Start-Ups

Working for a startup: How to choose the right company for you

Working for a startup can be equally challenging and rewarding. Here's how you can know if you're cut out for it, and how to choose the right one.

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Image: iStockphoto/lofilolo

Abandoning corporate culture to join a startup can be a difficult transition to make. Each startup comes with its own unique set of challenges, as well as its own unique set of rewards.

While the risk level is high, the responsibility placed on you and the opportunities available to you will often be greater than they would be somewhere else. Working for a startup requires hard work and flexibility, but the potential payoff is huge.

Founders will do their best to sell you their vision, and they can often make it sound very appealing; but, you should still run the business idea by a few of your trusted business mentors. You want a company that presents a real market opportunity and is gaining traction with its product or service. Yes, startups and their employees shouldn't be afraid to fail, but you need to be able to pay your bills.

Startup employees are in high demand, but there are a few things to think about if you believe the startup life is the life for you.

1. Find the right people

A big part of startup culture is working closely with your colleagues. The stereotype of a big, open office speaks to a greater desire for collaboration and shared success. When you are hired at a startup, especially in the early stages, it's because that company needs someone on the team — your work will matter.

"You need to be best friends with the people you work with," said Steve Deckert, co-founder of Sweet Tooth. "You will spend more time with them than your family or your significant other. You will spend more time with them than you sleep — every single day."

That can sound intimidating but, as long as you properly vet the founding team beforehand, you shouldn't have anything to worry about. Pravin Kothari, CEO and founder of CipherCloud said that there are a few questions to ask of your potential new coworkers.

"Founders, management, investors. Do they have strong track records? Been there, done that? Similarly, does the startup's investors proactively help their companies? For instance, CipherCloud's investor Andreessen Horowitz operates an executive briefing center where they connect portfolio companies with prospects. That's exactly what a start-up needs," Kothari said.

2. Align your interests

Working for a startup requires a total buy-in on the companies values and vision. Making sure that your interests line up with those of your prospective employer is essential for would-be startup employees. This is precisely why so many startup employees are given the title "evangelist." The company's vision will become your vision.

Dalia Asterbadi, CEO of realSociable, said that this is part of maintaining balance.

"Balance is not in the traditional sense, such as work-life balance; it is more of finding way to keep your eye on the long term vision while dealing with everyday pressures," Asterbadi said. "Setting short term goals and aligning your vision to ultimately meet the long term vision is a very important part of any business."

Checking that alignment of interests is a difficult thing to do. The only way you can be absolutely sure if your short term and long term goals match up with a startup's is to work there. But, Daria Shualy, whose job official title is "Don Draper" at daPulse, offers a good question to ask the founders during the interview process to gauge where the company is heading.

"What are the three top things on your priority list/roadmap right now? If they can answer this straight away, without hesitation, this indicates a focused startup with higher chances of succeeding and an everyday culture that is not confusing and ambiguous," Shualy said. "If they can't answer this, or worse — they seem to have contradicting answers — stay away!"

3. Pursue your passion

One of the biggest mistakes first-time startup employees make is going to work for a company simply because it seems like a "cool" place to work. The reason that this is a mistake is because those employees often end up in an industry that doesn't excite them and they struggle to find fulfillment in what they are doing.

"You need to be passionate about at least one of: the industry or your product," Deckert said. "If you aren't, you won't work hard enough."

At a startup, your work matters. The success of a startup is dependent on the work put in by each employee, and that requires employees who are both passionate and dedicated. You'll more than likely be working on a small team with limited resources, which can be challenging; but you'll also have much more say in how things are done. Finding a startup that is working on something you're passionate about will make it easier to own your work and support your teammates.

The old adage says that if you find a job you love, you'll never work a day in your life. For startups, if you find a job you love, you'll still work your ass off everyday of your life, but it will be worth it.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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