What to Expect When Joining a Startup

Do you know that meme about what my friends think I do versus what I actually do? In 2018, I had that meme moment. We had just raised our Series A led by Google’s AI fund, doubled our team size, and started working with the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. I bought a new suit because my co-founder and I had to fly to the UK for a few days to meet some potential customers. Everything I described so far is “what my friends think I do.”

Now, what I actually do. We flew to London on a red-eye for a 3-day trip to visit London, Cambridge, Oxford, and Slough. After not sleeping for 3 days because I was sharing a room with Tom, my co-founder who snores (sorry Tom), we finally got to Slough. We had an 8:00 am meeting and brought all of our luggage with us because we had to go directly to the airport afterward. We had no breakfast or coffee and we were starving. There are not a lot of places to eat in ​​Slough (fun fact, Slough is where the show “The Office” was filmed). We went to a local grocery store. We bought some gross coffee and a few day-old sandwiches. We looked for a place to sit and all we could find was a dirty bench. We sat down without knowing there was a mirror in front of that bench. Looking up, there we were in our suits, surrounded by luggage, gross coffee, grocery store sandwiches, and massive bags under our eyes. That moment is the “what I actually do”.

Working at startups is trendy, but it’s still work

Starting and joining a startup is very trendy. It seems like everyone is starting a startup or joining one. If 20 years ago you said you are an entrepreneur, peoples’ first thought was that you were unemployed. Today, if you say you are an entrepreneur you seem like a hero.

What I see and hear from fellow entrepreneurs, VCs, and team members at other startups is that all this trendiness is creating a misalignment of expectations for those new to the tech startup world. In my opinion, this is leading to burnout and employee churn. Misalignment of expectations is a recipe for failure.

That’s why I wanted to share my experiences and perspective on what you should really expect when joining a startup.

Why startups are HARD

Simply put, startups are hard because you are going from 0 to 1. From a vision to reality. Taking an idea and turning it into a massive, multi-billion, impactful organization with hundreds to thousands of employees in 10 years, is the hardest thing one can do professionally.

The reality is that you have to figure everything out by yourself. Then you have to convince others to take a chance on you and execute with intense speed and quality to maintain and build on that trust. That is why over 90% of startups fail. In a way, everything you accomplish is illogical. Why would great talent join a tiny company with no product or revenue? Why would investors give you millions of dollars? Why would customers take a chance on unproven technology?

When you are in a startup you are expected to, at minimum, double in size year over year. To do that, you have to get so many things right and move at unprecedented speed. You have to move so fast mostly because there is so much you do not know and you have to experiment and collect information quickly so you can figure out what you actually need to do. In addition, you are not a profitable organization and therefore, your days are numbered. If you do not meet your goals on time, your company may cease to exist.

There is a famous saying by Reid Hoffman: “Starting a company is like jumping off a cliff and assembling a plane on the way down”. If you don’t assemble that plane fast enough, you will crash. This is the complete opposite of working in an established organization that has figured most things out, has a strong market position, and needs to grow by only a few percentage points year over year. Those organizations are mostly focused on maintaining their market position. Startups have to earn it.

Why the workload is so intense

Working at a startup is not a 9 to 5 job. There might be a small percentage of employees that do work those hours as the company becomes bigger, but that is for very specific jobs.

If we have a spectrum of working hours in which investment banking and corporate law is on one end with an 80-hour workweek and government, telecom, and banks on the other end with a 40-hour workweek, startups are somewhere in between. Now, that is a big spectrum. Where you fit on that spectrum depends on the stage of the startup (pre-seed, seed, A, B, C, public, etc.), your position, traction, productivity, growth rate, your priorities, and your career aspirations

But it isn’t only the hours. The work itself and experience overall are intense. I think the hours are long and the work is intense for a few reasons:

  1. Your actual work — There is always something to do when working at a startup. Your job is to build and create and not maintain. When you are creating, you are never done. It can feel like you are always behind and there are always fires. Some you let burn but most of them you have to put out. Some startups are operating in white spaces and not building a better mousetrap, so no one has ever done what you are doing. Then you are operating with no information and spend a lot of time trying to figure things out. Add to all of this the massive sense of urgency and the need for speed that exists in startups (see above why).
  2. Your other work — This is a part I think many people ignore or don’t fully understand. When joining a startup and when starting one, you are not only building a product and selling it. You are also building a company and that is as hard and time-consuming as building a product and commercializing it. This aspect of your job is one of the reasons that workload is so intense and there is always work to do. For example, onboarding (teams double in size year over year), offboarding (the average churn in hypergrowth is 25%), figuring out how your team should work together, helping your team manage their workload and avoid burnout, creating and changing policies and documentation (because there are none in startups) and more.
  3. Your extracurricular work — When you join a startup it is a moment in time. You are there because the person who hired you believes you have the skillset that is needed to get the job done today and have the potential to keep doing it for a minimum of 12–18 months. The number one advice VCs and other experienced founders give to new founders is don’t hire someone for the future, hire someone who can do the job in the next 12–18 months. Since the company changes every year, it is up to you to ensure you keep on growing with it. That means you need to grow your skillset to do your job when you are working at a 300-person company and not a 100-person company (it is very different). That is something I always remind myself of. I might be a good 400-person company CEO, but it is up to me to ensure I am a great CEO for a 1000-person company.
  4. Your emotional work — Startups are hard emotionally. There is constant change. Every year you are a new company with new products, new markets, new direction, new policies, new org charts, new roles, and new people. Changing roles and responsibilities can be the hardest for people to manage. So many things you used to own as part of your role, you will have to give up in 12 months. Sometimes you take on new things you’ve never done before. That can all lead to an identity crisis of “how am I adding value”? What does it mean if I don’t X anymore? Am I still important? First-round Ventures published a great blog post about this.

