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Why you should, and shouldn’t, join a startup (atrium.co)
311 points by madmax108 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 127 comments

> If you’re seriously considering both options — a traditional company and a startup — here are some points to consider.

There are so many definitions of "startup", but given the common one of "VC funded trying to get big", I'd say there's a third company type between these two I dub a "starting-up". It's an early traditional company that's in the black but is not poised to go through the roof or become bloated with employees or ask a ton of its employees. Almost like a lifestyle business. Maybe it has tiny investment, but definitely not big startup monies. It has half of each including the bad (bad mgmt, unlikely riches, few benefits, etc) and the good (bit more stability, no overwork, etc).

Maybe it's seen as a startup or traditional by most, but I see them as a really comfortable niche. You get to work on side projects, go home (or work from home) with decent hours, and just relax. Often if small/early enough, if they do strike it rich, you're included.

I worked for one of those for a couple years that had started as a "startup" when I did my internships with them but had morphed into "slow-growing lifestyle business" by the time I left.

I'd argue that you get most of the downsides of both with few of the upsides. You don't actually get stability with this setup; you're a couple of customer cancellations away from layoffs at any time. There is no career advancement. You pretty much don't have a shot at getting rich. It doesn't get you much of a resume boost (other than being employed) or much cred at parties. The workload is still fairly high, though not as insane as a fast grower.

The one thing it does have is that your learning rate will still be fairly high, and you have a sense of independence & responsibility that's akin to what a startup would give you. For the time period I was there (first year out of college), that perhaps was just what I needed. I wouldn't recommend making a career out of it, though.

> You pretty much don't have a shot at getting rich

I agree with most of your points except this one as it's very situational. Maybe not as an intern, but having real albeit small equity in one of these tiny things can be negotiated, and they can get sold. Unlikely, sure, but the possibility is there.

But in general it's about what you're optimizing for. You're points are right for optimizing for intra-company career advancement, resume material, or party cred. But if you have other pursuits, especially with side projects, kids, or just general comfort it can be a good choice.

My point is that companies that are slow-growing are rarely sold, and when they are, they usually aren't sold for much. The eye-popping valuations for companies like Whatsapp, Instagram, and YouTube were all based on growth, and on strategic fit with the acquirer. When an acquirer wants you for these reasons, there are large time pressures and asymmetries of information you can leverage to extract a lot more money than the financials would dictate. (Whatsapp, for example, sold for something like 1000x revenues.)

Small slow-growing companies almost always sell based on financials, and typically for lower multiples than an equivalent large public company would (because their revenue is more concentrated in a few customers and so they're more exposed to revenue risk). I've heard 2.5x revenues or 15x profits as numbers commonly batted around; above this and there's virtually no reason to buy the company vs. invest in public stocks or apartment buildings. On a typical 10-person company that makes a profit of about $300K on revenues of about $2M, this comes out to a sale price of roughly $5M by both valuation measures. Own 1% equity (this is generous, and would usually indicate employee #1 or 2) of a $5M acquisition and you get $50K, which is probably a lot less than the salary you forego over a few years by not joining a big company.

On the flip side, I think there are a higher number of small companies willing to pay a bit above market + bonuses for real talent vs. large established companies that are constrained by HR processes. If you're good at selling yourself, you may be able to make more than you would at a big company.

I literally just started a job that corresponds exactly to this. "We need really good principal engineers and we'll fight to get them."

(We're hiring, btw. Email's in my profile.)

At this point, both of the tech companies I've been at both match the description and were bought private from public. Ancedata for sure, but it can happen. You make money as an employee when this happens, just not a stupid amount of money. A nice bonus amount of money. Depends entirely on how much stock you have accruing.

Most of the employees at those places didn't get rich either.

I think there might be a lesson in that people who made their money as employees in startups that get sold generally don't repeat the process. They more often become investors.

That's diversification, all the upside and none of the trouble of actually doing any work.

> cred at parties

maybe i'm naive, but if party cred were a serious priority, i would probably have chosen a different career altogether.

When I used to socialize a bit more around SF, there definitely was social cache to being part of a unicorn. Declare that you worked at [Uber, Facebook, Airbnb, Square] and you'd have people wow or talk about how smart you were. There is a huge social capital element here.

ah okay, I always sort of imagined it would be like that in SF. I live in a metro area that is not as tech-oriented. when I tell people I'm a software engineer at parties, the only thing they find impressive is that I actually have a full-time job.

