Working in a startup

Some Things to Think About for Prospective Startup People (Employees and Employers) 

In a world of innovation, everyone wants to work at a startup.*

*Ok, not everyone (see, we’re prone to early stage exuberance but hip to reality, too  ) though it’s safe to say more people than ever.  A few years back, Accenture did a study of new grads in the US that found that only 1 in 7 wanted to work at a big company.  If we accept that this is a global trend driven by shifting motivations, enabling tech and more available funding options, then we can land on more people than ever pursuing startup roles.  Yay.

So what does it take to work at a startup?

As you know, startups are different.  By necessity, they’re innovative and aspire to make a change in the world.  They’re built on doing things differently, and once they’ve kickstarted the rocket (their why, what and how, MVP, product market fit, funding and traction; none of which to be taken lightly but all topics for another day…) they need people to help them grow.  Think you might want to be one of them?  Or maybe you’re in the need for more unicorns to jump on your company rocket?  Read on!

What follows is a highly anecdotal (read: fuelled by experience but most admittedly short of scientific methodology) list of things that startup stars tend to possess:

Big Believers in a Better Way

This is a way of saying startup people are inclined to innovation, with a proclivity for doing things differently – not for the sake of it but because it’s an improvement over the status quo.  (“That’s the way we’ve always done it” is totally antithetical to startups and the people who thrive in them!)

Optimistic and Tenacious

Following on the heels of being oriented toward change is the quality of being optimistic and tenacious enough to ride out the roadblocks.  Because coming to work every day at a startup is kinda like getting on a rollercoaster that takes you through the height of possibility and the trough of disillusionment.  Think that sounds like an adventure? You might be startup folk!

Agile is a Way of Life

Startups move fast and the people in them like to move fast, too.  Never fear: that doesn’t mean they act without thinking.  It means more that people are biased to action, comfortable with chaos (since everything is changing, all the time, even every day) and that they have a tendency to “get shit done” rather than wait for someone to tell them what to do.  They try, build, reiterate – and fast.

Ambiguity is Your Friend

Moving forward and making change in the throes of uncertainty is what it’s all about at a startup. Whether you’re developing the product, building out processes for client service, creating a product roadmap for next year, projecting financials or searching for marketing traction success, you’re going to be doing it with a lot of unknowns.  And once you do know something (you’re getting to growth, giddyup!) it’s awesome because you’ll face even more unknowns. How do we scale that? How do you expand that process or build a better one? Who knows because you’ve never done it before?! There is no playbook, so you need to be very acquainted and friendly with ambiguity.  Like BFFs forever 

Resourceful (‘Necessity is the Mother of Invention.’)

In an early stage company, there’s never enough ____  (pick your answer, since they’re all right: money, people, data, time, clients!)  What you do have lots of: constraints and pressures.  No sweat, hey?  People who are resourceful and figure out ways to move forward in the face of challenges tend to love the thrill of problem.  (And there may be some science to this after all: heaps of research show that people are more creative in the context of constraints).

Team Wolves Wanted (Team Players and Lone Wolves In One)

Love to work with a team that challenges you, open to bantering around new ideas with other passionate people, like to be part of something bigger than yourself and at the same time love the flow of “crushing it” in your own wheelhouse of skills?  Then you might be a team wolf: someone who’s part of the pack and a lone wolf all in one.  That’s awesome because startups are scant on structure and formal management and big on playing together and pulling your own weight simultaneously.  Kind of like the musketeers put it: “All for one and one for all”.

There’s a lot of glamourizing these days about entreprenuership and #startuplife. And, it can be a great experience – but it’s not for everyone. But, if it sounds like this is a good path for you, know that there is a startup out there that’s ready for you.

And if you do jump in, be sure to have fun, learn lots, stay humble and enjoy the rocket ride!

Do you want to learn the skills you will need to work in a startup? Check out our 321 Growth Academy courses or get in touch at

This post originally appeared on Alberta Enterprise Corporation’s Start Alberta Portal.