Want to Work at a Startup? Read This First

UPDATED: June 27, 2022
PUBLISHED: July 4, 2022
Want to Work at a Startup? Read This First

It’s Monday. Again. You’re on coffee No. 4, and the only reason you filled up another cup was because you were so bored at your desk that your cubicle walls were basically closing in, threatening to suffocate you.

Maybe the daily grind of the same nine-to-five office routine—the one that plays on repeat five days a week—isn’t for you. How does total unpredictability sound instead? Maybe it’s the challenging entrepreneurial world that’s more your style.

Here, 15 entrepreneurs from the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) share one thing they wish all prospective employees applying to work at startups would know. So to see if you’re cut out for the job, check out these tips and tidbits:

1. How you do one thing is how you do everything.

When we hire, we pay less attention to what candidates say and more attention to what they do. Quick responses to messages and being early to interviews are at least as important as years of experience and strong interview skills. If you want to stand out from the crowd, remember that you’re being evaluated on more than just your cover letter and résumé.

—Mark Krassner, Knee Walker Central

2. There is no room for average input.

When an entrepreneur hires a new employee, there is a lot more on the line for the former. Each and every employee at a startup is vital. We desperately need to get the most out of our internal team and are prepared and happy to reward you for doing more than the minimum. Don’t expect to just do an OK job here. Kill it and reap the benefits.

—Vinny Antonio, Victory Marketing Agency

3. Long hours are expected.

If you’re thinking about working for a startup and putting in seven or eight hours of work a day, think again! Many startups require you to be there at 8 a.m. and not leave until 7 or 8 p.m. You’ll work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life. Expect to work them and not be paid anything more. Don’t expect that extra work to be reflected in your pay, however. Startups don’t pay well, especially considering the hours.

—John Rampton, Calendar

4. Learn when to do and when to ask for help.

While every startup is filled with people who wear multiple hats, come from diverse backgrounds and ultimately tend to be overachievers, it’s important to not let that get the best of you. You’ve got to know your own limitations, but have a keen awareness for those around you because they often hold the solution to something you might spin your wheels on for hours. It’s OK to ask for help, but then you better go and execute.

—BJ Cook, 85SIXTY

5. You’ll need to be 100% committed.

If you’re not “all in,” you’re not going to make it. Ultimately, you need to be excited about and able to solve a problem, create a plan and work toward executing it.

—David Ehrenberg, Early Growth Financial Services

6. Your job description is just a starting point.

It’s important for all prospective employees of a startup to know that the role they are applying for will encompass far more than what was in the job description. They need to be comfortable wearing many hats and never having the “but this isn’t in my job description” mindset.

—Oisin Hanrahan, Handybook

7. Be willing to solve problems.

Most people don’t realize that the founder of a new company often has limited business experience and might not have all the answers. In a situation like that, employees are extremely valuable if they’re willing to take initiative and put in the time to solve problems and create better ways of doing things.

—Vladimir Gendelman, Company Folders, Inc

8. Learn how to recover from failure.

Know how to fail then pick yourself back up again. I prefer new hires who have started a business that failed or who were employees at a startup that failed. If they’re still interested in working in my startup, then they understand the startup game, the risks, the “adjustments on the fly” required and things not to do. They understand that it takes more contribution from them than just what’s in their job description.

—Joshua Lee, StandOut Authority

9. Startups are like sea turtles.

Startups are newborn baby sea turtles scrambling toward the ocean. Some make it to the ocean alive—most don’t. The ones that do make it have to make survival a repeatable process. New employees join startups when the sea turtle has just reached the ocean. Things may be hectic and everything might not be refined, but they should bring a strategic and creative mindset to ensure the startup’s survival in the metaphorical ocean.

—Wilson Owens, Royalty Exchange

10. Be willing to expose your ignorance.

The dream situation is to have a new employee hit the ground running, but this is a fallacy. The best new employees we have had are ones who have a thirst for learning and aren’t afraid to expose themselves to what they don’t know. I would rather take four to six weeks of getting them acclimated than have one year of poor performance.

—Mike McGee, The Starter League

11. Money comes… and goes.

It’s easy to get the wrong idea about startups if you’re only following companies after they’ve made headlines. For the vast majority, the early years are all about reinvesting profits, not “enjoying” them.

—Sam Saxton, Salter Spiral Stair and Mylen Stairs

12. Everyone has a voice, so speak up.

With a startup, there’s not as much of a corporate hierarchy to navigate in order to get your voice heard. If you have a good idea but you’re a new hire, you’re more likely to be heard when the company’s small rather than large.

—Kenny Nguyen, Big Fish Presentations

13. Know the risks and rewards.

Prospective startup employees need to go into it with their eyes wide open to both the risks and rewards. They should know that working for a startup is very different than a corporate gig because of the fluidity of roles, frequency of battlefield promotions and size of the stakes. If they can’t rapidly adapt to these key parts of the job, they might want to steer clear of the startup world.

—Erik Severinghaus, Simple Relevance

14. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Before applying to a startup, get ready to be uncomfortable. From being pushed out of your comfort zone to tackling new obstacles daily, a startup is no place to bask in the comfort of a routine workday. Unless you are ready to roll up your sleeves and work like you never have before, consider staying at your corporate job where predictability and consistency are guaranteed.

—Kim Kaupe, ZinePak

15. You don’t need stock options to have ownership.

Every single employee in a startup has a direct impact on the success of the venture. The right employee, by default, will feel a sense of ownership based on this reality. If that isn’t motivating, it’s probably best to avoid the startup scene.

—Justin Spring, BringShare, Inc.

This article was published in January 2015 and has been updated. Photo by BigPixel Photo/Shutterstock 

Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched BusinessCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.