Can You Work in a Start-up?

The idea of working for a start-up tends to be glamorized in the media.  Candidates need to carefully consider if they have what it takes to survive and thrive in this unique environment.

 Changing Priorities

You may be working on a mission-critical project when something changes and you are asked to stop and take on a completely different project.  If you are energized by that you could do well in the start-up environment but if that causes you significant frustration you may want to steer clear.  Priorities change frequently in the early stages.  An investor may have an urgent need that trumps whatever you were working on.  Based on focus group feedback your presentation to the board tomorrow may have to be completely revamped.  Change is a given in a start-up operation.  Candidates need to honestly assess their comfort level with constant change.

Limited Resources

In a start-up employees often have to wear multiple hats.  There are not unlimited resources or highly specialized roles, you may be asked to do whatever is most needed at the moment.  Some candidates thrive on that variety but others need a more predictable and focused work plan.  Think about how you do your best work to determine if the variety is a positive or a negative for you.

Comfort with Risk

A start- up come with inherent risk.   Not all start-ups succeed.  Brilliant ideas for new products or services don’t always predict a successful new business venture.  Can you live with the risk of the company going out of business?  On a more daily basis can you tolerate the risk of trying something that may not work?  If you try and fail, do you learn something and eagerly explore the next option to see if that will work?  Sometimes the risk is that you have to make a significant decision on your own, in the moment and then have to live with the consequences.

Believe in the Mission

Working to make a start-up successful is hard work which can be both rewarding and frustrating.  To commit to working this hard to make it a success, it is important to believe in the mission.  If you are not aligned with the mission it is likely not going to be a good fit for you.  You can’t convince others of the value of your product or service if you don’t truly believe it yourself.

See the Impact of Your Work

In a start-up you are able to see the direct impact of your work on the success of each initiative and on the company as a whole.  If you want a clear sense of how you are impacting the outcome, this could be the perfect opportunity for you.


Interviewing with a Start Up

When interviewing for jobs with start-up or even smaller organizations, applicants need to pay attention to the subliminal messages they are sending the interviewer/hiring manager.


  • Do not expect this to be a standard large company interview with a formal process, be open to a more flexible and possibly unorthodox process.  They are very focused on figuring out how you fit and your ability to adapt to a less traditional process can tell them a great deal about your potential with their organization.  In a smaller operation, fit is critical.  People will work very closely with you and need to feel comfortable doing that.
  • Do not present your prior employment as being overly structured, if you just know how to follow the process, step by step, in order, you are no likely to find success and satisfaction in a less structured environment
  • Be prepared with examples of how you offered a creative solution to a problem, revised a process, etc.  Show that you can think creatively and respond to business needs.

Tools and Support

  • Be careful in presenting your prior employment that you don’t focus too much on the tools and support staff who enable  you do get the job done.  Startups tend to run lean and you have to be willing and able to perform a wide variety of tasks and often will need to work independently

Unwillingness to get your hands dirty

  • Avoid the “not my job” mentality.  There may not be a team in place to execute the entire plan.   You may have to do it yourself.  Show that you are willing to get your hands dirty and do whatever needs to be done.

Dealing with Ambiguity or changing priorities

  • Don’t talk about how frustrated you were when a priority changed after you had invested significant effort.  This is the reality of the startup world.  Show that you can go with the flow and deal with ambiguity and changing priorities.

As the interviewer for a start up or smaller company, you should probe for additional insights in the following areas:


  • Is this someone you are comfortable working with every day and often for long hours?
  • Does this person bring valuable skills and perspective to enrich the team?
  • Can this individual grow with the organization?

Ability to deal with changing priorities

  • Can this individual cope with changing priorities?
  • Can they deal with ambiguity?
  • Can they make decisions with incomplete information and data?
  • How do they make decisions without complete data?

Ability to work independently and as part of a team

  • Can this person take a project and run with it?
  • Is this person comfortable working heads down on his own to meet a deadline?
  • Can this person collaborate with a team and define an implementation plan?
  • Does this person have personal accountability?

Willingness to do whatever it takes

  • Is this someone willing to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty to do what needs to be done?
  • Can this person be successful without a support team in place?

Comfortable with the risk/reward approach

  • Does this individual understand the risks and rewards of a start up?
  • Is this person able to tolerate the risk?