Life in a start-up. Everything you hoped for (and were afraid of)!

How do you go from a big machine corporate to a startup?

Small business, start-ups and micro businesses are the new black.

According to The Australian, in the last year 27,000 new small businesses started in Australia. With these organisations representing a significant segment of the Australian economy, more and more of us are making the choice to move from big traditional organisations to the ‘little end of town’.

We hear a lot from entrepreneurs about what it’s like to ‘start-up’ a business and get it off the ground. A dream and a vision. Relentless hard work. Mistakes and lessons learnt. And hopefully, getting to build a business that moves from a start-up, to a scale up, to a sustainable company that thrives beyond the efforts of the person who dreamt up the wild idea sitting in their underpants at the dining room table.

But what is it (really) like to work for a start-up? Not as the owner, CEO, or Founder, but as an employee. Beyond the hipster stories about holding meetings around fussball tables and the horror tales of 20 hour working days… What is the real deal?

Well, here is my story, a view after 6 months spent in start-up land.

So how did it start? How did you go from corporate to startup?

I was working in a corporate job for a company I loved. Great team, great boss, great conditions. It was all pretty rosy.

Then, unexpectedly (as these things always are), there was an opportunity to join a business that was just starting up. A business with a purpose that I was so aligned with, it was hard not to fist pump in the air when it was described to me.

So clearly, when a ‘one in a million, let’s change the world’ opportunity is presented, you get on with it.

Being honest (in a way you can only be in retrospect), I thought ‘I knew’ what it would mean to work for a start-up. Quicker decisions. Less cash flow. Ripped jeans. MacBook’s. Working from a corner couch. While all true, it’s the ‘scratch the surface’ stuff.  Here are my reflections of the ‘real deal’ of working in a start-up.

Your job will be broad

In my corporate life, my core skills were firmly HR and general business. Now, I can comfortably add social media strategy, website fine-tuning, graphic design and business development to this list.

In a start-up, you can (and will be) involved with every part of the business. This is both brilliant and really hard. Everyone needs to lean in to get things done, which means sprinting out of your comfort zone and just getting on with learning new things. But don’t worry, despite what you may initially think – you can, and will, learn fast. Trust me, I am a Canva pro now.

Things move fast. Really fast, and you need to be ready

What more can be said? Decisions are quick, which after working in corporate, is bloody brilliant. On the flip side, you need to be ready to get going and deliver what you have pitched.  You need to be ready and able to pivot, flex and evolve. Constantly.

Rewarding – yes. You always know what impact you are making on the business. Tiring – God yes. I don’t think I have ever slept so soundly as I did after the first few weeks of working in a start-up.

Energy and a fabulous team are crucial

I have always considered myself to be energetic, but nothing could prepare me for the energy needed in a start-up. In small teams, there is no place to hide and no “buffer” that you find in corporate. There is literally nowhere to skulk away and hide on bad days.

Every single person needs to bring their energy, best intentions and capability to work. Every. Single. Day.  When this happens, the momentum and positive energy takes you further than you have ever experienced before. And when it’s missing, everyone feels it and the pace of the whole team slows.

While teams are always critical to business success, in a start-up, the contribution and energy of not just collective teams, but every single individual on them, is beyond important. 

The highest peaks and the lowest troughs happen in the same day (and even the same hour).

Most corporate jobs have both the challenge and comfort of many layers of decision making and impact above and beneath us.  This means our experiences are generally quite moderated, with neither ‘high highs’ or ‘low lows’ being part of the norm.

This is soooooo different in the start-up world. I can vividly recall one specific day where the we received earth shatteringly good and bad news, all within an hour of each other, and having to respond to each wave with a forward focus. This can be tough. But also, ridiculously exhilarating. And in the early stages, it’s likely to happen most days.

So what does it all mean

Should we all ditch our corporate gigs and join startup land? Or should we cling like hell to our work pods, big teams and certainty of clear role responsibilities?

The answer if you should switch from corporate to startup…

I don’t have the answer for everyone, other than to say, if you want to work for a start-up, be sure that its working towards something you are really passionate about and really truly believe in.

It’s not enough to think what a start-up does is ‘cool’ or interesting, you have to live and breathe what you are working towards. It needs to matter. It needs to be deeply personal. And if it is, you will find like I do, that working for start-up is an amazing experience that will simultaneously replenish the vast amounts of energy it sucks from you every day.

And even more importantly, it will be a chance to be a part of building something – of changing the world – in a way you never have been before.

Oh, and most days you can wear ripped jeans to work. And people like that.