences and skills will help you develop a deeper understanding of how businesses are built and what makes a product successful.
Whichever path you choose, remember that nothing is permanent and you will always learn something new. It is almost impossible to avoid change in the workplace. Whether that means you are taking on responsibilities from other departments or advancing your personal knowledge within your field of expertise, you will continue to grow and become a more skilled professional.