When I used to live in a "normal" part of the country, telling people I'm a Software Engineer would usually lead to one of two things: 1. They'd pivot to asking me where I worked (which I didn't feel comfortable sharing with a random stranger, since I worked for a small enough place that it felt a little too specific) 2. They'd lump me in with the annoying IT guy who fixed their stupid Windows issues at work.

Now that I do live in the SV area, I guess I carry some of this baggage with me. I work for the sort of place that would get me local "street cred," but still feel uncomfortable sharing it. Then again, I'm also raising a family and never go to parties anymore, so the opportunity doesn't actually manifest.

I am genuinely curious about the tech start-ups that give you "street-cred" in SF. At most of the places I hang out at they dislike techies and blame on them the rising rent prices, monoculture, in general the cultural demise of the city.

Actually at most parties or bars I have to "hide" that I work in tech, or come to terms with "that guy who works in tech... but hey he's ok, unlike the rest of the lot".

So, I 'm honestly wondering where you guys get high fives for being part of a unicorn around here! (referring mostly to the parent posters)

My time in the party scene was basically '09-11, which was before Techies became The Evil Empire. Back then folks were like "Oh, you work for Google, that's awesome, I love your products." Or even more specifically, "Woah, you worked on [Google doodles|the front page of Google|GFiber], I remember seeing that, tell me more about it." It was starting to change around 2012, but right around then I got a girlfriend, got married, and had a kid, and so I basically only have time to hang out with either my wife's friends (for whom I'm just "X's husband") or the friends I made at Google. I'm vaguely aware that much of SF hates techies (and ironically, a few of my wife's Peace Corps friends are in that bucket, which makes for awkward attempts to mix friends groups), but I don't hang out with those people, nor have I worked for a big tech company for going on 4 years now, so it doesn't affect me much. South Bay - where I go to random meetups - is still very tech friendly because that's basically all people do here.

Interestingly, when I go back home to New England, I get a much warmer reception introducing myself as an ex-Googler than in SF. I still have schoolkids at my high school ask me about what it was like to work on Google Doodles, and I ran into a nice ex-hockey-player on a ferry in Connecticut that asked what I did ("software", without elaboration) and then was like "Oh, that sounds exciting, you must make bank" ("I do okay...").

Anyways, I grew up as a nerd in a small town in the 80s, and whatever hate techies get in SF now is nothing compared to that. The U.S. (and probably the world) has fragmented into a lot of micro-tribes recently that all seem to hate each other, but at least they're tribes where it's not terribly difficult to find others who share your values and appreciate what you do, while in the 80s it was monolithic American culture vs. any individuals unfortunate enough to be different. Techies had a brief moment on top from 1995-2000 and again from 2005-2011 where they were getting rich and the rest of the world was enjoying the products they built, but now that most people take for granted the Internet & mobile world they've built, it's just another corporate industry.

Not in SF/SV but maybe in parties with a lot of unicorn employees?

I get a lot of "oh yep, you look the type". Ouch.

I get a lot of "you're very social for a computer person".

I guess it's a compliment, but it feels a little backhanded.

It could be worse....

I get both the “I’m not like most computer people” and

“You don’t sound Black”. That’s usually from old White southern people. At that point I usually just do the southern retort “Bless ya heart”


not a compliment.

I dunno, I know a lot of 'compliments' are nothing of the sort, but I can see this one being well-intended. It's not actually saying anything bad about the target, just awkwardly pointing out that they don't really fit a negative stereotype. And because 'socialness' isn't a quality where more is always better, it doesn't have quite the same damning-with-faint-praise vibe as it would if it were about, say, intelligence or looks.

Pointing out that someone does not really fit a negative stereotype will ussally not be perceived as a positive.

I said usually, because it is possible to convey different meanings by tone of voice and other non-verbal means.

But, based on the words alone, it will not be interpreted positively.

> Pointing out that someone does not really fit a negative stereotype will ussally not be perceived as a positive.

Agreed, I just think this is relatively likely to be one of the exceptions, or at least to be genuinely well-intended. Partly because it's not so likely to seem like damning with faint praise, and partly because the stereotype itself is less deeply offensive than e.g. racism.

