Should you work for a start-up?

The big question for many college graduates is whether to work for a start-up or, wait and look for opportunities with more stable companies.

In my straw poll, the opinions are split right in the middle. 

About half the people think start-ups are cool and fun, and therefore, better to work for. The more practically minded make the point that they offer a range of opportunities, to grow and to learn, which an established corporation wouldn't allow. 

The other half feels that working for start-ups are the worst of both the worlds. They offer no security - the point of a job - and rarely big rewards, as most of it is usually reserved for the Founders. Most start-ups also fail. There is little transparency with regard to the finances and working practices of a start-up, and therefore, very little to make a well-informed decision. And, finally, while the learning value is undeniable, the value of that learning is questionable. Even the start-ups themselves often pay a premium to get people with big-company experience.

The perspective from the other side of the fence is also mixed. I heard a Senior Executive of IBM say that the profile of an ideal hire is a failed start-up entrepreneur. That may sound exciting, though there is a big difference between a start-up entrepreneur and someone who merely worked for a start-up. Besides, the hiring practices of IBM and other large companies still do not measure up to this very idealistic notion: A disproportionate number of new hires in IBM - as well as the other big companies - come from elite universities and top-rated business schools and from other similar sized companies. One very sensible industry leader from a more traditional industry told me that everyone should work for start-ups once in life; 'just make sure that you have enough money before you do', he said.

The start-up entrepreneurs themselves highlight the learning and the opportunity, but that should not be surprising. But it's not their words, but behaviour that illustrates whether working for start-ups are worth it. I have met so many people who have not been paid their dues, salaries and even expenses, that I believe most founders believe in the founder myth - that they matter more than anything else! Before the start-ups had their mythical aura, there were small businesses: In those rather humble outfits, people mattered more, even if they only knew how to serve at a table. For the glitz of WeWork, I am not sure people working for most start-ups are treated as people anymore.

So, on balance, should a college graduate work for a start-up? Here is my slightly nuanced answer. Yes, it's dumb to reject a company just because it's a start-up, but be very very careful. Be sceptical about big talk, and try to figure out more. You may just get lucky, but it's worth recognising the chances of getting lucky is only a fraction, as most start-ups fail. And, if you have a big company offer, it's almost always wiser to take it, even if it's boring work. You should work with start-ups once in life, but just like investors, don't jump for the first start-up that comes along with an offer. If you wait - even better, if you manage to get a big company label on your CV - chances are that you will find that one start-up work opportunity that can really transform your life (rather than breaking your finances) more easily.



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