Startups seem so glamorous these days, don’t they? We have all read the familiar narrative of an awkward twenty-something tucked away in his dorm, hacking on the next million dollar, or if he’s lucky, billion dollar platform that is sure to disrupt an entire industry. We see headlines of some of the most outrageous startup ideas being funded and achieving astronomical valuations pre-profit. Throw in Oscar nominated movies like The Social Network, delivering the smartest and swiftest dialogue, it’s hard not to be intoxicated by the allure of it all and jump ship your corporate gig for seemingly greener pastures.
For me, my interest in startups came about while doing an internship in Kenya working on mHealth and IT related projects intended to streamline healthcare delivery. Improved internet connectivity has helped attract international tech giants like Google, Microsoft, and IBM to fund acceleration programs and innovations centres. Affectionally dubbed “Silicon Savannah,” Kenya is producing apps that solve problems particularly relevant to Kenyans. Apps such as M-Farm and easy mobile payment systems like M-Pesa have facilitated easier commercial and personal transactions with increased transparency and limited fees.
Impressed by the entrepreneurial journey and the process involved in taking an idea from incubation to execution, I contemplated my next professional decision. I realized that working for a bigger company meant to an extent that my career trajectory would be somewhat pre-ordained and linear, so I looked to the startup community for a career full of adventure and a steep learning curve. Fortunately, after returning back to Canada I found a job at an online meal delivery company which was just five months into its precarious infancy!
When I tell people that I work at a startup, it is usually met with a collective response of “Ohhhh, how cool!” which makes me smile because I imagine they think I spend my time lounging on multi-coloured bean bags, loading up on the free snacks, and tracking my followers on social media. So, what’s it really like working at a startup? In the spirit of the new year, I took some time to reflect on the important lessons that I have learned, and take stock of the overall experience of working at a cash-strapped small business.
Your job responsibilities will be fluid. Everyday will require you learn about a part of the business that you were blissfully ignorant about beforehand. There is no singular job description and you will be required to wear multiple hats! Some of the outlandish things that I have found myself doing are personal home deliveries due to missed orders, ride-alongs with our delivery drivers to investigate processes, packaging orders when staff were unavailable, acting as IT and hardware support when everything decides to collapse on itself…and the list goes on. Every day can result in unexpected challenges as the business tries to find its feet. The constant change can be frustrating, but to succeed at startup, you will need to learn how to be agile and embrace the chaos.
You will learn how to run a business. At some point we have all toyed with the idea of being our own boss. Startups are an ideal environment to learn about business development, product development & pricing, creating marketing collateral, and building out strong business operations. Administrative details like renewing business licenses, filing trademarks, and acquiring appropriate insurance are equally important, albeit mundane tasks that are critical for success. These business functions are usually taken for granted, but when working for a startup you are exposed to most of them, equipping you with business know-how and setting you up with a solid foundation.
You can discover and explore what your interests are…as long as they are adding value to the company. Startups allow you to try a little bit of everything, and offer opportunities where you can take the lead. There are many things that are overlooked, because startups are too busy fighting fires and chasing the bigger fish. Work is rarely delegated which allows you to take up as much work as you want. Looking back on the past year, I’ve lost track of all the different tasks that I partook in. Originally I came on as an Operations person, but ended working on projects related to website development, marketing campaigns, social media, SEO, quality control, and financial reporting.
There is no structure and you learn to expect that things will go wrong. Since everything in a startup is in the testing phase, nothing is certain; job responsibilities and procedures remain unclear which can lead to frustration and irritable co-workers. Feeling overwhelmed by how much needs to be accomplished in a short time period can create a high pressure work environment where we tend to be abrupt, cold, and a bit passive-aggressive. Throw in cash-flow problems and people being compensated below market value, and you have a situation that could escalate into bigger problems.
Keep yourself moving forward by investing in your own career development. The most appealing part of working at a startup is the opportunity to learn much more than you would at a corporate 9–5. While this is usually the case, it is not a guarantee. It is ultimately up to you to find where you can add value, since startups tend to be self-serving in what they need from you. Investing in your career development is not their priority — they are too busy trying to achieve a positive cash flow. Make it a priority to find new areas in which you can expand your knowledge and apply your skills to avoid doing the bulk of the junior-level grunt work.
So should you work for a startup? Depends on what kind of experience you want to have. If you are not sure where your interests lie, a startup can offer you opportunities to test-drive a couple of different roles. Do you perform better using a “think outside the box mentality,” or do prefer a structured environment that allows you to move methodically towards your goals? If you don’t mind the ambiguity, accepting a startup job for what it is — a promising opportunity to learn—can be a great launchpad for yourself. Remember, neither options are superior to one another, just different. Either way, assess what your career goals are before you decide to take the plunge!
Banner photograph courtesy of Wanderer Online Business Editor Neha Kumari.