10 Reasons You Shouldn’t Work for a Startup

With their promise of potentially building something to rock the world, not to mention potential riches that could come from an IPO, startups hold a lot of sex appeal. But if you’re thinking that jumping into that kind of adventure is the next step in your career, be sure you’re thinking carefully. Some people are drawn to the idea of new companies the way moths are drawn to light — and they end up getting fried.

Road ClosedTo help you avoid that fate, we asked some serial entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to share the warning signs that should make you pause.

Do You Hate Chaos?

“How comfortable are you with chaos?” asks Steve Blank, a Stanford engineering professor and founder of several companies. He advises engineers and developers to ask themselves that question, because chaos is bound to play a role in a startup, especially a smaller one. “With a startup that has zero to 10 employees, nothing stays the same day-to-day,” says Blank, founder of E.piphany and MIPS Computers, among other companies. “But, as the company gets larger, you would hope the level of chaos is less.”

Analysis Paralysis

If you can’t stand making decisions, or working off of decisions that have been made, without having complete and thorough data, then don’t join a startup. You’ll drive yourself insane.

“Startup CEOs make ‘good-enough’ decisions. One of the main things they care about is whether their decision is reversible or irreversible,” says Blank. “Some engineers, however, like to talk things to death and aren’t comfortable dealing with a decision without 100 percent of the data.”

Adam Nash, an executive-in-residence at venture firm Greylock Partners and former Vice President of Product Management at LinkedIn, echoed similar concerns in a previous interview with Dice.com. He noted that if engineers need to see all of a project’s requirements, or are religious about architecture, they likely won’t do well at any startup, early or late stage.


A big reason to avoid joining a startup is an inherent disinterest in the notion of building a company. In other words, engineers and developers who prefer to work in a silo need not apply.

“All start-up people need to be ‘business builders’ versus single contributors and view building the processes around their job as a primary role of the job itself,” says David Bluhm, another serial entrepreneur who co-founded mobile-analytics company Medio.

This is only one of Bluhm’s reasons for avoiding a startup. Here’s his list of top 10 personality-centric reasons why an engineer, or developer, should avoid joining a startup.

  1. Looking for a tightly defined, clear and stable job description.
  2. Nervous with or around change. Startups are usually in a constant state of change.
  3. Does not have an insatiable desire to understand how a great company gets built.
  4. Think that building a great product in a successful startup, which secures a great exit, will make them happy. In other words, the happiness is tied to making money from the exit, rather than building a great company.
  5. Not made more alive by adventure, challenge and even stress.
  6. Unable to maintain a work life balance and define their worth solely through their work. A great company culture that is sustainable is not built with workaholics.
  7. Unexcited over the requirement to contribute positive energy to the company’s culture.
  8. Threatened by other strong minded, opinionated, talented or passionate people.
  9. Do not want to be accountable for — and leave their fingerprints on — a great product
  10. A 6+ year veteran of Microsoft. (Refer back to No. 1-3 on Top 10 list and that should explain it all).

“You get a multiple from people, or you get a mere fraction of people’s energy, depending on whether they are passionate about what they are doing,” Bluhm says. “They must believe that the road they’re working on goes somewhere special, or they will drop their tools early and lose heart in building it.”

How do you measure up? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

10 Responses to “10 Reasons You Shouldn’t Work for a Startup”

  1. JMacfadyen

    I absolutely do not agree. A startup is a great way to gain experience when you’re at the beginning of your career and a more stable and experienced firm may not be willing to give you that chance. My experience at a startup really spring boarded my career a lot more quickly than taking a more traditional path would have done. It also taught me some very valuable lessons on making do with limited funds and resources and how to look for open source alternatives.

    I agree it can be heartbreaking when the excitement is over and the doors close as they all too often do, but if you look at it as a learning experience and a chance to advance in a new direction then it can totally be worth it.

  2. Ken Rahmes

    Low stress individuals can thrive in chaos if they can define their Bubble of Comfort! Even in chaotic situations, some things remain constant. The trick is figuring out what your comfort zone is and fitting it into the maelstrom. Easier said than done, but it can be done.

  3. I remember a terrible example of “change of scope” that occurred early in my career. After bleeding to get the load monitoring software for the oil tanker programmed for a specific ship, we find out in a meeting the software is required to work for any ship.

    I contacted my management and indicated a massive change of scope had occurred. My manager went to dinner with the customer, wine was enjoyed, extra money was put into the contract (not for me), but the schedule stayed the same.

    All turned out well in the end, but as an example of what happens in startups, this made me aware of the chaos factor.

