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Startup seedling in sardine tin

Is a Startup Right for You?

Startup environments have gained serious kudos over the last decade or so. With the rise of tech unicorns like facebook and wework we have seen the glamorisation of startup businesses. We’ve also seen them crash and burn in the most dramatic ways (think of Theranos), but in a weird way that almost adds to the perception of glamour and the romanticization of the startup.

Making decisions about your career and your future based solely on glamorised dreams is never a good idea! Being inspired by those dreams is great, but we also need a healthy dose of realism to make sure we know what we are getting into. We need to be as prepared as possible for what lies ahead. Once we have taken some time to establish the reality behind the social mirage, we can jump head first into the glamorous dream, knowing we have done our homework. 

This article isn’t here to put any one off. It is just about making sure you have properly thought through your career choices. It is about making sure that you make the right choices for your natural talent.

The reality of a startup

Startups are fast paced, uncertain environments. If you imagine a scale of businesses with large blue chip corporates at one end, and average SMEs somewhere in the middle, start ups are at the other end. They can be quite an extreme environment to work in, by virtue of being right at the end of the scale of possible business models. There also aren’t many of them, and those that make it move on from the startup phase within a couple of years, so they are hard to gain experience in. For those who start their careers in a startup, it is often challenging to work in a ‘normal’ business afterwards, because it can feel very regimented and even boring. 

What characteristics do startups have?

Dream big, chase fast 

Startup dream big in neon pink lettering

Startups are newborn businesses. They haven’t yet found their perfect purpose, they don’t quite know what they will grow up to be. But they have all of the confidence and dreams that come with youth. They are full of energy, ambition and excitement. They face new challenges every day. They dream big, and they chase fast. 

The only certainty is uncertainty

This all sounds exhilarating and almost romantic, but there is another side to this reality. In a startup there is less certainty in all things: the most extreme example being that a startup has a high chance of failure. Your job itself, your business, the very thing that you are striving to create, could fail at any moment. 

In at the deep end

startup deep blue ocean with waves and sea foam

There are other, less dramatic ways in which a lack of certainty plays out. In a startup your role will be much broader than in other businesses: startups are high growth enterprises, so team members are constantly having to cover new ground. You will have to learn new things, do things outside your comfort zone, and your role will constantly evolve. You will almost always feel out of your depth, because for most of the time you will be. This is great for people who love variety and new challenges, but less good for those who find comfort in set ways of doing things, repetition, routine and defined boundaries. 

Constant change

Startups change as they grow. When you join the business the dynamics will be a certain way, but within a year or so those dynamics will have undergone a seismic shift. Startups need to grow and mature, otherwise they fail. So what they start as doesn’t last for long. If you value stability, knowing where you are and understanding your place in the team, then think very carefully before joining a startup. They evolve rapidly - like a sand dune in the wind, your footing will always be changing. You need to be mentally nimble to thrive. 

The importance of the team

Consider carefully whether you are a team player. Not everyone is, and that is ok. We need all sorts of people to make the world go round. In a startup environment each individual person is far more significant than they are in a very large environment. There are less people, and more work to do, so each person is relatively more significant. Teamwork and communication become essential. If one person doesn’t deliver, it puts more strain on the other team members at a time when they will already be working to their max. Times will be stressful, there will be ups and downs, there will be moments of absolute ecstasy and moments of utter hopelessness. You need to be able to continue to function as a constructive, balanced team member through all of that. 

It is worth adding here that any company, no matter how big or small, can have a toxic culture. Avoid these at all cost. They will damage your career and your mental health. Read more about company culture in our article.

Face Failure

Think about your attitude to failure. Most startups will fail. Consider whether you are the sort of person who will be demotivated by failure, or the sort of person who will use it as fuel to drive you to achieve success in your next attempt. There is no escaping failure in a startup. Even in a startup that ultimately succeeds, there will be multiple failures along the way. Those who are most likely to thrive are the people who use the prospect of failure to motivate themselves, those who learn, bounce back and try again. If you hate failure and don’t want any part of it, then you would probably be better placed in a large, stable business. 

Know yourself

Be honest with yourself about who you are and what you like. So often people think they want something, only to find when they finally get it that it is a disaster for them. Board level management is a good example of this. People have episodes of The Apprentice in mind - glamorous meetings around Board tables, images of power, excitement and authority. But when you actually get around a Board table it is nothing like that. It is actually about making difficult decisions and being held accountable for them. It is about collaboration and teamwork. It is about compromise. It is about keeping people happy. The visions of glamorous powerful meetings dissolve in the face of reality. For most people, they are better at becoming exceptional at what they do rather than trying to jump across to management. Management is a whole new job, a whole new set of skills you have to learn from scratch. 

Another common thread is that people often think they like fast paced environments. But when they actually find themselves in one they realise it really isn't for them. If you are an absolute perfectionist who must do everything to the highest quality, you will struggle in a startup. You simply won’t have the time to do everything perfectly - you will have to prioritise. You won’t have the luxury of limitless time to achieve perfection. Working in a startup is like playing a time management game: there is always more to do than there are hours in the day or people to do it. You can be a perfectionist about your overall achievement, but that means accepting compromise on individual tasks in order to keep the business on track.

Think carefully about who you are, what you think you want, and whether it will actually suit you. 

Not many people are suited to a genuine startup environment. But those who are would likely struggle to work in any other way. Take the time to understand yourself. If startups aren’t for you, that’s ok. Remember that the moments you hear about in the media are the most glamorous, attractive, supercharged moments. For every one of those, there are probably thousands of moments that were hard going, disappointing, or full of failure. In this social-media driven world it is easy to forget that. Self determination is about the ability to make informed choices, so make sure you do your homework before committing to a business, and think about whether it will suit you or not.

We are digital growth consultants. We specialise in using technology to drive growth, but we also recognise the importance of culture in achieving success. We have in house psychologists with more than 40 years' experience, specialising in creating and maintaining healthy company culture. Whether you need to embrace tech, or are struggling to create a healthy environment to drive growth, contact us to see how we can help.


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