(Especially if the trait in question is something like sociability, rather than social skills. If someone says they find me less introverted than they expected based on my profession, it's hard to take much offense at that. I think calling someone 'very social' is a bit ambiguous, but I lean toward interpreting it this way.)

I got a complement that i don't sound montonouus like a programmer.

Other time, someone said but i don't imagine you as a tech bro.

I live in a public service town that's far more educated than the average city, a huge IT presence but it's mostly boring enterprise IT. Hard for "systems programmer" to stand up next to "diplomat" or "international anti-people-trafficking lawyer" in terms of party cred.



The Silicon Valley region is one of the few places where being a Software Engineer is considered a normal and mainstream career.

I once worked at a company exactly like this, and I agree entirely. It was awful, and I'm glad I quit. In fact, it was the only company I've ever quit (of the four companies I've worked at, I got laid off from two others, and I'm still at the fourth).

It's not worth it. The company was resource-starved, management had no experience managing people whatsoever and ranged from "clueless" to "abusive", and the owner/CEO was a notorious cheapskate who underpaid us (when I left, I found out I was making 3/4 the salary I should have been), refused to provide any kind of health insurance, and was so paranoid about losing control of the company that he only sought funding from angel investors and refused to either seek VC or give employees equity. When I worked there, we were in constant demo mode. We were always prepping for a big demo for one small-time investor or another. I think we spent more time on demos for investors than we spent supporting customers. Hell, one time we came within a hair of being on Shark Tank; it ended up falling through because of bureaucratic reasons, but after it fell through I was told that the owner/CEO had no intention of ever accepting money from any of the VCs on the show and just wanted to be on the show for the media attention.

Oh yeah, and when our landlord began discriminating against me for being transgender, the company just rolled over and refused to provide support. Why? Because they'd gotten a massive discount on rent because they were the very first tenants in a building that had just reopened after years of being closed, and they were afraid to do anything that might kill the deal because they wouldn't have been able to afford rent anywhere else downtown (and they insisted on being downtown because the owner/CEO's son, the CTO, lived there and wanted to be able to walk to work). Never mind that they would've had a space three times larger for the same money if they'd just set up shop in a suburban office park like every other tech startup in Dallas. I had to get the city involved myself, and the owner/CEO almost sabotaged my case during one informal mediation session (I ended up winning, by the way).

When I quit at the end of 2014, we were only marginally larger than when I started in early 2012. That's two and three quarter years of my life I'll never get back. My only consolation is that I'm still friends with a few of my coworkers from that period of my life.

> you're a couple of customer cancellations away from layoffs at any time

These are WAY more rare than you think.

For the record, I've worked 50+ of these types of businesses and if the company chugs along for 10 years, they're pretty safe bets.

> I wouldn't recommend making a career out of it, though.

Hopefully this doesn't come as too snarky, but I wouldn't recommend taking advice from someone who has had one anecdotal experience with something.

I've been at one of these for two years out of my Masters. My time here is definitely by its sell-by date.

> It's an early traditional company that's in the black but is not poised to go through the roof or become bloated with employees or ask a ton of its employees

Why not just call these small businesses? If they're in the black, then they can just operate using a traditional business model.

The startup is about _not_ operating traditionally, but, taking a massive risk to do something different, that can _eventually_ get to that traditional model. Usually by way of turning into a publicly traded company. Which many small businesses never will achieve, by the way.

Entrepreneurship doesn't mean you have to go that "insane growth" trajectory. It _can_ just mean "launch a small business". And that small business can just be private for a very long time; there's nothing wrong with it.

Some idiots may have you believe that the "best entrepreneur" creates startups, but that's stupidity at it's finest. IMO the best entrepreneur can create the _right kind_ of operation. There are plenty of examples of private companies that can grow but don't require operating non-traditionally.

I was talking to a guy who was a CEO of a company exactly like you describe, and he referred to it as a "stay up". I think the company was about 4 or 5 years old and was growing, but not massively. It was just ticking by nicely, slowly expanding, but not requiring any additional investment.

I think these types of companies are more common than readers here think, they just don't get the same kind of publicity. Often they serve some industry-specific niche, and the founder of the company is non-technical but has a lot of industry specific experience.

