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Work In A Startup

Career description

What is it?

Joining a startup is very different from working at a large corporate or small and midsize enterprise. Startups are new ventures with highly innovative and disruptive content and are typically conceived to be scalable. Startups are meant to have much faster rates of growth and a much greater degree of risk than anything else you can find in the job market.There can be startups of any kind and operating in lots of sectors even if a tech component is typically what defines them best. It is important to note that this section refers to a startup’s employees/candidates and not to startup founders or co-founders (see separate section).

Why is it interesting?

Many people (especially after university or in the earlier stages of their careers) are drawn to startups for their innovative and (lately) inherent tech nature. It is more rare to see mid career managers or senior executives join startups but that is also  increasing rapidly. Others are attracted by the hopes of making tons of money and becoming famous. And still others are attracted to join a startup because of the growth and development opportunities it can provide as well as the excitement inherent with new ventures, that are pursuing disruption.

Benefits / Advantages of a startup career:

Autonomy and independence

Informal setting and very agile decision making. No bureaucracy (especially in early stages; some structure comes when moving to a scale-up stage but always far less than a large corporate)

Flexibility and the possibility of important job positions while not having much experience

Broad span of control across every little detail

Easier and faster to get to leadership positions and managing teams and possibility to shape the team to one’s liking

Vibrant and innovative environment

Rewards can be worth the risks especially if part of a stock option plan.

Potential for quick advancement up the ladder if you perform well since companies grow pretty fast.


Startup stages 

Early stage/pre-seed startup that has launched an MVP without external funding 

This is a startup in its earliest stages: usually both pre-seed and pre-revenue with a bare-bones MVP available for piloting in closed beta to prove product market fit. Typically staffed with ‍1-10 employees and also known as the ground zero team with very undefined roles and very intense team play and camaraderie. Nobody knows yet what the future will entail. Highest level of risk and highest level of excitement.

Seed stage where the startup has successfully raised some outside money

This is a startup that has successfully tested its MVP with select customers, it has raised some external money (usually from an angel investor) and is thus no longer pre-seed (potentially still pre-revenue). It has opened up its product for public use or is preparing to do so soon.Typically staffed with 11 – 25 employees with some structuring taking place and some departments or specialized functional groups forming. Still a lot of blurred lines though, limited visibility and lots of uncertainty. Planning is however no longer an afterthought at this stage. 

A and B-series fundraising level 

This is a startup in full-swing that has successfully proven product market fit and commercial validation (usually already having a clear revenue model in place. At this stage the money raised is usually directly re-investing towards scaling up the team and operations.Typically staffed with around 51 – 100 employees and great emphasis on hiring. Money needs to be invested fast to scale up and capture opportunities..and start making some money or developing a plan to get there some day

IPO or pre-IPO level stage

This is a startup on the verge of no longer being called a startup, it is still growing fast while also achieving operational excellence. Financially it has strong revenues and profitability is within sight. It is now looking to float on the public markets. Typically staffed with 100-200 or more employees. There is now a more defined org chart with clear roles & responsibilities. Starting to look more like a successful large corporate that is growing fast but more attention starts getting paid to governance, PR, financial markets, legal stuff....


Career path tracks

CEO

The chief executive officer (CEO) of a startup is often referred to as the chief decision maker and the company face. The CEO profile we refer to in this section is a professional that was either hired externally at some point or was promoted from within or came through an acquisition. If you are interested to know more about CEOs that are instead founders or co-founders, please go to the separate “startup founder” career section.

Their talent lies in dreaming big and being passionate about what the company could achieve in the future. While they may have a stake in the company, the CEOs we analyze here are less entrepreneurial than the founders or co-founders referred to in the separate “your startup” career.

Core responsibilities of a startup CEO: 
  • Setting strategy and direction
  • Creating, living and breathing the startup's culture, values, and behavior
  • Hiring and leading the company's executive team
  • Implementing short and long term plans
  • Making important managerial and operational decisions
  • Focusing on the needs of everybody from investors to employees, customers, and the board of directors


CTO 

A startup chief technology officer (CTO) is a CEOs right hand and helps them fine-tune strategy, tactics, and business goals to push the company forward. In the first stages of the startup, the CTO will be hands-on in the IT/development side of the company, helping to develop the product before the company progresses out of its early-stages.

Core responsibilities of a startup CTO:
  • In the early stages, coding and developing the company's product
  • Developing and fine-tuning the startup's strategy for using tech resources
  • Making sure the tech team is hitting deadlines, and using their time productively and efficiently
  • Developing and implementing product infrastructure


CPO

The Product Owner (also known as CPO or Chief Product Officer) lives and breathes the product a startup is creating. They're in charge of directing what the product consists of, who the product will be sold to and how it will be positioned to buyers.

In simple terms, it's their job to develop the product. 

In a startup's early days, a CPO will ideate and develop the product spec so that the Tech Team can translate it into software code. They act as a bridge between the Tech Team and the Growth Team (sales and marketing), and work on aspects like:


  • Product ideation, specification, positioning (internal and external). They are responsible for creating the product as well as how it's positioned to the public (what is it used for? What problem does it solve?)
  • Identifying target customers/users for the product (who is going to use the product? If you are selling a product to a company, who is the person who will decide if they will buy it?)
  • Pricing: Create a pricing structure for the product based on value, market need, production cost and sales cost.

When things ramp up, the product manager will build a roadmap and prioritize what needs to get done to achieve the initiatives and strategic goals behind the product itself.


CGO

A Chief Growth Officer (CGO) is responsible for marketing and driving demand and growth of a company's product, and they're held accountable for their successes (and failures). They are responsible for creating and building the startup's customer base, bringing in revenue, and most importantly, making the company profitable.

