Art of the Start-Up May 21 2012

Seven Reasons Not to Join a Start-Up

By Kelly Eggers

It sounds so romantic, doesn't it? Dream up a great business idea, get funding, go public, become a billionaire.

Well, take off those rose-colored glasses, because while new firms create about 3 million jobs every year, according to the Kauffman Foundation, an organization promoting entrepreneurship, working for one isn't a walk in the park. That fun stuff folks like Google and Facebook promote--free food, laundry service, beer keg parties—is there to take the edge off the 16-hour days necessary to get from idea to reality.

If you're tempted to jump on the start-up job train, you'll be well-served to make a few considerations first. Below are seven characteristics of people who may not be cut out for life at a company in full-steam-ahead growth mode.

If You Like Being Able to Explain What You Do Every Day

If you don't want to see how the sausage is made, as they say, then you may find a start-up frustrating. That's because whether you join a start-up in a marketing role or to fill a sales position or write complicated code, it's safe to assume that, more often than not, you're going to have to help out with things you might consider "someone else's job" in another, larger company. "If you're going to want to have a long conversation before doing something that wasn't in your job description, a start-up isn't for you," says George Anders, author of "Becoming a Rare Find."

That's because at a start-up in growth mode, manpower is inevitably in short supply. "Start-ups are more than an 'all-hands-on-deck environment," says Kathy Ver Eecke, founder of Working for Wonka, a Silicon Valley-based start-up consultancy. "It actually takes all hands to keep the deck above water."

You might be asked to work on projects that require subject matter expertise that you don't actually have, but will be forced to learn on a deadline. What a start-up needed when they wrote your job description has already changed, and what they needed you to do yesterday isn't necessarily what you'll be needed for today. The lack of predictability can throw some traditionally trained workers for a loop.

If You Do Your Best Work with Instructions

A frequent, but fundamental, misunderstanding about working for a start-up is that you really do have to be innovative every day. Sure, innovation is needed when you're developing the idea for a business or how you can improve a product, but even the day-to-day business aspects require a level of enterprising creativity.

"In a start-up, they don't know what the job's specifications are," says Steve Blank, author of "The Start-Up Owner's Manual" and a retired eight-time entrepreneur. "They're still searching for a business model." You might have some semblance of an end goal in mind, but you'll be tasked with figuring out every little thing that is needed to reach it. That can be mind-boggling for people who are used to being trained when they take a new job, Blank says.

While you might find the same job title at a start-up that you had at a large firm, you shouldn't assume the work will be the same. "A VP of sales at Procter & Gamble doesn't have the same specs as a VP of sales at a start-up," Blank says. "You have concrete job specs at an existing company because they have developed a repeatable process," he explains. At a start-up, you have to develop a process that works so it's worth repeating.

If You're Keen on Family Time

"Working at a start-up is incompatible with being a family person," says Anders. "It's a much easier life if you're single, if the idea of staying late on a Friday is no problem at all." He points to a number of successful start-up founders, many of whom are in their 20s or 30s, who don't have families to support or spend time with during the years that they're working tirelessly to get their businesses off the ground. "For those who do have families, you need someone who can connect with your kids during that period because you're not going to be around that much," Anders says.

Putting your personal life behind your job is a difficult thing, and is a balance people from more traditional work backgrounds often feel strongly about maintaining. "Your hours can expand at any time in any direction," he says. "If the start-up is going to take off, you may find yourself working six to seven days a week, getting in early and leaving at 10 p.m."

If You're Counting on Benefits and Job Security

Along with their long hours, start-ups have come to be known for their creative perks. From free food and on-site dry cleaning to reimbursed fitness and commuting costs, many start-ups strive to provide everything you need day-to-day within the confines of their workplace. It's a nice bonus, considering the lengthy hours employees put in tend to make everyday errands and chores a bit more burdensome.

That being said, corporate converts may find these "benefits" rather paltry. "A start-up could have terrific perks for everything," Anders said, but they may not offer you health insurance or a 401(k) match. "From bed to bed, you're taken care of," he says, "but they may not be concerned in a big way about providing for your retirement in 30 to 40 years because they're trying to build a great company right now."

If You're Really Attached to Your Button-Downs

"You must be comfortable with 'the Big Lebowski Effect,'" Ver Eecke says. "Start-ups have a strong distaste for formality and anything 'corporate.'" They take pride in their dual-purpose ping-pong/conference tables and the fact that bringing dogs and lizards to the office is encouraged, she explains, but that's just the surface-level stuff. "A lack of formality can also mean a lack of structure," she says. You may forego a regular job description and title, normal work hours, meetings with an agenda and the ability to keep your personal and professional lives distinct from one another.

The chummy environment of many start-ups is present for a reason: Team dynamics in early-stage start-ups can make or break the business's trajectory. "The people you're working with become your friends and family," Anders says. "It's important to keep high esteem of people even if you're putting pressure on one another."

If You're Easily Discouraged

In the world of start-ups, you'll be hard-pressed to find an entrepreneur who hasn't encountered failure at least once. Whether it's an entire firm that crumbles or just a business decision that forces the company to pivot, people who have trouble admitting their shortcomings aren't well-suited for risk-laden start-ups.

In particular, complainers and devil's advocates will be quickly shown the door. "Big companies can tolerate and even welcome skeptics," Anders says, "but in a start-up, you can't afford negativity." Anders notes one start-up that had a rule about complaining: You could only do so if you had come up with a solution to the problem. "Start-ups don't have a team of people to come up with a solution," he says. "You have to find your own fix."

In essence, failure is tolerated while negativity is shunned. "If the idea that things could go up in flames tomorrow doesn't work for you, you're not right for a start-up," says Ver Eecke. Most entrepreneurs have come to terms with this concept, and embrace the idea that failure, however disappointing, is a learning opportunity. "If you aren't comfortable with the fact that a start-up might fail, you at least have to be comfortable with your boss being OK with failing," Ver Eecke says, instead of concerned that they're not looking out for the best interests of the project. The best interest of the project may, in fact, be totally scrapping months of hard work and starting over from the beginning.

If You're a Perfectionist

Sure, it'd be great if everyone got everything right the first time, but most companies are launched with the presumption that things aren't going to be perfect the first time. "Big companies may put out new product upgrades every 18 months," Anders says, "but for start-ups, that can be measured in a matter of weeks. You may be launching one version while the next has already gone to the drawing board."

The "finish it now, fix it later" mentality is driven by the sheer speed at which innovation is happening today. "Some of the skills that are very valuable in big companies, like ensuring that you don't make decisions before you're 99% sure," aren't valuable at start-ups, Anders says. "In a start-up, you make decisions on 70% to 80% certainty," he says. "Being close to right is better than being the fourth person to come to market with the same idea because you were waiting for every last detail to be sorted out. You have to know when to go with 'good enough.'"

Write to Kelly Eggers at kelly.eggers@dowjones.com



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