What can startups do to help

As you probably concluded by now, startup life is hard. While startups can be cool, have lots of fun perks, and be more progressive workplaces, it isn’t surprising that people who work at startups experience burnout. I think that while some things cannot change in terms of what it takes to be at a startup, there are things companies can do. Here are a few examples of what we are doing at BenchSci to be better.

1. Be honest at the hiring process — In general, I don’t think joining a startup aligns with the expectations of those who want the work-life balance of a 9 to 5 job. Some startups are not direct about it and hide how demanding the work is. I believe that ensuring people understand what they are getting into is crucial to help people manage and succeed. If your team members don’t understand what they are really signing up for, they will not succeed. At BenchSci, we make sure to share what a day in the life of each role looks like and where it usually falls on the spectrum described above. Also, each manager creates an expectation card of how their team works and how they work. Here is an example of such a “how to work with me card” by our Engineering managers Wai Chung Hon:

2. Make it easy to part ways — Startups are not for everyone but sometimes you don’t know until you join, and that is OK. What happens then? Usually, it is very hard for people and organizations to admit they made a mistake. They end up wasting each other’s time and impacting the mental health of new employees. At BenchSci, we created a policy called “Pay to Part Ways”. This policy is very self-explanatory; If it’s not the right fit, we will pay our new team members a full month’s salary to quit during their first 3 months with us. We will also pay that if we decide to part ways with them. By doing so we hope to better support new team members who decide that working at BenchSci is not for them.

3. Address burnout — I think that a lot of people get burnout wrong. As part of supporting our leaders at BenchSci, we hired an Independent Director of Leadership who is an expert in working with startups and has training in clinical psychology. One of the first things she did at BenchSci, was to help us all understand what burnout is and what contributes to it. According to Harvard Business Review, the leading causes of burnout are workload, lack of autonomy, mismatch of rewards, lack of supportive community, lack of recognition, and value mismatch. The reality is that the pandemic and transition to remote working exacerbated these causes. While we can’t address all causes of burnout here are a few things that we did at BenchSci (1) workload — working closely with the teams to understand their workload and accelerate hiring as much as possible to reduce their workload. Last year we set up a dedicated talent acquisition team and worked closely with the team to create team growth projections for the next 12 months. Also, last year we introduce our “Resting Points” policy which gave our team every other Friday off in the summertime, a sabbatical once you hit 5 years at BenchSci, and we extended our office December closure to two full weeks every December. (2) autonomy — we are fostering a culture of pushing decision-making down instead of a “command and control” culture. A main leadership principle of the hour is autonomy. We want our team to understand where we need to go and use their judgment and skillset to get us there as they see fit (3) support — in addition to having an independent director of leadership working with of leadership team, we also hired a leadership coach to support all managers and leaders in the company during this time of hyper growth and stress. We also transitioned to an HR Business Partner model that provides dedicated tailored support to each function of the business. (4) recognition — to support recognition in a remote setting (which is very hard to do) we introduced three initiatives. One, a Slack Kudos channel where team members give Kudos to each other on their great work and accomplishment. This is one of our most active channels. Two, we created the FASTTY which is our internal Oscar-like award for team members who exemplify our values. And three, we gave our managers an unlimited budget to celebrate their team’s success and personal milestones.. (5) value mismatch — I think that all companies can do here is be very honest. I highly recommend companies codify their culture so new employees can decide before they join if this is the place for them. We published our culture deck last year.

4. Provide flexibility — One of the most impactful things a startup can do is provide their teams unmatched flexibility. In my opinion, tech startups that don’t provide flexibility simply don’t trust their team members. So what is flexibility? For us at BenchSci, it is focused on two main areas, when and where:

  • When — team members decide when they work. We have core hours which are 10:00am — 4:30pm ET to ensure that boundaries are set in terms of when we expect people to be available for meetings and to provide a quick response on Slack/email. Outside of those hours, people work when it works best for them.
  • Where — Last year we became a remote-first company. We have a beautiful office in downtown Toronto but no one has to use it. We now have team members from all over Canada, US, UK, and Brazil. That flexibility is huge as it allows our team to live wherever they want, save hours commuting, and travel the world up to 90 days a year.

5. Be thoughtful about culture — Working in the pressure cooker that a. startup is, can lead to terrible toxic and immoral cultures. Just click here, here, and here to view the trailers for all the new docudrama shows about Wework, Theranos, and Uber. Being extremely intentional about culture is so important to ensure that your company not only succeeds financially but you are also doing it the right way. At BenchSci, we created an entire stream focused on our culture, which includes our people team, DEI, the Office of the CEO, and marketing. Together, this stream helps define how we work and helps keep our culture healthy so we can achieve success beyond success.

If you work at a startup you are lucky

While not for everyone, I do believe that people who work in startups are very lucky. Startups can be progressive organizations that care not only about making money, but making a real impact on the world. You get some amazing perks, a great salary, and to work with talented individuals on solving hard problems.

As long as you know what you are getting into, and the company helps to manage the hard work and burnout that can come with the perks, there is nothing that can beat it. The speed that things get done and the impact one can make in one week is truly mind-blowing.

I hope this blog post will help manage the expectations of those who are thinking about joining startups. Do you have more ideas of how startups can manage working hard and doing good? Please let me know in the comments.

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