How to Know When a Job at a Startup is Right for You

Working at a startup is exciting. It’s also dangerous; no other type of company seems more open to disruption than a tech startup. Here’s how to know if it’s right for you.

First, what is a startup, technically speaking? The dictionary defines it as “a business or an undertaking that has recently begun operation.” Speaking to Forbes a few years ago, startup founder Adora Cheung of Homejoy was bit more romantic, calling it “a state of mind.”

Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham told Forbes that a company five years old can safely be called a startup, but that moniker “would be a stretch” at a decade old. Before its shutdown/acquisition the other week, light-field imagery company Lytro, founded in 2006, was considered by many a startup.

Lytro sold to Google, after years of big promises to “disrupt” the photography market. By all accounts, it’s an ‘acquihire’: Google gets talented engineers, but has no plans to keep offering Lytro’s product or services.

That’s a fate that many startups (successful or not) meet. Ann King, co-founder of talent-matching company CVPartners, advises that working for a startup should be about the experience, not the moonshot (i.e., the big money you could potentially earn if the company goes public or is acquired). “It’s important to pick a company or role where you not only feel challenged,” she tells Dice, “but also offers you the chance to learn from a mentor or manager that will help you grow and develop in your career.”

Aside from big promises to change the world via their Uber-for-[insert service here], startups have to compete for talent at the bottom line, as well. The Dice Salary Survey shows the average income level for tech pros is reaching a plateau of late, with benefits becoming a new measuring stick. From King:

Common trends I see include gourmet snacks and meals, napping and Zen rooms, regular happy hours and subsidized parking and transportation costs. Larger, more established startups offer more practical services, like on-site laundry, car washes and access to doctors and dentists. Some startups will even cover 100 percent of their employees’ benefits, offer free genetic testing and put money per month toward wellness activities like gym membership fees.

That all-inclusive lifestyle comes at a cost. Startups often make steep demands on your time, with employees sometimes working 70 hour weeks (if not more). That’s not even during an Agile sprint; startups are frequently trying to get off the ground after taking venture capital, so the long weeks may have no light at the end of the tunnel.

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The Gift & The Curse

“[Startups] often make for great training and resume-building opportunities because of the great experience and lifelong career memories they provide, particularly for those fortunate enough to be part of a success story,” King says.

Startups have a huge upshot. You might actually get to work on the next big thing in tech. If you chose wisely, a startup can be a great way to get experience and make great connections, too.

But don’t get blindsided by the flash. “In the Bay Area, where [tech] unemployment rates remain virtually at zero, it often feels like every company is fighting for the same candidate profile, so the creative perks and benefits have become bigger and better in the fight to hire the best talent,” King adds. So any benefits at that interesting connected-toothbrush startup are likely akin to what others in the area can offer.

Dipping back into the Dice Salary Survey, we see tech pros are interested in perks, but the prospect of a 90-hour work week has lost its appeal; while a better salary will always be a motivator, respondents also told us that flexible working hours and the ability to work remotely were “primary” motivators that employers offered their teams. Around 45 percent report they were looking to leave their current job for “better working conditions.”

Should You Work at a Startup?

If you’re truly passionate about the work at a startup, we say go for it. The pay is likely competitive, as are the benefits. This will obviously vary by location and job market, but there’s no reason to think you’ll be pinching pennies to help make someone else’s dream a reality in 2018.

On the flip side, you may be at a WeWork instead of an office. ‘Catered lunch’ might be McDonalds or Subway. The ‘personal trainer’ you were promised could just be a co-founder who doesn’t skip leg day at the gym.

Tech pros are increasingly seeking a smarter work-life balance, and startups often can’t offer that. While you might get some great experience running the back-end for a social service that caters to bikers, expect to be on-call around the clock if it’s a small team (or just you).

There’s no right answer for whether or not you should work at a startup, but weigh the pros and cons carefully – and ask the right questions when interviewing. If you’re signing a contract, make sure all your reasonable terms are included.