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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Changing Jobs

The Big Pros (and Big Cons) of Being a Company's First Employee

Becoming a company’s first (or only) employee is a daunting proposition. And while there’s a wealth of information on starting a new business, there aren’t as many resources out there for people curious about what it’s like to be the first person on board.

Let me tell you—it’s an amazing opportunity. But it’s not without its own set of challenges and risks. Here’s what you need to know if you’re considering making the move.

Pro: You Get More Responsibility (and Credit)

Small businesses give you increased autonomy, the opportunity for skill growth, greater chance for professional advancement, and a larger share of the credit when things go right.

Quora user and social media marketer J. Alexander Curtis wrote how a startup allowed him to move up the ladder more quickly. Instead of passing projects off to the appropriate colleague, you—as the only employee—will be involved with multiple aspects of the organization.

Con: You’re Taking on More Risk

Of course, that level of responsibility comes with a certain unavoidable level of risk, both financially and in terms of job security. New, small companies often cannot provide the salary to match the increased workload. And, the simple fact is that eight out of every 10 new businesses fail.

So, no matter how much you believe in a new company, before you quit your job for a low-paid or equity-only position, carefully consider the financial ramifications if the company goes belly up.

Pro: If the Company Takes Off, You Were First

There are few things more exciting than being a part of a company that started small and explodes into something great. The person who was the first employee of Apple has some pretty impressive bragging rights. Not only could that be you, but it could work out in your favor financially (think: equity) if the company goes on to make billions of dollars and you were in on the ground floor.

Con: Your New Manager Is a New Manager

When you’re the first employee, your boss is the founder. In other words, while he’s is probably an expert in his industry, he may have little (or no) management experience—especially running this kind of company. Sure, he might be the next Bill Gates, but that doesn’t mean he’s good at communicating an idea, delegating responsibilities or managing complex projects involving a limited amount of people. He’s learning, too.

Related: 10 Ways to Get Your Boss to Trust You Completely

Pro: You’ll Become a Stronger Communicator

It’s up to you to clarify exactly what you’re there for and understand exactly what responsibilities you’ll be taking on. Safeguard your workload—and your evenings away from the office—by talking with your manager and putting a detailed plan of what you’re expected to do each week and how long it will take. Yes, this means you’ll have to communicate clearly—and be comfortable pushing back.

Con: Good Luck Calling in Sick

At most jobs, if you’re sick or just want to take a few days off for vacation, you call your boss and get a co-worker to cover for you. But if you’re the only employee, there’s no one to take your place. Every once in a while you may be able to miss a few days of work, but you could face some serious pressure if you’re sick on the date of a product launch when you’re the only person who knows how to actually launch it. It’s great to be needed, but tough when the company relies on you being there every day.

Do you want to show up, punch in, do what you’re told to the best of your ability—then punch out and go home? If so, being a first employee is probably not for you. If you want to take on something big, crazy, and dangerous, where you’ll shape your own role, manage your own workflow and be free to run, but also free to fall, then becoming a first employee may be the next best step in your career.

Photo of first employee courtesy of Shutterstock.