  4. David Penney


    I have worked for a string of startups in my career. I have never had more fun than working for these companies. I was able to experiment with whatever technology I wanted to explore and often surprised myself with what I was able to accomplish. I was given whatever responsibility I thought I could take on. The main disadvantages was the instability (these companies are useally underfunded) and you can expect long hours and lost weekends. You also tend to get a long string of companies on your resume which can be a put off to a prospective employer.

    After I got married my wife wanted a bit more stability in life so I went the opposite side and worked for a very stable somewhat conservative DoD think tank. This company has remote site offices all over the world. I found by working at one of the remote site offices I had many of the advantages working at a startup but I enjoyed the stability of a large established well funded corporation. The remote site offices were not much more stable than a startup but working at a large number of different site offices for the same company does not carry the same stigma as moving from one different startup to another every two years or so. I retired from this company after 26 years of service.

  5. “Startup CEOs make ‘good-enough’ decisions.”

    In my experience with startups, that was rarely the case. Most of them made decisions that reflected very short term thinking, and very few ever considered the consequences of requirements changes.

    In fact, the vast majority of startup CEOs I have met and/or worked for use being a startup as an excuse for being a sweatshop, and use being a sweatshop as an excuse for avoiding rational decision making. Naturally, none of these startups ever made it anywhere, and most of them didn’t even end up with a working product at launch. Their staunch resistance to putting extra time in to get quality products and attempting to make up for bad engineering with longer hours lead to larger development timelines, and the few that actually got products out the door couldn’t maintain them.

  6. Clay Scott

    Startups can be so motivating and inspiring. If you live entrenched in a niche and the startup doesn’t have a full time position in your niche, you may not succeed. But if you are truly flexible, multi-faceted, and willing to sweep the floors before a big meeting for example, you are the stuff that can make the entire team reach across their own boundaries and succeed.

    I work for a startup now. I have worked with the CEO twice before, and I enjoyed the challenge and the energy. I am an Electronics Technician, a “lab rat”. I have never been as far outside my comfort zone as I am now. But “the zone” never made me feel as challenged and vital to an organization. Corporate America pidgeonholes us where a startup allows us to use all of our knowledge while acquiring more daily.

    After 9 layoffs I know the false promise of corporate security isn’t the road to happiness and gratification I used to think it was. In our world of labor contracts that mean absolutely nothing I have a “real job” for the first time in almost 5 years. Win or lose, this is a better game. Win or lose, I will advance a valuable technology. I don’t think we will lose.

  7. Garry Hurley Jr

    The one startup that you should never work for is an IT recruiting firm. I swear that I have been contacted by ten recruiters per day, seven days per week, about the same ten jobs that I have already turned down. No sooner do I get off the phone with one than another calls me. It makes me feel valuable, but when I spent seven months unemployed, none of these recruiters could seem to find me a position that would meet my salary requirements. I was told I was ‘too expensive’ and was only asking for the median-level salary for a Java developer in my area. Needless to say, I have not spoken to that recruiter since she told me that, and I understand she has left that firm. Good riddance. Her former coworkers are begging me to do business with them, but I cannot bring myself to do business with a firm that would hire someone who would tell an unemployed U.S. veteran with a Master’s degree that he was ‘too expensive’ when he was asking far less than market value for his skill set. (I left out the fact that I have WebSphere Application Server administration experience as well as Linux, AIX, Oracle SQL and PL/SQL, DB2 SQL, and several UNIX scripting languages including Perl, Python, KSH, BASH, and well, I won’t put my entire resume here. Let’s just say it is extensive, even though my actual IT career has been short.) My problem is that you blindly lump all startups together. They should not be. A startup college, well, I would be a little skeptical about that. A startup that wants to sell books online, or run online auctions, or build a social networking site, I think I will pass. A startup that is doing something that has not been done, or is doing something that is so radically different from the way the industry works that it even appears new, rather than a ‘me-too’ company, yes, I think that would interest me. In fact, I am even considering starting one of those companies up myself.

  8. Billy Bee

    Startups aren’t for everyone, but you learn a lot quickly. And there is the potential for $$$$. If the product that they are building sounds like a great idea (use your intuition) and they offer you a great stock option plan (by great I mean thousands of shares for the price of 1/10th of a penny) then you potentially have an excellent opportunity in front of you, the hours will be long the work will be hard, but if the team is good, the sky is the limit. And if your coworkers like you, then don’t worry if the place goes under because you will have developed some rock solid relationships that will help you in the years to come.

    And as a disclosure, I’ve worked for startups, haven’t made my millions, yet =)