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Y U No Join Startup?

Opportunities! Learning new things! Massive impact! Changing the world! T-Shirts and foosball tables! Beer and parties! Code ninjaing!

There is seemingly an endless number of reasons to join a startup, especially now that so many exist, have a decent amount of funding and need to hire talented individuals. The self-serving message has been: startups have most of what you find in bigger companies, and are much much cooler to boot.

I’ve read this so much in the past few weeks that I wanted to play the devil’s advocate and look at it from the other side, the slow lumbering big corporation who is apparently now bleeding its employees to our heroic startups. Is the picture really that rosy?

No, of course not. Startups are great, but we should grant them the dignity of an honest comparison:

  • Startups pay less. Yes, even after their Series B funding when they assured you they’re compensating “at market rates”, even after that cool gym stipend, and even after figuring out the expected value of those precious, precious options[1]; chances are a big company will be able to offer a higher total package, including all the benefits, stock, base salary and bonuses. Equity structures are biased against most non-founding employees of the company, and that’s assuming there’s a valuable exit for the startup, which statistically is highly unlikely.
  • Oh yea, startups fail. This is obvious, but what may be less obvious is the ramifications of that failure. “Iterate quickly, fail fast” isn’t without its costs: dropping morale, burn-out, unsavory tactics to generate more users/revenue or artificially boost numbers for another round of funding, employee indifference, mass layoffs, etc. Failure seems to be celebrated in the startup community, but sometimes we forget that battle scars were earned the hard way.
  • Of course there are company politics. People complain about big-company-office-politics all the time, but a startup is full of political maneuverings as well, just of a different sort. It’s impossible not to be emotionally attached to the work everybody devoted so much time, so there will be passionate, irrational, not-what’s-best-for-the-company disagreements and drama.
  • A big percentage of a much smaller pie. Taking control and ownership of a large part of the product is awesome, but real impact in terms of actual users and actual revenue is less obvious. Sometimes playing a small part in a product that reaches billions does make more of a difference than owning the shiny new toy, all 300 users and $2.66 strong.
  • Culture is what you make of it. A great culture isn’t a monopoly held by startups and small groups of people; it’s the combined and agreed-upon social norm of a group. I think startups generally have more lively cultures because they take on the culture set by the founders, and successful founders (well, successful enough that you want to join them, right?) tend to be charismatic and inspirational whereas project group leaders at big companies got there via other strengths. I’ve seen great cultures emerge from a team in big companies, and uncharismatic startups that cast a dull cloud over the company environment.
  • You will learn, but it’s a trial by fire. Some people thrive when they’re thrust into an unknown environment and forced to make ends meet; others prefer a more structured, formalized learning process. I don’t see one way as necessarily better than the other, nor do they teach the same skills. In fact, startups often recruit veterans from major corporations (and boast about it afterwards), usually because of their experience and skills acquired from said large company.

Don’t take this list to mean that I’m completely down on startups, however; twice now I’ve left a public company to join a startup, and I would certainly do it again if given the chance. A passion for the company’s products, a desire to change the world, development at a breakneck pace – these should be the reasons to join a startup. They alone do not guarantee success, but when shit hits the proverbial fan, they are welcome company indeed.

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)

  1. In fact, this question posted on HN asking about their members’ exit windfalls paints a dire picture of just how little those options may be worth.
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