Everyone knows that startups get to have all the fun. But the differences between working at a startup and a big corporation don’t begin and end with the Ping Pong table and the vintage jukebox.
In a corporate environment, you’re usually hired because you have a defined set of skills. There will be training available and opportunities for personal growth, but most people end up doing something very similar to the job they’re hired for. There’s always plenty to learn, but you rarely have to learn an entirely new position.
But when you work for a startup, especially an early-stage startup, your professional skills often have to evolve as rapidly as the company. While coders come to the table with specific skill sets, many other hires are made because the candidate shows all-around smarts. For a startup employee, the most valuable skill of all is often simply the ability to think.
I discovered just how different startup and corporate settings can be when I moved from GE to my current job at Chango. At GE, on the corporate floor, I was tackling big problems with unlimited resources. PowerPointing was a daily ritual. When I joined Chango, I don't think I touched PowerPoint for the first six months. But I did learn everything about marketing on a zero dollar budget. And now that Chango is a much larger company, I’m learning how to manage a marketing team all over again.
This doesn’t mean that all startups should approach hiring in the same way. Thinking about the right hire often comes down to thinking about which phase a startup is in.
In this earliest stage, Phase 1, the most important job skill may be the ability to think on your feet—often after putting in long hours under stressful circumstances. But as the company grows into Phase 2, the same people who do well in Phase 1 might fail miserably simply because they lack the ability to work well with a larger group of stakeholders. Another employee might excel at Phase 1 and Phase 2, but run into trouble in Phase 3, the phase in which the company starts implementing more processes and controls.
As startups move through these phases of development, management tends to be the biggest stumbling block. As legendary VC Fred Wilson points out on his blog, the technical people behind many of today's startups don’t always enjoy the management roles they evolve into as their companies expand. As Wilson puts it, “they would rather be building the product than building the team.”
Wilson's comments are a good reminder that building a startup is not for everyone. Some people just don’t like having to shift roles all the time. And there is, of course, nothing wrong with that.
It can be tough, and sometimes a little bit intimidating, to never know what you’ll be asked to do the next week. But if it fits your personality, there’s nothing more rewarding than getting in on the ground floor of a new company—even if the office doesn't have a vintage jukebox.