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Why a Start-up Job is Just Different

 “In a startup you have lots of worries, but you don’t have that feeling that your life is flying by like you do in a big company. Plus in a startup you could make much more money.”1  -Paul Graham, Founder of Y Combinator

I am no expert,2 but there is one thing I can tell you from experience. A start-up is not like an ordinary job. Why?

 1. Time is Money

Part of the difference is that in start-up you enter this weird parallel universe where time flows differently. Some days are agonizingly slow and long whereas others rush by. You’re never really disconnected from work—it’s seven days a week and probably all you think about anyway. Either way, there is never enough time.

The challenges also tend to be more varied. Usually you are creating a new marketplace or redefining a space. This effort requires creative horsepower, commitment to building new relationships, dedication to user acquisition, customer education, incredible listening skills, and adaptability. Oh, and all this generally governed by substantial resource constraints.

Ruthless decisions about navigating scarcity (in all its forms) are the norm.

2. Not knowing is the new knowingStart-ups also inherently exist with massive uncertainty. By their very definition a start-up is designed to innovate quickly and try to solve a problem in a new way. But then why hasn’t that already been done?

Sometimes the answer is simply because it is difficult to do. There are thousands of posts out there on AGILE/SCRUM methodology and rapid iteration that try to explain why start-ups can attack problems that defy more traditional organizations. Solving a user problem and monetizing it isn’t the only source of uncertainty however.

Funding, burn rate, macro concerns, competitors, and questions around team (current and next hires) all play a role in fueling questions.

Flexibility is a prerequisite.

 3. Grow or Fall BehindThis flexibility extends to your ability and willingness to engage in continual learning. Especially early on you will do everything. Sales. Check. Customer service? I sure hope so. HR and accounting? Someone’s gotta do it. This is great for those with a true entrepreneurial spirit and probably crushes those that aren’t aware of how much they will be forced to adapt.

I wish I could remember which well-known (billion dollar+ valuation) entrepreneur talked about the fact that as a start-up founder, you will be required to grow along with your business. The premise is pretty intuitive: If you grow 30% a year, your skills need to grow just as fast or you will quickly hinder your own growth. The same goes for every other early employee.

If you’re not constantly growing you’re falling behind. No corporate fat in this world.

4. Better love your teamThen there’s the fact that you’re in such a small team. You can’t hide in a start-up. You know where your efforts have fallen short and where they have been exceptional. Generally, no one is looking over your shoulder micromanaging either. Self-accountability is everything.

Same goes for your teammates. Everyone knows everything. Small cultural differences can escalate. Respect has to be nurtured, strengths maximized, and weaknesses balanced all while building a new culture from scratch. This is very liberating but the pressure is intense.

If you’re doing it right, you will be spending way more time with these people then anyone else in your life (yes, that includes your significant other). It’s a combustible situation and flare-ups will happen. Be prepared.

SummarySo why get into this game? In some respects, if that’s actually the question you’re asking then you probably shouldn’t.

It shouldn’t be about the money. First, most start-ups fail . And while it can also be the quickest way to life-changing monetary rewards I don’t think having that as your primary motivation will give you enough sustainable energy to overcome the obstacles you are sure to face.3.

To me you join a start-up because you believe in its mission. You join to solve a real problem.

Also, based on my experience at Ace Portal I’m convinced a start-up is the best way to level-up your skills, stretch yourself, and not accept the corporate status quo as “good enough.”



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  2. Then again, half the reason to join a start-up may just be to avoid the credentialism that so often curtails exceptionalism.
  3. Then again, if my next start-up becomes Amazon maybe I’ll tell you it’s all about the money!

Last modified: January 5, 2015