> There are so many definitions of "startup"

This is a bigger problem than most people think, especially when entering the job market. The nomenclature is so ubiquitous now, that it's actually really hard to determine what type of companies are. It also means many young impressionable people are duped into thinking they are at the "next big thing"TM

Personally I like to stick with traditional business verticals: media, telecom, retail (e-com), business services, etc.

and then assign the level of tech enabled:

- Back office IT supported

- Tech enabled

- Tech led (aka what's commonly known as a "software company")

Lastly, I'll argue this until my hair falls out - there is no such thing as a "tech" vertical, and therefore the idea that "tech startup" is an industry is always mind boggling to me.

I worked for a place like this briefly. Their big thing was that it was a “family company”. Cool stuff — except it’s not your family.

I have it as a rule to stay away from companies that position themselves as "We 're like a family". Yes this company is exactly like a family where dad keeps all the money, gets to beat us up, or put us up for adoption if he loves the other kids more.

I worked for one of these and really enjoyed the experience. I would have earned a lot more working in other places, it was bumpy at times, but I don't regret it in the slightest.

It was great to work for a company that you really wanted to see succeed. Not because of some overhyped mission, but just wanting to see this small group of people do well.

Also companies like this are not used to employees in "startup-mode" but yet most have 1 or 2 that are. For them, it can be a great learning experience and still small enough to feel your contributions. Just because your not in hyper-drive doesn't mean you cant be innovative and punch above your weight.

It's funny how my experience is exactly reverse. Since I joined startup I learn much less, since we can't afford experimentation and there are no other front end devs here, so I don't get a chance to learn backend stuff, since someone has to do front end part.

I also hoped to learn some business stuff, but most of it happens behind closed doors between founders and investors while you code boring crud application.

I've been back and forth between startups and corporations. I think I know what you mean in technical terms; that corporations use more advanced (rigorous) processes and tools and so it feels like you're learning more (it feels more precise/correct) - That said, I think that a lot of the stuff that you learn in big companies are anti-patterns when you consider the big picture; a lot of the time, you learn technical solutions to problems which don't really need to exist to begin with.

For example, one reason why many corporations push really hard on having 100% unit and integration test coverage is because they have such high employee turnover that they can't rely on their engineers to maintain their own code; corporations have to assume that engineers who work on their projects are completely unfamiliar with the code - In this case, automated tests are the only way to maintain the integrity and stability of the code base. The time cost of maintaining all these trivial unit tests is ignored (even though the cost is actually very significant; not to mention that these tests lock down the code and thereby discourage refactoring and experimentation).

Corporate processes are designed around the assumptions that engineers don't care and can't be trusted. This is a very inefficient approach to building software. Personally, I'd rather my project have code with 0% unit test coverage written by a team of involved engineers than code with 100% test coverage written by a team of indifferent engineers.

> For example, one reason why many corporations push really hard on having 100% unit and integration test coverage is because they have such high employee turnover that they can't rely on their engineers to maintain their own code

I'm in a similar situation as yours and have switched between big corporations and startups and now at a big co again. I used to have the opinion that unit tests are a time sink, but what changed my mind was the iteration speed unit tests gave me. Without them, to test that my code actually worked, I would either deploy to a test environment (or prod in the worst case) and if it didn't work, then that just meant a longer feedback loop. What I realized after starting to have solid unit tests was that I catch issues much earlier in the pipeline and when I finally release code to test, it works 99% of the time. The only time I've had bugs in test env was because of some implicit assumptions in my mocks in the unit test. If you think about it, that lets me iterate faster by pooling in lots of changes and releasing with confidence.

I think its natural to be biased towards testing in a real environment as opposed to unit tests, as it is more rewarding to see your code work and do what its supposed to do versus seeing it work in a stubbed out environment.

Unit tests to me are more about iteration speed and release confidence, than about corporations not trusting engineers (which is also true).

I would only write unit tests for very complex classes whose logic cannot be simplified into something readable. Personally, I rarely introduce bugs at the unit level, almost 100% of my bugs are related to how classes/functions interact with each other - I find that bugs at the unit level are easy to track down (and often they will be caught by integration tests anyway). I prefer integration tests because they traverse more code paths and don't need to be updated so often. The main complaints I hear about integration tests is that they're slow and brittle but this is only the case if they rely on external microservices (or external data stores) and if test cases aren't properly isolated from each other. I use integration test cases as part of my development flow.

