Is life at a tech start-up anything like an episode of Silicon Valley?. [Credit: Rex Features]

What to consider before joining a start-up

While working for a start-up company can be the perfect career choice for some, before you sign on the dotted line be sure to weigh up the pros and cons.

It can be difficult to look beyond major organisations when it comes to applying for a graduate scheme or your first job. A decent starting salary, structured career path, long-term security and chance to work for a major brand all have plenty appeal for those entering the world of work, especially if you have a student loan to pay off.

Some, however, find working at major corporations doesn’t give them enough freedom to express themselves and they don’t feel entirely at ease with the corporate culture. Faced with this situation, working for a start-up can be an attractive prospect. It can be easier to make your mark, get your ideas to market more rapidly, experience a broader learning experience as well as have greater autonomy.

Of course, the glamorous image of a start-up is a small tech company where you can turn up for work in t-shirt and shorts, play foosball, work (and play) hard and within a short period of time find yourself sitting on the board of what is looking like the next Google with share options to match. The reality can be rather different, though, and while working for a start-up ends up being the perfect career decision for some, you must enter it with your eyes wide open.

Weigh up the pros and cons

The risk associated with working for a start-up should be understood from the word go. According to Martin Gibson, founder of Aptood.com, which uses psychometric testing to help start-ups and SMEs recognise the potential of graduates, start-ups can be a good career option but he cautions: “You might consider a start-up if you want increased risk-reward, or you're working on an innovative idea that you believe in. [But] it is important to investigate the funding of a start-up and exit plans of the founders before you commit.”

At interview stage, ask the owners some frank questions about the business plan and growth. Be enthusiastic about the business venture but not blindly, as you need to look after your interests as well. When it comes to salary discussion, be wary of promises made that might not materialise such as profit sharing. The reward package will be far more closely linked to the success of the business than at large organisations and you have to accept that this can be good and bad so manage your salary expectations.

Take ownership of your agenda

Roles are much less defined in start-ups so be alert to this. You must be a team player and be able to accept greater responsibility. As Gibson points out, without defined divisions of labour, work is often done by those capable of it regardless of their title or position in the company.

“Whilst this is great for finding out what your skills actually are, there is a real responsibility to deliver as there is often no-one else able to undertake or even check your work,” he says, adding that this is in contrast with a graduate scheme that provides you with a learning experience “under the umbrella of a stable and well-staffed company”.

Nevertheless, if one of the founders is an engineering or software wizard, they could become the perfect mentor. A start-up also represents a great opportunity to learn about all aspects of business and if you have aspirations to set up your own company the experience will prove invaluable.

Chance to shine

For those brimming with bright ideas, a start-up can provide a far more fertile landscape than larger organisations. But it is important to ensure your ideas are aligned with those of the business.

“Research is key. Understand who your competitors are, what they do, and how you can make your start-up better or different,” says Gibson. “Understand what technology is standard, what new techniques you can use, and how that can give an advantage. Having your own new opinions will impress your colleagues and give credibility to your ideas.”

While your employers will expect you to be innovative and will be keen to listen to fresh ideas, keep in mind that they are running a business, so don’t get down-hearted if they don’t always immediately follow through with them. It doesn’t mean they have rejected your idea out of hand but perhaps the timing isn’t right.

Life at a start-up will have its downs as well as its ups and both extremes are likely to be felt more acutely than at larger organisations where you are more removed front the frontline in the early stages of your career.

Making the right decision

Ultimately, personality may dictate whether you are the sort of person who will thrive at a start-up. If you can live with an element of risk, embrace change and unpredictability, value autonomy and can handle responsibility then you are more likely to enjoy the working environment of a start-up. Working days may be long and Gibson warns that asking for long holidays “can be a challenge” but for the right person a start-up can provide the perfect entry into the world of work.

Be honest with yourself though. It might seem attractive on paper but if security, structure, salary progression and being part of a bigger entity are important to you it probably isn’t a natural fit. Don’t write the idea off forever though; joining a start-up when you are more established and at a more senior level may prove a better option.

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