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Are startups good to work for? This is a question I recently navigated with my students in an Entrepreneurship course at Columbia University. After navigating both the traditional corporate and startup world, I can confidently speak to the pros and cons of working at a startup. The truth is, the answer is less about whether it’s a black-and-white “yes” or “no,” and is more about your personal preferences and needs.
I’m a long-time advocate of startups and have been supporting their growth for more than a decade. I may be biased (or perhaps it’s that I possess the right character fit), but I have my personal preferences for the startup environment. That said, it’s certainly not for everyone, and I wouldn’t say startups are “good to work for” as a blanket statement. Without a doubt, each startup has its own structural challenges and learning curves, and navigating this comes with some costs — but it also comes with great benefits (not the kind you pay into bi-weekly).
To really answer this question, we first need to understand what makes a startup unique. That is, what fundamentally separates it from a more established business? It seems like a straightforward concept, but since startups eventually become more established businesses as they grow, the line becomes blurred. When does a startup become an established business? For the sake of this article, we’ll consider a startup as a business that’s in early-stage growth, either pre-seed, seed or even scaling. Conversely, we’ll consider a more established business as one that is a few years into growth stages and beyond. Again, this is only considering the most basic-level understanding for the sake of conversation, since factors like time and revenue can play a factor in truly defining whether a company is a startup or an established business.
Now that we’ve established what type of business we’re talking about when we talk about startups, let’s get into the good stuff: Is a startup good to work for? I mentioned the answer to this is more based on preference than it is a black-and-white “yes” or “no.” So, let’s take a look at some of those preferences:
Related: The How-To: Choosing Between A Job At A Startup Or A Corporate
The team size of each company will vary. With startups, the team size will not only vary, but it will also rapidly change — expand or contract — based on the health and stage of the startup. Generally speaking, startups will have a smaller team, particularly at the beginning. The great thing about smaller teams is they can curate deeper relationships and connections. But it also means there are fewer people sharing more responsibility, which can create a stressful environment. If a smaller team with more interpersonal connection sounds appealing to you, a startup may be worth considering. Outside of that, most businesses, regardless of team size (whether startups or corporate), will have the strain of little bandwidth, so consider the tradeoff wisely.
It is true that established corporate businesses can certainly be fast-paced, particularly those in some industries like advertising, entertainment, journalism and others. Still, startup environments are generally fast-paced, relatively speaking, which means you have to be ready to move. It’s an opportunistic environment in the sense that you have to move quickly to react to consumer needs, investor requests and new opportunities to create connections for growth and support. All of this folds into the need for rapid growth before your capital runs out or so that you can drive revenue to scale. If you’re looking for a slower-paced environment that feels zen, this is harder to come by in the startup space, unless the company intentionally commits to creating this for their employees, which is a rare find despite popular ethos.
Related: Staying The Course: What It Means To Work In A Startup
The environment of a startup is a great place to grow — as a business and as a professional. Because of the innovative and agile nature aimed at growing the business, there is usually a lot of flexibility to provide your expertise across multiple disciplines. You can wear many hats and apply your interests and skills to a larger scope of work, which allows you to grow alongside the business itself and establish leadership. This means you can have a developing role and evolving responsibilities in most startups based on needs. Established companies, however, tend to like you to stay in your lane, and it can be difficult to make a team or role switch. If you like having the flexibility of contributing to different aspects of the business and its growth, a startup may be a great consideration for you. If you’re looking for a role that is more stable day in and day out with no change, you may be more attracted to an established corporate business.
Process and decision-making
The last attribute of startups to consider is process and decision-making. This may be last on the list, but it’s a big one. Feeling like you’re contributing and have buy-in in company decisions is increasingly important for today’s workforce. Having the ability to be involved in decision-making is valuable for many and connects to your personal purpose within the organization. With more established businesses, you generally won’t have as much transparency among teams and will be more removed from decision-making. Additionally, the decision-making that you are involved in will usually take longer, have more red tape or approvals, and have more of a complicated process.
With startups, you have more autonomy, generally speaking, giving you the ability to more directly create impact, collaborate in your decision-making and benefit from open communication across teams. As I discussed in my book, Leadership Lessons from a Team Captain, this type of dynamic is very conducive to healthier relationships and work cultures. If having more ownership over and involvement in decision-making feels like a more comfortable process for you, perhaps a startup is the right route.
Related: Do You Have What It Takes To Work At A Startup?
While there are many factors that contribute to whether any single startup or company is good to work for, there are general patterns we see among startups that differ from those among established corporations. There are generational differences and preferences, personal experiences, backgrounds and many other factors that can contribute to each individual’s comfort zone — there is no right or wrong, they’re just preferences. Hopefully, by considering how startups offer a unique environment, you can better decide whether it’s a space you want to work in.