Most people leave the relative security of an established organization for a startup for one reason—they want to create a bigger impact.
I worked at a larger tech company for almost a decade, but I transitioned to a startup in order to have more ownership, be part of the company’s growth, and watch it succeed over time.
And if you’re looking for a real sense of ownership, I can tell you, there’s no better place to find it than a company without enough employees to field a soccer team. The fewer people there are, the more your voice — and your work — matters.
Not all startups are created equal, but generally speaking, most allow room for incredible responsibility. Still, it’s a big transition, and you may experience a bit of culture shock when you first make the switch.
Here’s what you’ll want to be ready for when you leave an established company for a startup:
1. Be prepared to pick up the pace
Things move faster at a startup. A lot of that has to do with the size, but also the relative lack of processes you’ll encounter in the beginning.
At a large company, processes are developed as a way to help the company grow without becoming unmanageable. But at some point, they actually begin to slow down the execution. A small company with fewer people will almost always have fewer processes in place. As it grows, more will be added. But initially, you’ll feel a real difference in the pace of work and the progress you make.
However, this doesn’t mean a startup is a chaotic mess. Processes are present but only to the extent needed.
If you are coming from a bigger company, you’re likely used to following many processes. Don’t expect those to be replicated at the startup. A new process should be added only if it makes the team more efficient.
2. Understand there are tradeoffs to being at a startup
One of the challenges of working at a startup is the limitations of your resources. A fifteen-person operation has to make compromises and choose between multiple appealing options.
For instance, I was helping the sales and support team when I first joined the team at Chronicled. We received many inquiries from enterprises asking if we could help them with a variety of issues they had. But it just wasn’t feasible to help everyone.
There were plenty of interesting opportunities that didn’t fit our company strategy, and we had to turn them down.
A startup has to manage their resources effectively, and that means not everything you plan will actually come to fruition. Sometimes, you just won’t have the resources to expend on a project.
3. Realize it’s not just about a job for most people.
There are plenty of passionate people working in established companies, but you’ll also find many who view their work simply as a job. It’s something they do from nine to five and then forget about when they go home.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it’s not the attitude you’ll encounter at a startup.
When I go to work each day, I see people who really care about what they do and what they deliver. Whether it’s the product, the marketing, or even a slide deck, they want it to be very high quality. They go out on a limb to ensure they’re delivering the best possible results.
So, make sure you’ve researched the company well to understand if you’re actually interested in their vision. If you’re committed, you probably wouldn’t mind working 80 hours a week if there was a need. If you aren’t committed, then you wouldn’t even enjoy the regular hours.
It doesn’t make any sense to join a startup if you aren’t enthusiastic about the company and their goals.
4. Be ready to take on more responsibilities.
The phrase, “That’s not my job,” shouldn’t be part of your vocabulary if you’re working at a startup.
You’ll almost certainly have more responsibilities than you would at a large company. It’s actually one of the most exciting parts of working for an early stage startup—you aren’t siloed into one function.
For instance, I currently have four different responsibilities as part of my product management role, simply because I’m part of a smaller team with fewer employees to handle tasks. At my previous job, we would have had four different people handling each of those areas.
It can seem hectic at times, but a startup will provide you with more opportunities for taking ownership of something and making it your own.
5. Know your voice will be heard and will help make decisions.
There’s a difference in the structure of command when you work at a company with only 20 people. Strict, top-down control doesn’t really work—and it’s not a winning strategy, either.
A startup environment offers every employee the opportunity to make their voice heard, even if they disagree with a decision.
It’s important that you can be honest about your opinions. But that may mean hard discussions with senior leaders, which can be a new experience. At my former company, I would never have been a part of those talks because important discussions happened at the senior leadership level.
Now, I have that opportunity. I’m able to speak up, sell an idea, or offer constructive criticism. But that’s what being in a startup boils down to—more opportunity for ownership, for responsibility, and for growth.
6. Have fun and help shape the core company culture.
A startup’s culture is generally shaped by the founders and their backgrounds. And you’ll likely have a chance to be part of the core team that defines it. Of course, this differs depending on whether you’re joining a company with 20, 50 or 100 employees.
If the company is very young, its culture likely hasn’t been fully defined yet.
You can help shape the culture and values by projecting what you believe in. Imagine you’ve been with a company for a few years and someone new is joining the team. You may be able to say, “This is how our team trains here,” and you could have been the leader who set it up. This is something you will never get to do at a big company, no matter how innovative it claims to be.
While there are many more considerations to joining a startup, these are the main benefits to keep in mind if you’re thinking about making the transition.