Career Opportunities

Helping to build the career you deserve!

A weekly ComputorEdge Column and Podcast by Douglas E. Welch

Surviving a Startup

March 1998

Support Career Opportunities:

iTunes Review | Career-Op Forums | | Podcast Alley | Reader/Listener Line @ 818-804-5049

Never before in the history of business have there been so many companies founded by so many people in so little time. Many are abandoning the corporate scramble to strike out on their own and, hopefully, meet their destiny.

These increasing numbers of startups are always looking for talented people to staff the latest, greatest, Internet/Interactive powerhouse that will change the very nature of the business. As people who understand the technologies behind such businesses, we are often in demand. Before you jump ship, though, there are a few things to consider

Moving to a new startup company requires open eyes and a thorough understanding of the trials and tribulations of starting a new company. You need to know how to protect yourself while still using the opportunity to grow.

Burning bridges

So, you get a call one day and it is a friend who is starting a new company and wants you to come aboard. Your first reaction is often to type up your resignation letter and tell your current boss exactly what we think of him and the company. While this might be therapeutic you need the security of your job, even a bad one, to clearly make decisions about moving to this new company. Here are a few guidelines to follow when considering making a move to a new startup, or any new job.

Don?t burn bridges. There is no reason to make enemies as you walk out the door. You might need your old job back if the startup doesn?t succeed...and many don?t. Continue to do your best work and insure that, if you leave, you will be doing so on the best possible terms. You wan to be missed when you go.

Don?t discuss your offer with anyone unless you trust him or her implicitly. You don?t want to reveal that you might be considering other offers too early. Many offers don?t work out and you don?t want your current employer to know that you are looking. This can often lead to layoffs or worse since they may feel you are already looking anyway. You only want to approach your employer when the deal is finalized and you are ready to make the move.

It often helps ease the transition to have a constructive explanation about why you are leaving the company. In most cases, I have left one job to explore new challenges and avenues of work rather than any dissatisfaction with the job. Make this clear to your employer. Keep those bridges intact in case you ever need to travel that way again.

Taking care of these previous relationships will help you to take bigger risks since you have someplace safe to retreat to should the new position not work out. You will feel less stress in the new position and worry less about personal issues.

In the next few weeks I will explore some of the unique features of working for startup companies and how you can best exploit them to your, and the company?s, advantage.

Startup companies can be exciting and frightening places to work. There is more fun, more pressure, more work in fact more of everything then you will find in an established corporation. It is up to you to take advantage of everything a startup company has to offer while avoiding the pitfalls that can and do occur.

After the move

Last week I talked about not burning bridges to your old job in case you need to return there. This week I will concentrate on the other end of that equation, negotiating with the new company for the best possible deal.

Make sure, before your start, that you understand exactly what salary you will be paid, health care insurance arrangements, working hours and environment and try to understand the mind set of the principals in the company.

In one case, I started a job only to find out that my portion of health care costs were in the thousands of dollars per year and I was expected to contribute out of their quoted salary offer. This effectively cut my salary by the same amount. It was extremely uncomfortable to go back to my new employers and negotiate a significant raise after the fact. It is better to have issues like these handled before the offer is accepted. In some cases, it could even mean the loss of the job.

You also need to inquire whether the company?s work habits include large amounts of overtime, travel or other odd situations, such as working at a client?s location for weeks. Does the president of the company work 23 hours a day? Does he expect everyone to do that? Now is the time to find out, not later.

Pay Checks and other lost things

Since startup companies are often working on tight budgets and schedules it is important to know when paychecks are supposed to be distributed so that you can quickly notice should any financial problems arise. Paychecks that are regularly delayed 1 day or more point to some issue with cash flow or paperwork. Don?t wait 3 weeks to question these delays. You don?t want to be in the situation of working for a month and then having the company close without paying you.

The same applies for other payments like expense reports and reimbursements. Delays in these areas point to problems somewhere and should be addressed immediately. This is not to say that companies are out to screw you. It is merely a fact of life that the majority of startups never make it past the first year.

There are good points

Don?t let the discussion above scare you. There are many good points to joining a startup company, especially for someone who is new to the computer career marketplace. Next week I will explore some of these benefits and how to make the most of them for both you and your new company.

