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Thinking of starting your career at a start-up? Read this first.

by Mike Okeowo February 01, 2018
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Start-ups are an attractive prospect to entrepreneurial graduates hoping to discover the “next big thing”. The opportunity to work for the disruptive underdog, have a direct impact on a company, whilst simultaneously having an accelerated career path is often the romanticised charm of start-ups. However, for many people, the lingering fear that it might not go as planned with a failed start-up on the CV can be a barrier to taking the risk. In this case, a big company with an established graduate scheme, for example, could seem like the safer option.

If you yourself are curious about what it really involves then it’s worth considering a few different things before jumping in. We asked Sarah to give us an inside look at what it’s like to work for a start-up and what opportunities or challenges she faced along the way.

Why did you decide to start your career at a start-up instead of a more established company?

I actually fell into the start-up world ‘accidentally’. I took an internship in a start-up after university whilst I was figuring out what I wanted to do and where to apply, but in the end, I realised that what I really wanted to do was to stay in the start-up! I was there for 3.5 years and now I’m moving to a much larger start-up/ scale-up where I can apply all the skills I’ve learnt to a slightly more structured environment, but I still get to wear jeans to work!

Did you have any worries or fears whilst working there? 

Yes, it’s always a big risk and if the company doesn’t do well, you are stuck with a ‘failed start-up’ on your CV. You have to be really careful in choosing which company to join, you have to really believe in the business model and place a lot of trust in the founder. Ask questions like:

  • 'Has the founder got any experience in setting up businesses?

  • Will I have a line manager and if not, am I happy with that?

  • Am I willing to work whatever hours the business needs in return for equity and freedom?’

If you like being spoon fed and following rules it’s probably not the environment for you.  I was really lucky because both the founders that I worked for had really strong experience in setting up businesses. Plus the model they created was already working in similar markets, so I could really understand the potential of it. But I’ve got other friends who took riskier start-up jobs and have had a very different experience.

What was the progression and development opportunities like?

I was given much more responsibility and, arguably, more seniority in a start-up than I would have had elsewhere. I also had a lot more freedom and could manage my own workload, hours, holidays, training courses, etc. without lengthy sign off processes. However, this freedom did mean that there was a lack of structure in my career progression. It initially worked out well for me as I ended up realising the role I did on day 1 was very different to where I wanted to get to, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to work that out had I been in a more structured environment. But it did mean that when I knew what I wanted to do, there was no set way to get there internally and this was ultimately what made me decide to move on.

What do you think you learnt by being at a start-up that you wouldn’t have learnt elsewhere?

I learnt agility, diligence and a high level of responsibility. When you are in a start-up no one is checking your work and any mistake you make can have a serious effect on the company, so you have to be on top form all of the time. That said, any of your successes also have a big impact; so I learnt to take real pride in my work which is something I think people in larger companies struggle to be able to find, as they have less ownership from the start. You also learn a lot of transferable/general business skills like sales, for example. When you join a start-up you have to sell the business’ concept to everyone - from friends and family asking what you’re doing with your career, to suppliers who you have to convince to work with you, to new hires that you need to bring on board. 

How has working at a start-up helped you get to where you are now?

I’m now about to join a much larger start-up/ scale-up, so having experience in a similar style company definitely helped me get the job. I’m going to be working on new projects, products and markets, so knowing all the ins and outs of launches, having the ability to make quick decisions, and the skills to be agile definitely helped me into this role. 

It goes without saying that start-ups can be a risky opportunity due to the company not being completely or relatively new in the marketplace. However, there are things you can do to limit the risk such as researching the company, looking at the leadership and asking relevant questions to assess whether you believe in their concept and strategy. Your role at a start-up is likely to be loosely defined but often you may be needed to take up duties dependent on business needs. The lack of structure can be annoying but at the same time, it could give you the opportunity to get involved in various areas of the business which you would be off-limits at an established business. 


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