In early stage startups, the CGO is also the driving force behind engagement, retention, creative and brand strategies, along with all marketing communications.

At a startup, marketing & sales don't have the luxury of case studies or customer success stories to lean on when they're prospecting. Instead, they need to convince beta targets and prospects to take a gamble on an untested product, an unknown company. 

They need to convince a prospect to take a chance, and this requires not only confidence and persistence, but also a deep understanding (and belief) of the startup, its mission, and its culture.

Once the startup grows and the company starts to hire more, the CGO will move onto more of a management role. They'll then take control of the company's funnel, and train and build up their teams to reach their targets.


Operations Manager

Basically, an operations manager makes sure everyone is doing what they should be doing, and holds the startup together. It's a broad role, and an operations manager needs to be flexible every day to problem solve and keep the overall organization on track.

Beyond supporting the team (acting also as an HR manager at times), an operations manager also helps with raising funds, market analysis, and product management.

Once a startup has found its product-market fit, and it's starting to find its groove, an operations manager switches responsibility from holding a startup together to keeping it on track.

The role will move onto organizing the startup's operational systems, processes and policies. They will also build out a strategy that coordinates the communication between departments, so it functions easier when it's time to scale.

Core responsibilities of a startup Operations Manager: 
  • Structure overall processes at the company
  • Planning and reviewing logistics, HR, and overall service
  • Contingency management
  • Execution of jobs/tasks (anything from creating policies to making sure HR are paying people on time)



Developer

Being a good developer isn't just about tech skills, though. You need to have strong communication skills, be able to work in a team environment and have an eye for detail so you can pick up on product problems.

Core responsibilities of a startup Developer:
  • Code, design, test, and debug software
  • Review current systems
  • Work closely with the rest of the startup team including CTO, designers, and CPO to keep the product in line with the company's strategy
  • Create and present ideas for improvements to software and systems (and include cost proposals with them)
  • Testing products and updates before they go live
  • Writing and preparing training manuals for customers
  • Maintaining and monitoring systems when products go live to minimize disruptions


CFO

The Chief Financial Officer (CFO) is responsible for the startup's financial capabilities. They help a startup to optimize the cash they already have, and build a plan for when the company is ready to scale.

It's often the case for early stage startups just to hire an accountant or even outsource fully the accounting services, and the CEO will likely have a firm grasp of the company's profit and loss, sometimes getting support from the Operations Manager. 

At later stages, a CFO holds a startup accountantable with figures. If too much money is being spent in a certain area, or it's not being utilized correctly, the CFO can highlight it and come up with a solution. But without a CFO, it's hard for a startup to influence the rest of the Board (especially if they have investors) without metrics and results.

Core responsibilities of a startup CFO:
  • Preparing budgets
  • Monitoring expenditures, costs, and P&L
  • Reviewing, analyzing, and reporting on the company's financial data and performance
  • Taking control of the startup's financial planning and risks associated with future goals

Entry points

The beauty of a startup is that there is no predefined entry point. You can join at any seniority level, from any career, from any function. There are so many openings every day through online job boards that we recommend you to be prepared with your well thought search strategy before you start browsing! The key is what you bring to the table for the specific startup whether that is: hard skills, soft skills, experience, contacts...Make sure you have a genuine passion for the business the startup is in, you are ready to make the sacrifices this unique career requires and you fit with the Founder/s and the rest of the Team.

Exit points

A startup cannot remain a startup forever, typical exit points for the organization are either becoming a well established company (public or private), being absorbed by a larger entity or dissolving the venture. 

If you are a functional specialist (for example a software developer), you will have lots of alternative options to jump ship to another startup or start your own one. The market is very buoyant and the war for talent is giving lots of opportunities to employees and candidates so, even if a startup fails, typically its employees find a new and sometimes better spot pretty fast and easy.

Typically those that have experienced success and happiness in the startup environment stay in that career as they are no longer ready to cope with the slower pace and bureaucracy of more established corporations.


Generic personality fit

What are the typical traits of a startupper and what are the magnets to a startup career?

Startups tend to attract a specific type of person that has the following traits:

  • Is ok with taking higher than average career risks
  • Accountable for results (not efforts, showing up really doesn’t matter)
  • Fast (startups are always in a race against the clock due to funding constraints; deadlines and milestones need to be met on time and in full, sometimes “breaking something”)
  • Innovative (willing and able to think out of the box) 
  • Full of initiative (take charge)
  • Dislike rigid corporate structures, like independence and crave autonomy
  • Interested in challenges and not attracted by routine tasks
  • Like to develop fast
  • Flexible and agile
  • Have great problem solving abilities (expected to come up with the problem or the opportunity, raise any red flag early AND propose and take care of a solution)
  • In many cases comfortable with hybrid/flexible or even full remote work mode solutions

Generic role

High level compensation

Specific roles & responsibilities

Typical sacrifices

Specific sacrifices required in a startup career

While you set your own pace, the typical watch against the clock of fundraising affects work/life balance with people working 60, 70, 80 hours a week. Less than Management Consulting or Investment Banking but certainly more than large corporates or family companies. 

Especially in early stage startups (<10 and sometimes <25 employees) there are no frills, no perks, no structure, no support and constant change and flexibility are the norm. 

The startup lifestyle can be pretty unique, again, especially in early stage companies with lots of hours spent in garages, canteens, lofts or coworking spaces with the very same people that are embarked in your same exciting journey. Make sure you like them because it will be a very close, intense, stressful and exciting cooperation.


Typical skills

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