Many candidates I talk to have concerns about working at a startup (20 people or less). Unsurprisingly, many stereotypes and categorizations are propagated through popular culture and social media. Whether in shows like Silicon Valley or scandals like Theranos, depictions of startups often put a bad taste in people's mouths. These accounts aren't unfounded - the stories we hear in the news are true.
However, like most things in life, startup culture is not black and white - there is a spectrum.
It is unfortunate because working at a startup can be an excellent opportunity to achieve common career aspirations: rapid growth and learning, long-term financial stability, and a strong network. When considering a career with a startup, I would recommend going in with an open mind and putting in the work to figure out what life at the specific company you are talking to looks like.
3 common concerns when considering working at a startup
Here are some of the most common stereotypes I hear and how my experiences inform my perspective on how things work at Explo.
Invariably, anyone considering working at a startup thinks about how that choice will impact work-life balance. Startup jobs are often synonymous with grinding, unsustainability, and long hours.
In truth, sustainability at a startup often comes down to the culture set by the founders. In this remote-first world, we've seen more and more startups adopt a culture of sustainability. Pushing employees beyond what is practical can result in short-term velocity but have long-term consequences.
During my time as a teacher, we used Maslow's hierarchy of needs to guide our approach to teaching. For example, physiological needs (food, sleep), safety needs (security, emotional safety), and belongingness needs (friends, relationships) needed to be taken care of before we could hope for our students to learn anything.
Similarly, at Explo, we believe that our employees can only be effective and productive if they have all of their higher-order needs taken care of. We focus on setting achievable deadlines, cultivating connections with co-workers, maintaining flexibility with working hours, and encouraging vacation. We believe that if our employees spend half of their waking hours working on Explo, it is our responsibility to make that time enjoyable, energizing, and sustainable.
Compensation & Job Security
Another critical consideration with startups is financial stability and job security. The prevailing perception is that you have to take a pay cut to work at a startup. Like before, the reality is that it depends on the startup's compensation philosophy, funding status, and growth potential.
At Explo, we use Pave to get compensation benchmark data. It looks at up-to-date data from thousands of company-reported data points to show salaries and pay at various company stages across different roles. Below is a Staff Software Engineer's salary data (cash component only).
What is striking about the data is that a seed-stage startup that decides to pay in the 90th percentile will give you the same cash offer as a multi-billion dollar company if they choose to compensate in the 75th percentile. Ultimately, startups are willing to pay market rate cash compensation for great talent.
The main differentiator is if you want to take on the risk of equity in private vs. public companies. Candidates have to choose how much they believe the startup will grow and multiply the value of their equity versus viewing equity in a public company as liquid cash.
Mentorship & Growth
Realizing professional growth at a company is not dependent on the stature of a company or the number of employees, but on the specific individuals you will be working with and learning from. If you choose a startup with the right people, you can access incomparable growth and opportunity.
Whether joining a large company or a startup, take as much time as possible to meet your peers and mentors. So often, I see candidates join a large company without a clear understanding of their team and ultimately get placed into an environment that isn't conducive to their growth. Try to connect with potential coworkers during the interview process and get a sense of what paths for mentorship and development you will have on your specific team.
Another common perceived pitfall is that startups tend not to have an unlimited number of senior engineers, unlike large companies. This is often true but doesn't always lead to a reduced growth experience. Even at a large company, you ultimately will be mentored and grown by just a handful of senior engineers. The ratio of senior engineers at a strong startup also tends to be the same.
Ultimately, I've found that few people choosing between a large and small company regret their decision. On the contrary, in the worst-case scenario for both options, they often tend not to turn out bad and have great benefits that ultimately make up for it.
If you're interested in working at a startup and want to explore opportunities, there are many resources such as Work at a Startup and Angel List where thousands of startups post opportunities including our team at Explo!