Working for a start-up, scale-up or hyper growth business can sound very exciting and appealing for many of us, right? The job descriptions usually include phrases like “amazing offices and lunch is on us every day!” and “opportunity for rapid progression.” And as you answer the questions on the non-traditional application process – “If you were invited to a dinner party with our CEO tomorrow. Who would be your +1 and Why?” You visualize yourself rocking into HQ on a Monday morning at 10.22am (after yoga or morning surf), in a t-shirt, greeted by all smiling faces, you walk over to the ‘think tank’ and collaborate with like-minded colleagues all on bean-bags and the collective approve a major business decision by noon, bang!

It’s true that joining a start-up can be a fun, challenging, rewarding and even a life-changing move. And while not all start-ups have the ambience (or the budgets) of Silicon Valley companies, and not all are run by a visionary who will put you on the fast-track to Facebook-like stock options; many new businesses offer a unique opportunity to learn the ins and outs of building a business from the ground up. I have been fortunate to meet numerous individuals who have been involved in, created, backed, crashed, or provided support to such businesses. I recently popped a few of them under the microscope and asked for an insider’s view of being in start-up or hyper growth business.

What are the best things about start-ups?

The primary driver for many of the individuals I canvassed was the genuine excitement about the challenge and contribution one can make: “I can make a real difference here!” In many instances people craved the no boundaries (rules) and people bought into a purpose / vision / goal that was set or being created. This freedom and opportunity to shape the direction is worth so much more than money (or job security). Those who craved responsibility with accountability – “people that get shit done” come rain or shine whilst remaining collaborative in their approach have succeeded more than most.

Agility, swift decision-making and those that are brave enough to pose the question “have we moved forward today?” I recall a having a coffee with a bright young CFO who was sharing some of his start-up stories “I was only 26, it was my first Board meeting with Directors / Investors that were ExCo from Telstra, LinkedIn and Facebook I was like a rabbit in the headlights!” Less talk and more action seems to be another theme I have observed when working with or recruiting for such businesses. No Fear and a FAIL fast (first attempt in learning) as a modus operandi is OK in start-ups, but sadly not always accepted in the corporate world. Remember, not everything will work when you are trying to break new ground. Something I have always loved when walking into a start-ups office (or Garage!) is the energy – it’s exciting and really infectious.

What traits do you need to succeed?

Resilience, resilience, resilience! And when you feel you are about to run out, I hope you have a positive mindset and a great sense of humor to cope. You must be a team player, dive right in, roll up your sleeves, and get your hands dirty—there’s an endless number of clichés to explain that you’ll be required to do pretty much everything when you work for a start-up. You maybe be hired as the CFO but have never imagined a day in which you stuff envelopes, pick up pizzas for lunch, set up the foosball table, and then present a pitch deck to a Venture Capital firm, all within a matter of hours. The phrase “This isn’t part of my job description” should never cross your lips.

Those who are extremely agile and adaptable, switching between tasks both at the micro and macro level are tested. Forget the words “work smart, not hard”. This is out the window. All the individuals I spoke with are smart and courageous, however they typically work longer hours and harder than ever before – you will hopefully feed off this, as will others. Being confident but not arrogant is important. You need to back your views and recommendations and sell these both internally and externally. Every day is about execution, and there are many times you will be doing things you haven’t done before, you just have to trust you are able to problem solve. Finally, cooperation is paramount. Your employee number could be in the single digits so “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” – so let’s now call this the 10x factor you’ve heard about in start-up world.

* If you are considering taking the leap in joining one or starting one perhaps it’s worth scoring yourself on a scale of 1-10 for: Resilience, Positive Mindset, Team Player, Adaptability, Courageous, Confidence, Problem Solver and Co-operator.

Key “learns” about working within a start-up from those with the scares!

There will be many, many learnings and setbacks – if this isn’t your bag, then best stay away. Don’t underestimate the amount of admin and follow up items required. Be sure to outsource the non-core elements where possible. Think about the skills and experience you are surrounding yourself with. There are some logical benefits to work with a partner / others who have different skills to you, but it is absolutely critical to have alignment on core values (never compromise on values).

Don’t be afraid to take calculated risks, take bold steps to move you forward – don’t get stuck and held back in the detail, sometimes 80% is good enough. Make good deals face to face, don’t cave in because you are small (currently) you don’t want to end up with a dud deal e.g unfavorable payment terms. One learning I echo from a talented chap I know well, and I often share with leaders on the journey is to always recruit people who have skill sets you don’t have, then empower them to grow the business with you.

Be dogged and have self-belief when people say “it’s too hard”. If you join a start up in a certain position, you can sometimes find yourself wearing another hat within 6 months! It is important to manage the trade offs, and be clear if this is really where you want your career to go? Start-ups can become shutdowns very quickly. It’s one of the inherent risks in working for one. And while you may assume that you now have extra skills / experiences are they relevant and marketable elsewhere? Dealing with “emotions” (own and others) is important, the “Mojo” of the business can swing up or down very quickly and all need to be conscious of this.

Closing insights from my research interactions:

Oxygen thieves – Watch out for people that are time wasters. It can be beneficial in meeting a variety of different people (networks) and some people are highly supportive when you have a great idea and encourage you. However, there is a difference between encouragement and genuinely getting things done. This one mistake can be the difference between success and failure. And many of us know that certain individuals out there are a complete waste of time and space!

Same Page? – Be very careful about the people you buddy up with or let into your business. Like everything else, it’s all about the people you surround yourself with. Make sure that they are people you can have fun with, but also be brutally honest with. There are too many businesses where a business model is sound but the relationships are broken.

(Own) enemy – If it is your idea, you are going to work all hours of the night, pushing yourself to the point of breaking to make it happen. You will juggle a million balls and get comfortable with it because you care. It will be very difficult to find anyone who has the same passion and commitment for your idea. And that’s OK! A founder may have the house or kids education on the line; but if you are an employee, what do you have to risk or what is your reward?

Cash is King – Cash is “KING” always live by this rule but never more so than in a startup environment. It’s your responsibility, whether you’re an intern or a financial analyst, to learn as much as you can about your company’s performance and trajectory. If you are considering joining a start-up ask leadership how they’re measuring success. If things are going downhill, you don’t want to be blindsided.

You should be noticing an overarching theme: Working for a start-up will require you to adjust your thinking around the workday. You’ll be putting in longer days (and later nights), your responsibilities will be fluid, and the company you devote most of your life to could blossom or crash and burn overnight. But if you accept your job for what it is a promising opportunity to learn and what it isn’t (a sure thing), working for a start-up can be a great way to develop your career. And, as I said to the wife when I launched The Acquire Group: “If it all goes wrong, I’ll just have to get a proper job!”

Gavin’s expertise and passion lies in people & business growth. After studying Engineering, then Marketing and ongoing studies with the IECL, Gavin has created an extensive network and deep relationships with Executives whom have engaged him for both Search & Selection and human capital advice across Australia since 1998. 

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