To join a startup or not?

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I’ve been asked severally what my thoughts are on working for/with a startup. In the course of my (relatively) short professional career, I have worked more for startups than the so-called established institutions. Both types of institutions provide their merits: startups offer an environment where innovation is key for success in every aspect of the operation, partly due to limited resources. You have an opportunity for making substantial impact, and greater appreciation all round. The work environment tends to be more relaxed. The learning curve is steep. Flexibility. Stock options. The list goes on. Established institutions work better and more smoothly due to structures having been put in place. The pay tends to be better. There is more job security. Time to productivity is usually less rigid compared to a startup. There are more perks offered.

That being said, if you are considering a job in a startup, I believe the following are some pertinent questions to ask before making the leap:

  1. Start with why: According to Simon Sinek, Your Why is the purpose, cause, or belief that inspires you to do What you do.  If your reasons do not align with the opportunity, it is likely that you will not be happy. Check your motivation also against your personal values. Your core values will determine whether joining a startup, or a particular startup, would be a great move.
  2. Who are the founders and what is their story? Learning more about the founder(s) of a startup can go a long way in cluing you on the motivation behind the company. Check for past work history, successes and failures, education background, awards won, check out their web presence, follow them on social media, learn more about the history of the startup itself and any other strategy you may employ to learn more about the startup. All these will be very helpful when you need to make a decision on whether to take the leap or not.
  3. Where is the money coming from and how long can it sustain the business? What business model is in play? Are they donor-funded? If there is funding in place, what type is it? How much runway does the organization have before it runs out of money? What is the plan for that? What is the current monthly revenue?
  4. Do they offer stock options and what is their vesting schedule? Many startups are using stock options as a way to attract, retain and motivate employees. Many individuals have become millionaires through stock options in companies like Facebook, Google, and Whatsapp. The concept of stock options is that it is attractive, not just for the perceived monetary value, but also for the sense of ownership it gives an employee. Of course for this to make sense, you must believe that the company will succeed.
  5. What is my role in this startup? Due to the nature of startups being an all-hands-on-deck kind of place, your exact role can blur with time. It is very important to establish what you are expected to deliver on early enough. A startup, as I mentioned earlier, is a place that allows for great impact and great appreciation. The downside of this is that you not delivering on your mandate (whether you even know your mandate or not) is glaring.

At the end of the day, no amount of due diligence will guarantee a startup’s success or failure. I believe a startup is an incredible place to learn, grow and diversify your experiences in ways that an established company may not allow, and present you with opportunities down the line.

If you enjoyed this post, I’d be very grateful if you’d help it spread by emailing it to a friend, or sharing it on Twitter or Facebook. Thank you!

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