Why You Should Work at a Startup

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Kevin Lau
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Have you ever considered building your career by working at a startup?

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines a startup company as “a new business, or a fledgling enterprise.”

With such a broad definition, startups can come in many different sizes, across a multitude of industries, with a wide variety of products. Startups face the full spectrum of business problems that all companies face– from day-to-day operations to product development to sales and marketing. The defining struggle common to all startups is that they do not have enough employees, resources, and capital to meet the demands on the company as it grows. Thus, the onus falls to the startup’s limited number of employees to voraciously learn, adapt and experiment with potential solutions to a wide variety of problems until the challenges are addressed. This highly dynamic environment affords a unique opportunity for rapid personal growth and development that no other type of company can provide.

While this may sound like the ultimate combination of intimidating and terrifying, remember the words of the late Steve Jobs, who said, “everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you…once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

The first main benefit of the startup environment is that it forces you to learn how to learn very quickly. My first internship was at a two person mobile app startup and upon starting work, I was immediately tasked with creating a web application to visualize user usage data, single-handedly and from scratch despite lacking any prior relevant work experience. As you can imagine I was repeatedly overwhelmed by the learning curve, but I was lucky to have a mentor to guide me. By the end of the term, I was able to deploy a rudimentary version of the application. In hindsight, I now recognize that my struggles were symptoms of growth and personal development and that working through them helped develop my ability to learn quickly and work through hard problems.

The second main benefit is that the startup environment can provide the opportunity to work on many different types of problems, which is critical in discovering your talents, passions and determining your career path. I was hired for a marketing and analytics internship at an education-tech startup in my sophomore year. Outside of my official job duties, I also ended up learning how to write computer scripts to automate the marketing experiment creation process, after discovering major inefficiencies in the existing process. After that, I realized that there was no easy way to collect data from my experiments, so I also learned to build a data processing and analytics tool using a variety of online web-services to do it for me. Within the span of three months, I ended up working in five different areas of the company that would each have dedicated departments at an established company.

Lastly, because of the many different tasks you will undertake, your potential impact on the company will be huge. The workload will often times dwarf the amount of human resources available, thus the amount of responsibility per employee is quite large. By extension of this, the visibility of your work and its influence on the company’s progress, health and overall success will also be quite large.

For all their benefits though, let’s not forget that startups are also distinguished for being high risk-high reward. It is inherently difficult to create a new company from nothing and grow it to the point where it is profitable and self-sustaining– in fact according to Fortune Magazine, on average 9 in 10 startups end up failing. Furthermore, the experience and culture can vary greatly from startup to startup. Choosing the correct startup with an optimal learning and work environment is critical to being successful and having a good experience.

How do you find the right startup?


People are the fundamental criterion because they are what really what make or break the company. The startup environment is stressful, the odds are stacked against you and the culture and environment that your co-workers create will be the cornerstone of your experience at the company. Make sure to do research into the company’s culture and to assess the interactions you have with each employee to see if you’d fit in well at the company. The smaller the company, the more impact each employee has on that company’s culture.

Company Mission

You must believe in the company’s overall mission and goals. Startups are stressful and a lot of work so it is very easy to burn out quickly if what you are working towards does not resonate with you. Additionally, being passionate about what you do is critical for sustained focus, work ethic and long term success.

Growth Potential

Ask yourself, “how willing is this company to invest in me and my future?” Your growth potential at a given company is directly reflected by the answer to this question. You want to work for someone more experienced, who is willing to teach you and take real risks on you with their own career, for the sake of your growth. Make sure your boss is also your mentor.

How do you find some of these startup companies?

That’s not so straightforward. The startup companies you hear about in the media are usually venture-scale startups, which usually means they are aiming to become billion-dollar companies. These companies raise money from venture capitalists, whose job it is to invest in promising startups for a cut of the potential profits. So, one simple way to find interesting startups is to look at venture capital firms’ portfolios – typically available online on their websites – and see what companies they invest in.

But what about the startups that aren’t shooting for the moon? There are many of these companies locally in every city or town. They won’t get as much press and their customers are often very niche which makes them more difficult to find, but the opportunities they afford are very much the same. Some common techniques to use include:

  • Campus Recruiting: Check out local job fairs and recruiting sessions! Startups often have some kind of presence at these events in an effort to find top talent.
  • Conferences and Events: Venture capital firms and local community groups sometimes host events with the purpose of helping people meet startups!
  • Word-of-Mouth: Word gets around quickly when there’s an exciting new company around the area. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends or post online to see if anyone’s heard of any new promising, up-and-coming companies.
  • Online Research: Most companies these days have websites. Try searching online for startups in your area. Some cities even have websites dedicated to listing local startups. Startup incubators and accelerators also often have lists of companies they support. AngelList is a common web portal used international for finding startups.
  • Online Facebook Groups: Online communities of entrepreneurs and “hackers” are also often a great place to start. Startup communities are generally tight knit and startups will often put job postings on some of these groups.
  • Venture Capitalist Firm websites: Venture capitalists’ jobs are to find and invest money in high potential startups and they often list the companies they have invested in on their websites! Looking at some of the top venture firms’ portfolio companies for a given industry is a great place to start. Within the technology industry, the most distinguished is Sequoia Capital, having a long history of being able to identify extraordinary companies including Google, Apple, YouTube, Cisco, PayPal and Airbnb, while they were still in their infancy.

Startups are highly unpredictable and are in a constant state of flux. However for those willing to accept the risks, there is the opportunity to rapidly grow both personally and professionally. And even if a company were to fail, the versatility and grit learned from working at a startup can be easily transferred to whatever your next job is. The next time you are looking for a job, internship or a change in career, consider going to a startup!


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