Are You Startup Material?

It all started with my recruiting woes. I dutifully plowed through my contacts every time one of my startups was looking for new hires. I talked to many of them but almost all of them refused to leave where they were to go take the leap to a startup. After many conversations, I figured out that startups aren’t for everyone. It was a frustrating but interesting learning experience into the changing lives and minds of our workforce, and what was appropriate for one person would be inappropriate for another, and that which could change over time.
Are YOU startup material? Looking now at who you are, what motivates you, and where your life is – would you want to make the leap to join a startup? Some questions to ask yourself (and some discussion on each):
How young/old are you?
Startup people are typically young. At least from a physiological standpoint.
Young people have lots of energy and stamina to stay up late for nights on end. They still have the ability built up from pulling constant all-nighters from college so they still retain this ability even after they graduate. Their youthful bodies still have strong hearts bolstered by endless, sleepless nights partying on beer and chicken wings. Their brains are quick and agile and not dulled by age. The older you get, the more your body has reduced stamina to stay up all night and hack. Old brains just don’t work so fast without proper sleep.
And it really sucks that as you grow older, your chances of entering a startup diminish greatly. This is a shame because the most experienced people you want tend to be older.
Can you go for a long time with a reduced salary? With no salary?
Once you enter a startup, you’re entering a place where reward is typically bound to options and stock, not weekly salary. This reward can be long in coming, ranging from months to years. How long can you survive with reduced salary, given your dependents and lifestyle? Are you willing to risk that? Do you have enough saved up to last for a long amount of time, say months or even years?
Startups can’t pay market salaries. If you need immediate cash, startups aren’t for you. Go find a job at a stable, growing company.
After a startup raises money, they can pay you more, but it can still be reduced from market levels. After all, the money is a great motivator for you to work long hours for the big win; if you get it all upfront, then where’s the motivation? You’re not hungry.
How many attachments do you have? Are you married and have family or dependents? Do you have a lifestyle that requires attention and/or capital?
As for age, young people have little or no attachments like spouses or children or possessions, which is another reason why you find young people in startups. Starting from almost nothing, they have nothing to worry about except themselves. It is very easy to throw your life into a startup when your life is not occupied already.
But perhaps you have other interests which take time. You may like to volunteer at a non-profit and gain lots of satisfaction from that, or train for Ironman. You like these so much that you are unwilling to give them up for something else which will undoubtedly be all-consuming.
Owning expensive things like houses and boats take up resources. You need immediate cash to pay for mortgages and bills. Do you race cars for a hobby?
Are you married? A spouse and family will put demands on your energy and time. Are they willing to give up their time so that you can pursue your interests in a startup? Are they truly OK with not seeing you at home for dinner many nights? Be warned: those that have not experienced the startup world may think they know what it’s like time-wise, but I will guarantee you that they may have zero concept of what it’s REALLY like. Make sure you sit down with them and talk it through in excruciating detail and get their support and buy-in. More than one family has been wrecked because of too much time spent at a startup. Make sure YOU know you’re joining the startup for the right reasons and with the right familial support.
Are you comfortable where you are in life, job, family, etc. or are you hungry?
If you’re comfortable, you may not be willing to give up your current job with nice high salary and which supports your current lifestyle. You may not want to stay up all night working for little pay and for a risky return some unknown time in the future.
If you’re hungry, then perhaps you could be right for a startup. You may want more out of life, more money, more fame. Whatever it is, it’s more than now and you want it fast and not wait decades. The only way you can get this faster is if you take more risk at a startup which could vault you to whatever it is you’re lacking.
Which leads to the next point….
Are you conservative or a risk taker?
If you are a conservative person, STAY AWAY FROM STARTUPS. If you cannot risk your entire career, fortune, whatever, at all, you shouldn’t consider a startup. You’ll drive yourself nuts and everyone else around you.
Can you deal with ambiguity, adapt well to change, be ok with constant chaos?
A startup is not known for stability. Things don’t work as smoothly as you want and you have to be OK when things aren’t perfect, or forgotten, or done in haphazard ways. If you require order in the way you do things and need that around you, a startup is probably not for you.
Do you like to learn and do everything? Do you not mind taking up tasks outside your areas of expertise?
Startups are typically short staffed. Everyone typically pitches in and does a little of everything. Marketing people code HTML pages, Business Development folks take out the trash, Engineers open up photoshop and crank out graphics for the site. If you like to learn and either want to become or are a jack of all trades, startups are the perfect environment to grow your ADD.
If you just like to do your thing and pass the buck on everything else, I am certain you will be shunned by everyone on the team.
Lastly, are you passionate about the startup you may join?
Passion drives humans to do amazing things. If the startup you’re joining seems cool but your heart really isn’t in it, I would highly recommend not joining it. Wait until you find something that you can really get behind. Passion will give you strength and stamina to work long hours, to really resonate with what you’re working on, and give you extra motivation to keep working even when you’ve been not sleeping for days.
Startups can give you the experience of a lifetime. I would not have given up my experience at Yahoo! for anything and it taught me a lot about passion, the thrill of working together with a whole bunch of smart, motivated folks, and a lot about myself and what I am made of. But like it or not, we’re not all startup material. It’s something we need to be realistic about, and also, for us on the other side trying to recruit for startups, it’s frustrating but we understand.