7 reality checks about working at a start-up

Recruiters sell start-ups as the ultimate career dream, but what is it really like to work at one? Here are some true (and often harsh) realities about working at a start-up

It’s been almost 8 months since I saw two magic words in a low-key job advert: travel start-up. Not only was this company advertising my dream job, it was the kind of business I’d always wanted to work for. Start-ups abund in Amsterdam, and they’re sold as the ideal professional package: young, talented, driven and fun (so much fun!).

With the crazy determination that only comes from wanting something so badly you can taste it, I sent in the CV I’d proofread over and over again and the cover letter I’d edited within an inch of its life. After much nail biting and refreshing my inbox, the came back with an interview invitation. You can’t even imagine the elation I felt once I actually got the job – I’ve rarely been that proud of myself.

So, how does the dream job hold up after all these months? If you’re looking into working at a start-up, there are some (perhaps harsh) reality checks you need to be aware of before taking the leap.

At job interviews, culture fit can be more important than your skills

There’s a reason start-ups put more emphasis on company culture than corporate jobs. It takes a particular personality type to work at one – driven, energetic and intelligent aren’t just recruiter buzz words.

While we don’t like to admit it, there are hundreds, if not thousands of people who have the right skills to do our job. But it takes something more to work at a start-up. If you just want a 9-5 and to keep to yourself, there’s no chance you’ll get the job. Ever.

You must show passion for the company. Know what the company does (you won’t believe how often that happens). Their history. Clearly layout what they’ll get out of hiring you. Throw in some sass and a little humor – you’re not just another set of hands: you’re the person they’ll want to keep around.

In addition, be upfront as to how the job and company benefit you. Are there professional advantages, personal or both? During my first face-to-face interview, once I’d listed the usual points (chances to hone my skills, fast-paced environment… you know the drill), I mentioned that the office was only 10 minutes away from my apartment: I could literally roll out of bed and be there, pyjamas and all. Cue a laugh or two, and I’d made an instant impression.

Be prepared to deal with change (a lot of change)

working at a start-up

It’s exciting to be part of a young start-up. The company is just taking off, excitement fills the air and that first taste of success feels imminent. For that reason, the company moves forward in leaps and bounds. And, just as the company changes quickly, so can your role.

Start-ups lack the lengthy business planning and structured roles corporate ones do. With that in mind, you shouldn’t be too surprised if the job you started off doing turns into something else in a matter of months, even weeks.

It can be a good thing: if you see a development opportunity, there’s the flexibility to take it on. You get chances to improve skills you may not have had in other companies: branding, social media, project coordination… even interns can end up with more responsibility than they ever thought possible.

On the downside, you might bite off more than you can chew. The job becomes so far removed from its original description that it can lead to some serious job disatisfaction and stress. If that’s the case, talk to your manager. Be open and honest: mention that you’d like to explore other challenges more relevant to the role you were hired to do, which is where your true strengths lie. You’ll be a better asset to the company, and they’ll usually appreciate the feedback.

Just remember, phrasing things well is a must. Whatever you do, don’t put the company down. It’s a real sore point at start-ups, more so than other businesses. Most people there helped build the business from scratch – you won’t do yourself any favors by insulting all their hard work.

Even with a 40-hour contract, long hours are expected

working at a start-up

There’s no question about it: start-up employees are passionate about what they do. And that passion often translates into long hours. Very long hours.

Worker dedication is key to a start-up’s success. Even if your contract seems like the usual 40-hour week setup, you’re more likely to work 50 or, in some cases, 60 hours a week. It’s the start-up way. If your teammates are motivated and doing their best to succeed, wouldn’t you try to do the same?

The long hours are worth it if everyone pulls their weight to reach a deadline … and then take a break once it’s done. Some thrive on the energy, but it can get to you. Work is still work and it’ll take its toll.

Hard work with no milestones or breaks eventually leads to burnout. Start-up employees, more so than other professionals, are extremely prone to burnout but nearly always ignore the signs. High-achievers are so passionate about what they do, they tend to ignore the fact that their workloads are too heavy, last too long and cause tremendous amounts of pressure to excel — all of which makes them ripe for burnout. Admitting you’re burnt out feels like defeat: you’ve failed when others go on. It’s irrattional, but always the same.

You’ve heard it before, but we should always work to live, not live to work. Your health comes first. Something as simple as stepping outside and taking a breath of fresh air can do wonders, as can exercise or working remotely every once. Find what works for you, take it easy and fight the urge to constantly work on weekends – that’s time no one should take away.

You need to learn quickly

Just as start-ups move quickly, you also need to match their pace. When it comes to these young companies, there’s always something new and fascinating to learn. With their flat structures and open communication policies, you’re aware of everything going on in the company, from tech to customer service. Working at a start-up offers countless opportunities to stay informed through stand-ups, demos, weekly updates and brainstorming sessions. Now, more than ever, you need to step up and keep up.

Learning by doing is the best way forward. An important piece of advice my coordinator passed on was that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. If you’ve not done something before, you can’t possibly know everything about it! It’ll become blatantly obvious if you’ve no clue what you’re doing, especially a start-up environment.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help from skilled colleagues. Most of the time they’ll be willing to help and happy that you came to them for advice. It’s all about sharing knowledge: it’s one of the reasons start-up teams are so close-knit.

In most cases, you’ll love your new team

working at a start-up

Remember how I mentioned that all important culture fit? While it’s crucial for getting the job, its key aim is to ensure everyone’s working with like-minded people. Thanks to that, you’re sure to have a lot in common with your team. You’ll work hard and play hard, which can forge some solid friendships – inside and outside work.

If you’ve the right mentality, working at a start-up can be more rewarding than working at a big company

Start-ups are less bureaucratic than larger companies. Employees enjoy more autonomy, which usually leads to more satisfying work conditions. It’s not unheard of for someone to start as an intern and quickly work their way up to a head of department job – an almost impossible feat at larger companies.

But there are catches. The loose structures become pressure cookers, where everyone is working under do-or-die circumstances. If your idea fails and no one wants your product/feature/service, the company itself might fail. Being so needed and important can be exciting and fun for a lot of people. But it’s not for everyone.

 It’s tough, but start-ups can push to bring out the best in you

working at a start-up

For all their hardships, working at a start-up can give you the ultimate career push. In a short amount of time, you can attain authority and be in charge of situations beyond your reach in other similar level jobs.

It’s not all fun and games, and there’s a lot to consider before working at a start-up. But, with the right mindset, they’re incredibly rewarding and may be the best choice you’ll ever make for your career.


Got experience or more questions about working at a start-up? Leave a comment below or share your thoughts with me on Twitter and Instagram.

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