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What it’s like working for a startup

Apr 23, 2016 | Entrepreneurship

Note: This article also appeared in Entrepreneur Middle East, and can be viewed on the site here.

In the not-so-distant past, the thought of leaving behind the relative comfort and security of a corporate job at an established company to join a young startup would not have been a very welcome one. But times they are a changing, and since the dot-com revolution that kicked off in the late 90s, things have never been the same.

Specifically, it truly is innovation fever. And sure, while that internet bubble burst, it didn’t stay down for long, and to be clear, this “innovation fever” we are talking about extends well beyond just the internet. The business world is serving up new innovations and inventions almost daily – some of which will indeed be game-changers.

Now let’s not kid ourselves, those startup failure rates are still massive. That is never going to change, as the reality will always be that most startups won’t make it past the first few years. But the other reality is that there is indeed a lot more fun to be had in a startup environment than in a large and established corporation where most of you will always just be another cog in the wheel.

So let me ask you: Are you startup employee material, or big corporate? Do you like the fast-paced and possibly even confusing environment of a startup where your job title might not mean all that much because you’ll be filling different roles at different times? Or would you rather do the 9 to 5, tucked away in that cubicle waiting for the orders to trickle down from wherever they come down from?

The environments really are quite different, and in this article I explore just that. From working hours to recognition to pay, let’s see what the startup world is serving up.

Working hours: 

This is a great place to begin in testing your mettle to find out if you are startup material. Listen up, people, startup hours can be long and hard. This will of course vary based on the nature of the particular startup environment that you are in, but you can bet that if you’re working in a small room with a few startup founders and maybe one or two other employees, and those founders and other employees are regularly staying into the evening, you leaving when the clock strikes five is just not going to work.


While you’re not going to boost your paycheck initially when moving to a startup, in the long-term – as many startups offer shares or ownership of the company to those initial employees in particular – there is the potential to get very rich indeed.

But let’s be clear: This is an extreme long shot, because again to repeat what we all know, that startup you are working at has a far greater chance of going out of business than becoming the next Google. What is more likely to happen is that you will be making a smaller paycheck than you would at an established corporation, and if you calculate your per-hour wage based on those insane number of hours you are working … well, let’s just not go there.


This one is a biggie, and this is where working for a startup comes with huge advantages. Let’s be clear: Humans need recognition and need to feel important. But this is not happening nearly enough at most companies. In fact, a recent survey by BambooHR found that 82% of workers felt that the lack of recognition they were receiving in the workplace was negatively affecting them. And it makes sense that at established companies – where again we are usually just cogs in the wheel – there won’t be much recognition and praise going around. But at a startup things are very different on this front. You are working much more closely with the bosses and your work will at times clearly have a huge impact on the success of the organisation and in shaping the business. Such an environment can offer huge emotional rewards, and I can’t stress enough what a positive impact that can have on your wellbeing. Recognition is likely far more important to you than you are aware.


The culture at startups is no doubt less stuffy than at those established corporations. On the whole, entrepreneurs tend to be highly creative, innovative, and daring types, and so in those first few years in particular when the team is still very small and everything handled on a much more personal and direct level, the people they hire will often also possess such traits. This lends itself, quite simply, to a more exciting atmosphere that is good for your spirit. Getting up in the morning to go to work at such a startup will give you a very different feeling than the one you would have if you were to be heading to that large accounting firm to set yourself in solitude behind your computer for the next eight hours.

Job roles: 

Sure, you may have been hired as a project manager, but the reality for most startup workers is that the title on the business card does not tell the whole story. Whether you are the admin assistant or the sales director, there will always be times when you’re required to work on other aspects of the business.

This can be a major advantage for those with the right personalities. Never a dull moment, after all, and not too much time to think about “the purpose of life”, which is what makes sitting in that desk job so unbearable for many of you younger types in particular. And let’s be clear that none of this is to suggest that you will be a “jack of all trades, master of none”. There will still be plenty of time for you to do what you do – whether that is programming, marketing, selling; but there will also be lots of opportunities to see if other areas interest you even more.


One of the greatest things about working for a startup is the education it provides. You’ll likely be working far more closely with the business owners, and this will give you a unique insight into what it takes to get a company off the ground. Even if you don’t always agree with the way things are being carried out, and even if that startup won’t be around in a few years, you’ll still be getting exposure to a ton of things you would never be able to experience at more established corporations. For those who dream of entrepreneurship for themselves one day, working on the front lines of a startup is a great way to safely learn the ropes.

The right environment

So, having read the above, what do you think? Are you the right fit for a startup? Or is a startup the right fit for you? Of course the answer is not a simple yes or no. It will depend largely on the industry you work in, your long-term career goals, as well as personal circumstances such as family and financial commitments. And beyond that, perhaps the most important factor in determining whether the startup life is for you is your personality.

But to be clear, your working life will likely span many decades, so you will have lots of time to try all sorts of working environments should you choose to do so. And I wouldn’t stress too much about it. If you work hard, get on with your colleagues, commit to continuous learning and self-development, and, over time, become more and more clear on your personal goals, then I am all but certain that you will find a way to make things work in just about any environment you are in.

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