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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

Is a Startup Job Right for You?

The first scene of HBO’s new show, Silicon Valley, features a bunch of nerdy programmer types walking around a party; Kid Rock plays on a massive stage, attendees slurp “liquid shrimp” appetizers created by a celebrity chef, and beautiful women congregate outside, separate from the bulk of the party’s developer attendees.

Here’s some news that won’t surprise anyone who’s worked at a Bay Area startup: Bizarre (and fancy) parties come along from time to time, but the bulk of what’s involved in being part of a startup involves a lot more time spent writing emails and a lot less time hobnobbing at swanky affairs.

Curious if forgoing corporate America for a startup might be right for you? Here are four boxes you should check before you start work at a venture-backed company.

1. You Like Wearing a Lot of Hats

Think about the marketing function at a large, publically traded company. There are probably individual teams for email marketing, social media marketing, content marketing, and product marketing—and that’s before we even look at the communications team. And one of these roles can be great if you want to develop strong expertise in one area.

On the flip side, if you work in marketing at a startup—especially an early-stage one—you might be the only marketing person for a year or more. And in that time, you’ll need to focus on branding, communications, product marketing, social media, and anything else that comes up under the marketing umbrella, not to mention picking up slack in other areas of the company where no one has been hired yet. (Our first marketing hire at InstaEDU did everything from Adwords to press outreach to on-site copy in her first year.) It’s a lot of work and takes an ability to juggle multiple projects at once, but it’s also a great way to get exposed to a lot of different facets of a field.

2. You Like Being Emotionally Invested in Your Job

Working at an early-stage startup requires more than a consistent 9-to-5 schedule (or sometimes, even 9-to-9). When there are six, eight, or 10 employees, there are going to be a lot of late nights and (yes, it’s true) emotional times at HQ. And if you don’t care about your company succeeding or about your founders’ vision for the company, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to be a team player when you get the “we need all hands on deck tonight” email at 6:30 PM as you’re about to head out.

Not every person is like this—which is totally normal, by the way. You may have heard the phrase “live to work or work to live.” If you’re more on the “work to live” side of things, then a job that requires you to emotionally commit for months or years on end might not be the best place for you.

3. You’re Happy Charting Your Own Career Path

At a typical company, the career path might look something like this: assistant, associate, manager, director, senior director, vice president. But at a startup, more likely than not, there’s no defined career path. That’s not to say promotions don’t happen—they can, and do, frequently—but most startups don’t have a direct career ladder you can climb. Many people actually jump around a bit from role to role as they take on new responsibilities. In short, if you are the type of person who loves structure (or who defines success by the number of titles earned in a three-year period), you might struggle with the uncertainty of a startup.

4. Technology Makes You Happy

This is specific to technology startups, but you’re going to enjoy your work and time working at a startup a whole lot more if you genuinely love technology. If you salivate over the newest iPhone or think there’s a genuine future in wearable technology, startup life might be right for you. If you get excited about cloud storage, download speeds, and encryption, startup life might be right for you. And if you brainstorm what you’d build if you had the right tech and the right team, then startup life might be right for you. Again, technology isn’t exciting for everyone, and that’s okay. But if that’s the case, you’ll probably be happier taking a job in an industry you love.

One simple way to see if you like startup life? Get an internship at a company you’re excited about. There’s no better way to see if startups are right for you.

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