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5 Things You Should Know Before Working at a Start-Up

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Working for a start-up is attractive—sometimes magnetically so. The job descriptions usually include phrases like “casual, fun office environment” and “room for rapid advancement.” And as you answer questions on their non-traditional job application (“If you were a reality TV show star, which one would you be?”), you imagine yourself balancing on a stability ball in yoga pants and a t-shirt, collaborating with like-minded colleagues over chai lattes.

It’s true that joining a start-up can be a fun, smart, and even life-changing move. And while not all start-ups have the ambience (or the budgets) of sexy tech 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 an organization from the ground up.

But it’s not all fun and ping-pong games with the company next door—there are some key differences between the start-up world and every other type of company you’ve worked for. Memorize these five working-for-a-start-up mantras before you electronically sign on the dotted line.

1. You’ll Need to be Comfortable With Change (Really, Really Comfortable)

Unlike seasoned companies that have well-defined processes and procedures and hundreds of employees conditioned to repeat the same behaviors day after day, start-ups are able to make changes quickly. Things like job titles, desk assignments, reporting structures, and project plans are changed more frequently than the filter in the office coffee pot. At the start-up I work for, I’ve moved offices three—yes, three—times in under six months, and had a grand total of six different desks in the process.

The constant change can be frustrating, especially when you’re just getting acclimated to the place or if you’ve come from a company entrenched in its ways. But to succeed at a start-up, you need to embrace chaos. Start-ups have their pick of motivated young professionals, and they’re certainly not afraid of personnel shake-ups. Showing that you can easily roll with the punches is one way to ensure your success.

2. It’s All Hands on Deck

You have to 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. While you may technically have a title and a job description, your everyday activities will likely vary depending on the project du jour.

You may have never imagined a day in which you stuff envelopes, pick up pizzas for lunch, answer phones, and present a proposal to the board of directors, all within a matter of hours, but the phrase “This isn’t part of my job description” should never cross your lips. Expect that you’ll be performing a variety of tasks, both mundane and challenging, and be ready and willing to do them. Too many start-up new hires make a rookie mistake: focusing on how the start-up will help them (and their resumes) instead of how they can contribute to the company. Start-ups are well stocked with driven, eager employees, and those that aren’t willing to be flexible, or to put the company first, will be swiftly offloaded (see #1).

3. Veterans Are Mentors, Not Enemies

Most start-ups begin with a few brilliant individuals and an idea. They find some investors and surround themselves with smart, motivated (often young) people who will burn the midnight oil and turn their idea into reality. Then, when the company begins to get a whiff of success, they may bring in some experts: experienced, tenured professionals that will help take the company to the next level.

Once veterans start hopping on board, existing employees can get nervous, and even resentful. You’ve been working 16-hour days for six months (yes, you should be expecting that, too), and suddenly this grandma is going to walk in and tell you how to do your job just because she has an MBA, an outstanding track record, and an endless network of industry contacts?

Well, yes. Though you may feel threatened, remember that these experts are not your competition, they’re your potential mentors. In large companies, they’d be completely inaccessible—barricaded in an office, blocked by a receptionist and an espresso machine. But at a start-up, you’ll be able to interact and learn from them on a daily basis.

4. The Company Giveth, the Company Taketh Away

Start-ups love to reward employees for their willingness to abandon office formalities like lunch breaks and personal space. When the company is relatively small, the executives might dole out perks like weekly happy hours, catered lunches, and tickets to local events. But as the company grows, the leadership might realize that they can no longer afford, or manage, these types of luxuries.

A free drink may have once been the only respite in your otherwise hectic day—so when the freebies disappear, it can be disheartening. But fear not: The departure of these gifts usually means the arrival of more practical bonuses, like health insurance.

5. It’s Your Responsibility to Assess the Risk

Start-ups can become shut-downs very quickly. It’s one of the inherent risks in working for one. And while you may assume that, as a member of a small team, you’ll be the first to know about potential landmines, this isn’t always the case.

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. Read what the press is saying about the business and its investors (a Google alert is great for this) and ask leadership how they’re measuring their 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 conception of 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 overnight or crash and burn. 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 kick-start your career.