Are Startups Career Suicide? 3 Myths Debunked

As CEO for a disruptive, fast growing startup, I constantly hear from job seekers eager to join the team. Many applicants try to stand out in the process—connecting on LinkedIn, tweeting me, or, in some cases, sending a signature required FedEx package. (As a side note: While I appreciate these candidates’ creativity and initiative, the Betterment team looks at every resume submitted via email. We’re maniacal about finding and hiring ridiculously talented people.)

Imagine my shock when a bright, young professional at a fortune 500 company told me he thought working at a startup would be "career suicide." I met him at an industry event and quickly saw that he fit the profile of the type of candidate we are always looking for: driven, innovative, and able to execute. What’s the danger candidates like this see at a startup?

Leaving a big company for a startup, he told me, would be a great move if that startup went on to be Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, or any of the other Cinderella stories we all love hearing about. The reality, he correctly pointed out, is that most startups fail. In his mind, this meant that the employees were left to start over—a risk that would derail the traditional career path from associate to manager to corner office.

There's no doubt that when you go to a startup, you turn your back on the traditional career path. But, the perception of what you lose when you leave a safe, stable company is far from the reality.

Here are three common concerns—largely misconceptions—and my reactions to them:

1) You don't have mentors or teachers at a startup.

The people you will learn from at a startup will have a different profile than the senior leadership team at a big organization. However, you'll learn different things from them — including creative problem solving and how to build something new. You'll also have significantly more access to company leadership at a startup — meaning your voice will be heard, and you'll get feedback from very smart people.

I don’t want to minimize the value of a mentor. A good mentor, especially early in a career, can play a key role in guiding and advising. If you find yourself at a startup where there is not a suitable mentor, you should look outside of the organization to find the right coach. (We are all responsible for our own betterment and need to take initiative to facilitate personal and professional growth.)

2) There's no set path for advancement.

At larger firms, there is often a clear career progression, with multiple check points along the way. Performance reviews are frequent and feedback is regularly given and received.

While there is not a clear path for promotion and advancement at a startup, that doesn’t mean that you won’t have set goals and receive constructive feedback. In fact, it’s likely quite the opposite. If you think of a startup as a "test kitchen", there are always a dozen different initiatives at work, and they’ll pick up steam or slow down based on how they are performing. As you drive results and show progress, you’ll quickly assume more responsibility and leadership—and the promotion that comes from doing more.

And, as folks at big companies know, there are often senior employees who have been around for a long time and have "earned" promotions over time—even though the contributions they make are inferior to those of younger peers at a lower-level. This doesn't exist at a startup. Age and years of experience is irrelevant—all that matters is results.

3) You can't transition back to a big company.

Working at a startup is exhilarating and exciting, but also exhausting and humbling. This can lead some startup employees desiring a transition back to a bigger company after a few years. There's a perception that going from a startup to a big company will feel like a demotion—less responsibility, more management, and rigid processes—not to mention the end of free food, casual attire, and regular ping pong tournaments.

In transitioning from a startup to a larger organization, it is more likely that you’ll be able to take on a bigger role at the large organization, given your startup experience. The breadth of projects that you work on at a startup will likely be broader than the work of employees at non-startups, enabling you to add value in multiple dimensions. You will leave a startup as a generalist, able to effectively position yourself for larger roles or more specialized positions within bigger organizations.

Should you make the leap?

It's important to note that a startup isn't for everyone. The risk-averse, status-quo, complacent-type need not apply.

If you are entrepreneurial, ambitious, and seeking a big challenge, a startup may be for you. You’ll have the opportunity to build something new, disrupt an industry, and change the world—hardly sounds like career suicide to me.

Jon Stein is the founder and CEO of Betterment. Passionate about helping people make smart decisions with their money, he founded the online brokerage in 2008. Jon is a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Business School. 

[Image: Flickr user wakingphotolife]

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1 Comments

  • Mahmoud

    Hi 

    I just read your article, you have mentioned that if there is no mentor I have to seek for an advice outside ourstartup.
    I have joined a startup back in September 2012. I was excited about the startup and passionate since am part of the partners in the company very minimal stock since I dont have lots of money :) any way now things are getting more difficult for me as I play ther role of Business Development, HR, Accountant, Technical Presales and even I deliver project by myself. 
    So I feel that I have committed a career suicide since I new bits and pieces from every area. I would like to specialize in a career role only and work that role only. 
    Does a business development career would help me if am working on Startup?

    Looking forward to hearing from you soon
    Mahmoud