Internet startups are attracting more and more technical talent
every day, but lately we are starting to see an increase in companies
that can't get through their growing pains. While your career can be greatly enhanced by working for an Internet
startup, even a failed one, you need to remember some important
rules for protecting yourself if the company doesn't make it past
the first round of venture capital funding.
Keeping your ears open
Often, Internet startups can quickly move from being the "new,
new thing" to just another failed company. Where larger, more
established companies might have a gradual decline lasting months
or years, Internet startups can crash almost overnight. With this
in mind, you should pay close attention to not only the technical
side of the company, but the business side, as well.
First, keep a close watch on what the principals of the company
are doing and saying. They will try to put a good spin on everything,
but it is often easy to tell when things are going well or going
badly. While you certainly don't want to be accused of eavesdropping,
listen closely to any information you are privy too, especially
if it is given in an informal way. You want to know if the search
for funding is going well or if the venture capitalists are yawning.
You want to know if another, larger, company is looking to buy
Second, visit your favorite high-tech news site and set up a news
filter to watch for information about your company. Too often,
employees of a company are the last to know when the company is
in trouble. News stories will help to balance the cheerleading
that you might encounter in the office.
Finally, join up with a local industry group that exposes you
to employees of other high-tech companies in your area. You will
find that these groups can often be a good way of finding out
how your company is perceived within the industry. Since everyone
is plugged into the same industry you might hear about problems
at your company long before you notice them yourself. For example,
hearing your company is not paying its bills to another high-tech
company should raise a red flag and allow you to investigate further.
The main reason for all this investigative energy is simple, to
protect yourself from suddenly being out of a job. It might sound
a bit mercenary, but it is better to abandon a ship while it is
sinking than after it has slipped beneath the bankruptcy waves.
You don't want to be left stranded should your company not make
Your first goal, should you find out your company is about to
fold, is to find a new position. You should make use of any connections
you have made in your current position to reach out for your next
job. You won't want to necessarily tell people that you are leaving
because the company is folding, that can generate bad feelings
all around. Merely state that you are looking for a new opportunity
and challenge. Keep any comments about your current company as
non-committal as possible. You don't want to burn any bridges
you might have to cross later.
Next, make sure that any money owed you is paid. This includes
payroll, reimbursements for purchases you made on the company's
behalf, medical reimbursements, vacation pay, etc. Too often,
companies suddenly announce they can't meet their payroll long
after your work has already been completed. Slow payments, or
no payments should raise an immediate red flag. You want to consider
very carefully how much work you are doing if there is any possibility
you might not get paid.
Especially make sure you have not extended your own credit to
pay for company property or services. If you purchased anything
on your personal credit cards or with your own cash, reimbursement
should be made immediately. Don't let these payments linger or
you might find yourself eating some of the company's debt should
they suddenly fold. In fact, I would further recommend that you
don't extend yourself in this way, if at all possible. It will
be better for everyone concerned.
No one wants to wish the demise of any company, but the speed
of failure in today's high-tech world requires you to be on the
look out for signs that your company is not in the best of health.
You owe it to yourself to be aware of your surroundings so that
the failure of your employer doesn't cause the failure of your
Previous Career-Op Columns
August 1999 Other people's problems
August 1998 Skills You Need (Parts 1-4)
August 1997 What does it take?: Part 1