Everything you wanted to know about joining a technology Start-up or Early-stage firm but were too frightened to ask!
Joining A Technology Start-up or Early-stage Firm
It would have been too easy to use a Rolling Stones picture for this article. Read on and discover why I’m using USHC’s finest’s logo instead… (Husker Du if you’re wondering).
I spent a number of days in the summer discussing hiring and talent acquisition with start-ups and early-stage firms. The conversations were open and free flowing. The founders and owners of these firms were generally receptive to new (to them) ideas and hiring strategies. There was a lack of ‘group think’ or ‘hive mind’ or the ‘we have always done it this way’ attitude. I didn’t encounter the kind of resistance to trying new things that I sometimes meet when working with bigger or more mature businesses. Mature firms often have an established corporate framework that decides what can and can’t be done; for better or worse. I like early-stage and growing firms as much as my bigger client firms.
Those meetings led me to think: what if I were a Software Developer, Product Manager or Sales guy etc. considering joining a start-up? What would I look for? How might I spot the next Unicorn? Or, if not the next Unicorn, how can I avoid joining a business that is going to bomb (for whatever reason) and find myself unemployed in a few months?
There isn’t a cookie-cutter answer. Part of life is about risk and managing risk. But based on what I saw and heard back in those salad days of summer, here are my thoughts. If you’re considering an early-stage firm, I hope you find them useful.
1. Product, Service & Widgets
What’s the product and how is it made? It could be software, it could be a new game, or Something As A Service, an industry-specific platform or a physical device (e.g. wearable technology).
Most people will look at the product or service and ask themselves if it excites them. Will it get you out of bed on a cold, wet Monday morning in the dog-end of January? Do you believe there is a market for it? If so, why and how and where? And look beyond whether farming software or an IoT-ready oil refinery widget enthuses you: look at the back-end. What is the technology? Does the firm use the latest development languages and tools? Are they using UIP (Unique Intellectual Property)? Are they working with older, legacy technologies? If so, why? There could be a good reason for it (robust, proof of concept and so on). These are some of the questions to ask your recruiter (they should know) and at interview.
2. Investigate the market
You don’t need a meerkat to compare the market; just a few hours with a search engine to map the space.
Who is already in that market? Are they shifting product? Who and what is unique and disruptive? Are there new entrants on the horizon? If there are, does that suggest there is a genuine demand for your prospective employer’s widget? What are the barriers to successfully launching a new product or service? Who else looks good (and should you be sending them a CV as well?).
You probably won’t find out much about this in the public domain and most (not all) recruiters won’t have a Scooby. By all means run the company through https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/companies-house and look at the directors, persons with significant control and any accounts that may have been submitted. Most start-ups will claim small company exemption from submitting full accounts (if they’re in a VC or PE incubator it gets even murkier). Perhaps you have a friend who works in an accounts or finance function somewhere and they can run a basic credit report using a tool like Creditsafe or Dun & Bradstreet. How is the firm’s credit rating? Shocking or a low, recommended credit limit? Why?
It is quite acceptable if you’re considering joining an early-stage outfit to ask at interview how the firm is funded; who funds it and what cash is at hand to grow the business, develop the product and pay the staff (that’s you – you need to be paid because you need to eat and that Hatebreed t-shirt, quite frankly, needs replacing).
You could be working at the next Facebook, Twitter or Skyscanner but if you don’t like the people (and the people become the culture), then this is a red flag.
If you’re a pinstripe suit kind of girl or guy, sitting with a team of Developers who are wearing headphones, hoodies and Woods of Ypres t-shirts, it may not be right for you. It may be. But you need to think carefully about your style, your personality and working experiences to date.
If you’re a salesperson pitching to corporates, it may not matter that the Developers in the office are wearing flip-flops and combat trousers. But then again, it might. Ask to meet as many of the team as is practically possible as part of the hiring process. Don’t be shy. People matter as much as product (for our purposes).
5. Founders, Owners and Management
I’m not a corporate kind of guy. Give me a rule and I’ll spend a few minutes thinking of how to break it. Give me a rule book or company handbook and I’ll bottom-drawer it unread and chuck it in the bin on the day I leave. Not maverick; just me. I’ve mostly been attracted to similar personality types to mine when choosing my next boss. This has been a rip-roaring success on occasion. Once or twice it’s been a car crash. Messy, tangled metal and blood on the highway. What are you? Do you need rules? Do you always follow rules? Or a you a bit of mad-genius who can roll without an org chart and HR’s mantra of “Thou shall not”?
Are your new bosses off-the-wall types with a great idea, a vision and a plan who thrive on chaos? How will you build and manage that relationship? If you’re of the Husker Du t-shirt wearing persuasion and your new boss is trying to build a mini Cap Gemini or Oracle or other successful but very corporate-type firm, how will that work for you? Do you want to drop £700+ on a decent suit and a couple of hundred beer tokens at Churches on sensible shoes your mother would approve of? Or does that Dead Kennedy’s t-shirt still have another summer left in it and, damn it, it’s your lucky t-shirt for testing day or when you do the cut over?
What part does the founder or owner have in the business on a day-to-day basis? Do they contribute? Are they managing? Can they delegate some of their baby? Or as I have fallen foul of once or twice, are they control freaks? Someone who can’t let go, won’t let go and always seems to know better even though they’re paying you a decent salary for your expert input and opinion?
You get the idea.
6. Owning A Slice of What You Build & Exit Stage Left
Is there an opportunity to earn or be given shares, share options or other instruments of ownership in the business you are helping build? Have you been asked to sacrifice salary today for jam tomorrow (shares)? If so, why? See (3) again.
If you end up working for the next Uber and become insanely wealthy off the back of your shares – fantastic. If they can’t pay market rate today on salary, why not? See (3) again.
Is there a road-mapped journey for the firm, the product(s) and key, early-stage people? Will that include you? You need to know and you’re entitled to ask.
I think you get the general idea.
These points may seem fairly obvious but it is easy to fall in love with a new (potential) boss, firm, brand or product. If they’re using the latest technology and you’re a tech-head, it can blind you to the wider business and career considerations. I’ve done it. I did it quite recently. I fell in love with a new boss, got excited about what I thought was going to be our journey together and I didn’t ask the right questions before signing on the line. Doh! I’ve been through that pain so you don’t have to.
Joining a start-up or an early-stage firm can be a career highlight. If it doesn’t work out, that’s okay if you went into it with eyes wide open and can justify your decision making process. If it bombs, it isn’t the end of your career.
Risk. Reward. Cover the basics. Take off the rose-tinted spectacles. Be objective. Ask the right questions. Maybe I’ll see your Ferrari parked on George Street one day. Good luck!
I work for North Star Enterprise Resourcing. North Star recruit experienced Technical, Developer, Functional and Sales & Marketing hires for Oracle and Microsoft Partner firms, as well as niche vendors, end-users and consulting firms. And, of course, well-funded start-ups.
You can reach me by InMail at LinkedIn or firstname.lastname@example.org or 07743978179