Working for a startup company can truly be a rollercoaster ride. One minute the company is suffering a setback and the next it is hauling in the big fish client that ensures profitability. The first days and months of a startup are a heady time filled with hard work and hard fun. There are a few things you can do to insure that you are taking care of yourself while still providing the company what it needs.

Take care of yourself

Some people thrive on "all-nighters" and crunch deadlines but others, myself included, can only work so long before crashing. You need to remain healthy to do your best so don?t ignore sleep and a good diet when business is pressing. In fact, these are the times when you should be concerned about it the most. Take naps if you can. Don?t load up on junk food and Jolt cola.
Even if people are pushing you to your limits you need to carve out time for yourself. Find time for your family, even if it means leaving work and then coming back later in the evening. Don?t skip lunch. Go take a walk and use the time to clear your head. Your productivity will not suffer. It will actually improve.

Do everything

This said, one of the most important aspects of a startup is that you will be called on to do almost any job imaginable. Since there is usually only a minimum of staff you might be asked to design artwork one minute and arrange a press conference the next. Don?t hesitate to take on these tasks. A startup company is like an accelerated learning course. You will learn more in a shorter time than ever before.

While it may seem a little crazed, everything you learn will make you more marketable in the future. It is a wonderful situation when you are getting paid to improve yourself and your skills. You might even find a new focus to your career. Try everything. Do everything. This is an opportunity you will rarely ever find in a typical corporation.

Moving up the ladder

The dynamic environment of a startup can also lead to quick promotions. This can often cause a little fear in people who have never managed other people before. This is NOT a reason to turn down the promotion, though. It is much better to try and fail then never try at all. Take advantage of the situation and take every opportunity to expand your experience. You can always learn to manage other people but it is very difficult to get back a lost opportunity.


Take time to meet other people from your industry. This might take place at trade shows or down at the coffee shop near the office. Computer companies often congregate around small geographical areas and your next job might be discovered over a cup of your morning coffee. This networking also allows an informal sharing of information about companies and the industry as a whole. Do favors for others and they will often do favors for you. Just like preserving bridges to past employers you should be building new ones to future employers.

This month I have talked about the unique possibilities of startup companies. They can offer amazing opportunities to everyone involved as long as they understand the possibility of failure and plan for their future. It is just as important to look out for Number 1 as it is to do a good job for the company. In most cases, these goals are not mutually exclusive.

Where do we go from here?

As startup companies become more mature, they will often begin adopting the practices of their more stalwart corporate counterparts. At this stage you will face another major decision. Do you enjoy the chaotic environment of a startup or can you adapt to the more corporate atmosphere of the growing company?

Often, computer careerists, especially younger ones, want the chaos and challenge of a startup company. They find that this is where they work best. Others may be ready to join (or re-join) the corporate world and yearn for the more stable environment.

One solution is to spin-off especially talented employees into a new startup company to explore the next frontier of the companies business. Part of their business might be to supply the parent company with artwork or other content while it also goes off to develop new clients and new business on its own. In fact, this is what often supplies the next round of startup companies in a never-ending cycle.
If you have a particularly good idea and good business sense, you might even develop a new startup company of your own. Hopefully the knowledge you gained working for your parent company has prepared you for this next career leap.

Selling out

While "selling out" has some bad connotations, in today?s computer market it can be the ticket to becoming a millionaire for owners of startup companies and major promotions for their employees. While there is some danger of losing your job when a company is bought out, in most cases everyone involved succeeds in some way.

Some entrepreneurs are better at starting companies than running them. In their case, selling a company allows them to move onto the next startup and do what they do best. It is often in your best interest to support efforts to sell a company since you could easily be elevated to a higher position in the company or become part of a much larger organization.

That said, don?t expect a sale to happen overnight. Selling a company is a drawn out procedure fraught with problems. One company I was working for took over a year to finalize the purchase agreement. You almost have to ignore the mechanics and just get on with your job or you risk obsessing on the deal and losing focus on the task at hand.

Startup companies can be the most exciting places in the world to work, but there are issues involved that you must be willing to accept. Sometimes, we need to shift our mind set into what I call "adventure mode." Here we allow the situation to carry us into new territory without necessarily worrying about the final destination. This is not to say, though, that you don?t prepare for other possibilities. In fact, this allows you to engage in the "adventure" even more since you have already established your safety net, should you need it.


- END -



Receive each new episode automatically

Subscribe or Subscribe with

See more in the WelchWrite Bookstore