Joining a Software Startup: What you need to know - Part 1

Many people in the high tech industry dream of working at a startup, a small new company where they can have a huge impact on the direction and technology, and do exciting work in a fun environment. There’s nothing wrong with having this dream, but it’s not quite as simple as saying yes: there’s a lot more information that needs to go into your decision, and you need to be prepared to make your own evaluation of a company. All of those engineers who started at a Google or Facebook early on and reaped the many rewards that went along with that decision were certainly the exception and not the rule.

I’ve worked with hundreds of startups and hot, emerging companies in my 25+ years as a software recruiter, through the dotcom bubble and in the years since, and I’ve also worked at two early-stage startups myself. I consider myself well-placed to dole out advice for anyone considering a job at a startup. In this series of blog posts, I’ll discuss several of the factors that you should consider during your job search.

The first and most important of these factors is the company’s concept and technology. What are they building? Is it unique? What’s their competition, and how do they differentiate themselves?

Another important factor to consider is the profile of the founders, management team and investors. Have they done this before? Investors and Wall Street like to put their money with people who have a track record, and the safe bet is not to trust someone who’s going down this road for the first time. Even in a sector where “something new” is what everyone’s after, experience really counts when it comes to raising money for a new venture.

You also need to learn about the entire compensation package that you’ll be getting, not just your salary. What will your benefits be like? Is there any opportunity for bonuses? Will there be stock options available? I managed the stock options programs at the companies I was with so I will try to give an overview of how it works and what to look for.

Just because you’re working at a fresh, fast-moving company, doesn’t mean you can’t have a life. You need to evaluate the work/life balance at any potential employer. Startups are all different, and you’ll need to examine the culture of each one to make sure it fits your lifestyle.

Finally, you need to realize and appreciate the risks that you’re taking by entering into the unproven world of a startup. You’ll need to keep your eyes wide open and know when to stay and when to go.

I don’t mean to scare you off with my warnings, but rather to encourage and advise you. Startups are a great place for someone young to start a career or someone experienced to get into something new, and it’s important for you to be able to navigate your way around all of the considerations that should ultimately go into your career decision. I’ll cover all of these topics and more in my upcoming posts, and I look forward to sharing my experiences with you.