What Should You Expect When Your First "Real" Job Is at a Startup?
You have held down your fair share of menial jobs, but now your days of shelving books or slinging hash are over. You have landed your first “real” job. (Quotations here because if you have worked the restaurant industry, you know how real it gets.)
Better yet, it’s at a startup. Images of remote work, happy-hour meetings, and balance-ball chairs are already dancing in your head. While there’s some truth there, you must broaden your expectations of startup life beyond an office space decorated like the rich kid’s dorm room.
Hit the ground running
Startups are fast paced. They need to produce, market, innovate, and meet growing client demands, and unlike corporate, they don’t have the established resources or personnel to fall back on.
This reality makes startups the business-world equivalent of Double Dutch. You need to jump in, find your rhythm, and try not to trip anyone up. There likely will not be an extensive mentorship or onboarding period. Goals will shift based on daily needs and the markers of success will be unclear at times. And you need to go with the flow.
For some, that will be an unnerving prospect, yet it also presents an opportunity to make the role your own and devise new ways to solve problems. That is a freedom you probably have not experienced in previous jobs, and it can unleash that untapped creativity within you.
At a startup, you can expect the team mindset to be a keystone of the culture. Everyone will rely on you; you will rely on everyone else. You share successes and the consequence of failure together.
This sense of personal responsibility can generate pressure to always be working. Long hours and odd workdays are not uncommon at a startup. Work-life balance can be difficult to achieve and maintain—though, flexible schedules help.
However, that intimacy makes you part of the inner circle while the company is young. You will be afforded the chance to influence the company’s progress, as well as its culture and protocols. It’s a rare opportunity most people in corporate never receive.
You will also see how your skills and contributions directly impact team energy, project success, and company growth. For all these reasons, startup employees often feel immense pride in their companies.
Fail fast, learn faster
Another consequence of small teams: There are never enough hands to make light work. You won’t find role specialization like in corporate. Instead, startup employees play many roles across many projects and aspects of the business. Some of these are far outside their expertise and comfort zone.
You will need to learn new skills and learn them fast. That means developing research and self-education skills that do not rely on the copious resources available at colleges or corporations. Books, MOOCs, YouTube videos, and networking will be critical in this endeavor.
You will also fail. Don’t worry though. Startups expect that of their people. The key is not to let the failure bog you down. Instead, you will need to adopt a growth mindset, iterate on the failure, and try something new until you find success.
You will grow with the company
At corporate, you will find a career ladder propped up before you. One job promotes into the other, salary and benefits follow. Startups don’t have ladders. You and the company must discover where you are going together. You’ll be responsible for building your career goals as much as the company goals.
Because of that reality, there is only so much a blog post can prepare you for. Most startup expectations need to be learned through lived experience.
But if you are willing to prototype, maintain a growth mindset, promote team successes, and build something new, chances are you can expect to fit into the startup culture better than any balance ball chair. Even if the startup fails, which many do, the lessons you glean from your time there can be the start to a long and prosperous career.