Syed Balkhi is the co-founder of OptinMonster, a conversion rate optimization software that helps you recover abandoning website visitors and turn them into subscribers and customers. On his blog he writes about his business experiences and lessons learned along the way.
Hollywood has glamorized the idea of American startup culture, convincing many that it's sleek and sexy. While certain aspects of the startup environment are fun and exciting, there's a lot more to working for a startup than wearing casual clothing and relaxing in cool conference rooms. As a founder of fast-growing startup OptinMonster, here are few things I'd like to share with you about working for a startup.
Most Startups Fail
Very few startups become billion dollar businesses. In fact, a very small fraction of them become sustainable million dollar businesses. It's hard to know which ones will succeed -- even seasoned investors frequently get it wrong. The average investor puts money into a handful of companies hoping that just one will pan out.
It's important to recognize the reality that exists beyond the spotlight that the media places on popular success stories. For every success story, there are nine failures. That being said, everyone should work for a startup at least once. The excitement, risk and ingenuity are unparalleled. And who knows, maybe you'll get hooked up with one of the infrequent success stories. However, as you enter the startup environment, be prepared for the following.
The Only Constant Is Change
In the startup world, the only constant is change. There's no room for getting comfortable or settling into a typical 9-to-5 routine.
Things are constantly in flux, evolving and transitioning. What you're doing this week could be different from the tasks you're handling next week. While seasoned companies have processes and procedures, fledgling startups often have to make these up on the fly.
For example, as my company made the transition from a WordPress plugin into a full SaaS application, we had to make a 180-degree turn. During this time, we hired new team members and the onboarding was difficult due to this transition. Basically, we were supporting two different products with different code bases and slightly different UIs. This is a lot for new employees to take in all at once. We ended up writing extensive documentation and creating a buddy system where each new person had a go-to person they could get in touch with anytime for anything, which was very helpful.
These kinds of changes can be frustrating when you first arrive, but try to see them as positives. Instead of getting stuck in a boring grind, you're constantly learning and on your toes.
Compensation Is Non-Traditional
When you join a startup, odds are good that the company won't be able to offer a competitive salary and benefits. This means startups get creative with compensation models. This non-traditional method can be intimidating at first, but can work to your advantage.
While you want a base payment for your immediate contributions, you shouldn't be shy about negotiating for equity. If the startup turns into a successful business, a small piece of equity can be worth hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of dollars. Just remember that your equity can also become worthless if the company folds. This is the risk you take when accepting equity as compensation.
At OptinMonster, we offer quarterly profit-sharing bonuses. Since we're bootstrapped, this option is feasible for our team. However -- should we choose to raise a funding round -- we'll issue stocks to our early team members who've helped us get this far.
Strange Hours Are Common
You'll rarely find consistent hours at a startup. Eight hours is rarely enough: You need to be willing to work 10, 11, or even 12-plus hours a day. While these hours won't last indefinitely, the first few years are demanding.
During a major feature launch, our team works upward of 12 hour days to ensure that everything goes out smoothly. There are regular meetings, fast dev sprints, several gif exchanges in Slack, and a few drinks as well. It's just a different kind of fun, but it may not be something you want.
It's important to gauge how many hours employees are working on average before you join. You can then sit down with your family and discuss whether or not this is practical for you, based on your stage in life.
Back to the Basics
If you're used to working for an established company, you may find it disconcerting that you have to go back to the basics at a startup. This is normal, and can be refreshing for those with decades of experience in corporate America.
When you work for an established company with access to infinite resources, you're able to delegate and outsource basic tasks. This isn't the case when you work for a startup.
An example I've seen in a previous startup: Even though you may have executive-level marketing experience, you may be forced to spend your time working with grassroots-level strategies. The task of attaching address labels to mailers may seem below you, but there's no such thing at a startup. Every employee is forced to stretch themselves -- in both directions. This means you're overqualified for some tasks you're handling, but you'll be better off because of it in the future.
Give It a Shot
This article isn't intended to discourage you. Rather, the goal is to provide an honest, transparent look at what America's startup culture is really like. If you understand it from the start, you'll be more tolerant of the negatives and more willing to stick around for the lucrative benefits later on.
In addition to understanding the culture, you'll also want to conduct research on the startup you're interested in joining. This article has some advice about things worth evaluating.
Regardless of whether you've worked a nine-to-five job for 30 years or are fresh out of school, you should consider working for a startup at least once. The experience provides invaluable lessons in life and business. Just make sure you know what you're getting yourself into.