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To join or not to join a startup:a 5-factor decision

I have written in the past about reasons for students to become entrepreneurs. Implicitely, I related this to starting your own business but there is a very valiable alternative: joining an existing start-up early on. Doing so gives you many of the benefits of entrepreneurship without having the need for idea generation and fund raising (at least not on day 1). As I haven’t done this in my own career, I asked TandemLaunch’s first employee, Alessandra Glavier, to talk a bit about her decision to join a start-up. Aless made the leap of faith so early that her very first job was to find an office for us… I will let her tell the story:

A year ago, I quit my steady and quite safe job to join a team of one. I was called crazy by some, audacious by some others, but it might be the best decision I ever made. Here are a few facts for those who are thinking about such a decision today:

1. The unknown
Start-up’s job posting are, most of the time, in free classified such as Craigslist, universities websites or specialized website like NextMontreal. They might also come directly from a friend of a friend that knows someone who is hiring. Depending on how long the startup has been running, the job description might not have much detail or might look like a scam. The company might not have a name (rare), a website (more common), an office address (likely) or employees (possible). It is common today to do a quick Google search on a company to see what they’ve been up to and worked on. So if you get zero result, don’t freak out! Don’t be afraid to reply to the ad asking for more information. It will show that you do have an interest and are intrigued by the position. If you get no answer, yes it’s a scam! But if you get a reply, hopefully you’ll have someone passionate and confident about his new idea that will make you eager to learn more. This is exactly how I met Helge: I saw an ad on Craigslist for an office administrator position, lots of details on the duties and responsibilities, but absolutely nothing on the company itself. So I sent him an email asking him to tell me more about his project but I didn’t sent him my resume with my personal info (hey! you never know). We exchanged a couple of emails, a phone call, met and the rest is history [Ed.: Inquisitive job applications are much preferred over their “please take me” cousins]. Bottom line is: don’t judge a place only because it’s completely unknown and has nothing (yet!).Go with your gut feeling on the project you’re about to join since the part you’ll play will require your full commitment.

2. Uncertainty of the short term future
Startups are extremely high risk and fail more often than not. Joining a startup doesn’t come with a guarantee of a job for the next 5 or 10 years. But with the current economy, what job does? Even Microsoft has to cut jobs frequently… Many factors can lead to a startup failure: not enough sales or no sale at all, cash flow running low, management style, etc. This is a startup reality that you should be conscious about. If you have a low tolerance for uncertainty then you should definitely reconsider the idea of joining at startup, or be ready to spend many sleepless nights.

3. Non-traditional work environment
Startups do operate, in general, in a different way than big companies; mostly because they have fewer employees to manage. All the administrative structure, policies and rules are not as formal, but still present. Working in a startup requires a lot of honesty, integrity and some good time management skills: you won’t have somebody constantly looking over your shoulder but you will have to show some results! You will have some flexibility with your work hours beyond the traditional 9 to 5, but you’ll learn soon enough that working in a startup requires a lot of hours that you won’t even count if you’re passionate and excited about your job.

4. Many hats to wear
As Helge mentioned in an earlier post, don’t be fooled by your title! Being called VP Engineering when you are the only soul in the engineering department, doesn’t mean much. Startups are not about titles. They are about people. At team of 4 might have the workload of 10, so some tasks need to be split between everybody. You might working in accounting but you will still have to assemble some desks or computers once in a while. Or you are an engineer but you will have to answer the phone or attend some PR events. Don’t expect to have one single task; it’s impossible in a startup environment. You need to be a multi-tasker (or you’ll learn pretty soon how to be one!).

5. Team work
“Together Everyone Achieves More”. Startups are all about team work. It is the center of all activities and is the key to success: “there is not I in Team”, well there is no I in startup either! Sharing the same open space, as well as working on the same projects, will leave you very little time alone and will test your patience! Like Buchholz and Roth said: “wearing the same shirts doesn’t make you a team”. You might have to leave your personal feelings asides to make it work (or at least try!). One a brighter side, there is a huge probability that you’ll truly bond with your co-workers and develop new friendships – because at the end you’re all in the adventure together.

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