Five Reasons I Work at a Startup
And why you should too
It was the end of 2011 and I had officially ‘escaped the city.’
Rewind twelve months. I was working in healthcare, running a GP surgery of 20 staff, 8,000 patients, and sat on the board of two small companies to commission healthcare services for a borough in the centre of London.
By spring 2011, I was four months into my mission to change direction and was devoting evening and weekends to three fail-safe ideas. I hired Muhammad, a PHP developer based in Pakistan to build a product to solve what I saw as a huge gap in the market: an app that would allow surgeries to book temp doctors directly and cut out expensive agencies. It is an industry ripe for disruption.
A few months later and I had an annoyed Pakistani developer, less money, and my three ‘fool-proof startups’ were dead in the water. This whole tech startup business was harder than I had thought it would be. I was living proof of how startups suffer such a high mortality rate.
Around that time I was offered a product management role at a ‘real’ startup. I remember very clearly telling my old boss I was leaving. His remarks captured the dilemma well:
His words were met by momentary silence. If my own experiences had taught me anything it was that he was right. I was leaving something secure for something that wasn’t.
Anyone contemplating a move away from the ‘safe’ world of traditional employment to work for a startup faces this dilemma: It’s like gambling, a high-risk, high-reward strategy. So, should the prospects of failure keep you away?
Failure’s got a bad rap
So what if you do fail? I learned from my previous experience that failure isn’t all bad. It’s tough love from a caring teacher. With each failure comes experience and with each experience comes learning. Even though my endeavours haven’t exactly gone the way I wanted I am still far better prepared for my new role than I would have been eight months prior.
So, from my vantage point, I had two options: stay somewhere I wasn’t happy or take a risk. It might fail, but I’d learn, be more prepared the next time around; and at least I’d enjoy what I was doing along the way.
Startups let you be you
Startups are generally better environments for letting you be you. Wearing a suit, learning to master biz-speak, working with people who just want a paycheque and not much more – that gets old real fast.
The traditional workplace quickly moulds you into a certain kind of person. That person may not be you. It certainly wasn’t me.
Don’t get me wrong: your work environment, whether startup or not, will shape you. But in a startup you help shape your work environment because you’re helping shape everything. In my experience, the focus is more on doing something than being someone.
Learning deep and wide
Get into a startup early enough and you’re likely to do everything at some point. I’ve done product management, UX, sales, social media, team leading, client work, and more at the same job in less than two years. The goal is to make the company succeed and that means doing what it takes, and often, “wearing many hats”. The upshot of that is that you learn loads of skills and discover your passions and your strengths along the way. As the company grows, you grow into the role that is right for you and become a specialist in what you love.
You’re more creative
In a startup you get to tap into the kid version of yourself that loved colouring, Play Doh, puzzles, and make-believe scenarios. Being creative is an innate trait that is often suppressed with time. Working in a startup draws out that side of you because everything, your brand, colour scheme, product, features, office, structure, everything must be created. In most jobs your right brain is left to atrophy. In startups it’s a necessary resource to regularly tap into.
You might just succeed
And then there’s the off chance that your startup not only doesn’t fail, but succeeds in a big way. The honest truth is that riding a wave of success like Whatsapp can actually happen. However, that kind of success, by its very nature, is an exclusive club… but still within the realm of possibility. That’s why startups continue to flourish; products are still being created, and VCs are regularly investing. Why? Because even if the chances are narrow, new Snapchats and Instagrams (and much smaller companies for that matter) are created successfully every year.
Well, if I were talking to my two-and-half-years younger self I’d say, ‘Don’t screw this up for me! You don’t like your job and this is going to be awesome!’ So, my toned-down version for you is: definitely give it a shot. Changing direction isn’t easy, but you might just find yourself a few years down the line feeling very grateful that you did.