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Can You Survive at a Start-Up?

survive start up

Ask people where they want to work and you are more likely to hear start-up than Wall Street.

About half of Millennials say they want to work at a start-up, and plenty of people of all ages agree. Graduates of top MBA programs are saying no to Wall Street or consulting giants to become entrepreneurs or to work for one—with the idea that they will learn a few things until they launch their own venture. Some business schools are even tracking alumni venture dollars.

But the start-up life is not for everyone—not even for everyone under 30. While working 20 hours a day in a rapidly changing environment is a dream job for some, it can be a nightmare for someone who isn’t that comfortable with risk or who wants to work with a company where benefits mean a plush office and a 401(k).

And while the potential for a big-money IPO lures many people to the start-up life, the truth remains that about half of start-ups go bust in a few years.

Whether the start-up life is right for you depends on things from your temperament to your career goals. Here are some pros and cons of the start-up life.

The Upsides of Working at a Start-up

  • You will learn a lot. Because most start-up teams are small, you will wear a lot of hats and be exposed to a lot of business areas.
  • You can make a bigger mark on a product or team. Your ideas are more likely to get heard without having to push them up the corporate ladder or trying to innovate at a slow-moving company.
  • You will get more comfortable with risk and failure. Most start-ups are constantly iterating their products, sometimes scrapping things they have been developing for months or even years if the market doesn’t respond or a new investor has new ideas. Failure is not just more accepted, but is almost a badge of honor at start-ups these days.
  • You will probably work in a casual environment. Most start-ups have a relaxed culture, so if wearing shorts and flip-flops and bringing your dog to work sounds good, you will be comfortable.

The Downsides of Working at Start-ups

  • You probably won’t have a job description. At many small companies, tasks and responsibilities change frequently, and your job description–often vague in the first place–may have little bearing on how you actually spend your time. The lack of structure can be draining over time.
  • You’ll probably work with people like yourself. Wait—isn’t that a good thing? Well, it might be more fun for you, but because many start-ups employee mostly younger people, and often more men than women, your team likely won’t be that diverse. You won’t learn from more experienced people or people with very different life experiences, and according to some recent research, your team will be less effective than if it had more diversity.
  • You will likely work long-very long-hours for low pay. Many start-ups are operating on a tight budget and employees often accept lower pay in the hope that the company hits big. Most don’t have complete benefit packages. And many require you to work long hours because staff is small.
  • You are subject to the founder’s ideas. Most entrepreneurs are pretty passionate about their companies and their products, as well as the cultures they are trying to build. If you see eye-to-eye with a founder, great. But if you find that a founder’s style or beliefs or even single-mindedness crowds out other people’s opinions or simply doesn’t gel with your own ideas, you may get frustrated.
  • You may be on your own.  Most start-ups have fairly flat hierarchies, and managers can be few and far between or too busy to do much management. So if you are looking for frequent performance reviews or guidance, you might be out of luck. Many also don’t have large–or any–HR department, so if you have a problem with a colleague or boss, you might not find the support you would at a larger company.

Bottom line: Rather than fall for a glamourous image, be honest with yourself about your personality and long and short-term career goals. Then, if a start-up is what makes you most excited, take the time to find one with a mission that you can really support. You’ll want to work those long hours for something you can believe in.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and, among others.