Unit tests don't actually tell you that your code works. Integration tests do that.

(disclaimer: I've worked at two mega corps and a startup and generally favor my experience at the second mega corp so far)

I think your example points out a factor, but not the only factor and probably not the biggest factor. You can also say that startups don't live long enough for their code to grow organically from their original, pristine design and develop deep seated code "cancer" like mega corp code does. Also, even without turnovers, some features just go through enough code modified by enough engineers that Murphy's law happens and things break in creative ways that E2E tests catches or could have caught. And finally, just because I remember my code today doesn't mean I'll remember it in a year or two... I don't assume that my coworkers have perfect memory either.

Having worked at both, if you've a family and low motivation to work, i find it easier to hide in a big company than a startup.

I couldn't agree more, I've just left a start up for a traditional company purely because here I have opportunities to learn. It comes down to the culture of the company a little bit, for example this place likes it's devs to do R&D/experimentation to scope out opportunities to add value to the business. The point remains though that such a thing just wasn't possible at the startup I was at, there wasn't time.

And another anecdote. Not necessarily “startups” but everytime that I work for a small company, I get to do everything. I’ve learned a lot from working st small companies and small IT departments at larger companies.

I would never have had the experience I have from front end, back end, databases, cloud architecture (I’m one of the AWS admins) from netops, devops, to development and to work directly with C-level people.

> most of it happens behind closed doors between founders and investors

Lack of transparency is bad. If you care about it, leave. Find a founder who doesn't think they're better than you.

That seems to be quite a leap from “meetings with investors happen behind closed doors” to “the founders think they are better than you.”

There are certain things that should be discussed in the open, and certain things behind closed doors.

>and certain things behind closed doors.

Such as?

yeah, quite similar situation in my experience too. Usually you need to implement features ASAP, so rarely you have time to do it properly, so you cut corners , implement it , and move on to another burning task just to meet deadlines for next investment round or something like that.

One thing that seems to be very common in startups is nepotism. People often start companies with their friends and family. This leads to the company having a built-in clique. If you are an "off-the-street" hire, meaning someone who came in because they submitted a resume and not because they knew someone, expect that you're going to be second-guessed while the original people are going to love each other's ideas.

The flip side of 'nepotism' is that you're much more likely to be successful working with people that you know well or have worked with before.

True of larger companies as well. Managers bring in friends and ex coworkers and form power cliques.

"Why join a startup #1: Acccess to jobs you're unqualified for"

Had a good laugh at this, because it's completely true in my case. 7 years ago became the "data scientist" at a 4-person startup before I even knew what a data scientist actually does. Parlayed that into further data science jobs at somewhat bigger startups. Now I'm Head of Data Science at a stable traditional tech company making good money and this likely wouldn't have been possible without that first startup job.

Happens at other companies too. I have a friend who studied and worked only in EE, then got a job at Microsoft doing data-analytic focused work.

I had only done BE work, then at mid-sized-co I started taking front-end work for fun, and did that full time for 4 months. My work was appreciated even though I had no FE experience.

Big companies might care more about qualifications, but they can also float longer ramp-up times if you're not qualified.

Definitely my experience as well :) This is how I ended up being Head of Marketing at Improbable [1] for the first half of 2016. I've since returned to Engineering, but this is definitely an experience I'd never have had at my previous work at Google.

[1] http://improbable.io

>But when you compare it to the defined structure of an established company, it just doesn’t compare. Big companies have employee onboarding, management training, goal setting they’ve been doing for years — all of the things that give people guidance and mentorship on what they need to do to be successful.

Goal setting, training, onboarding... these are processes, process doesn't make good management. The problems with startups is many of them are filled with employees who have had little experience outside of that company. Good managers are created with experience. Experiencing good and bad managers and employees in a few different environments is what creates good managers. Not HR policy.

It is a good idea for your career to work in a few places for a few years a piece before starting a new business or joining a small startup. Good managers can't be created with policy and training.

A good manager is also actively coaching their employees too. Training is important, but there is a distinct difference between the two.

In 20+ years at 7 companies with 10 managers, I’ve only been “coached” by one and that was 20 years into my career as the software architect.

Part of the problem was that I came into my first role as the only developer and I was responsible for building a fairly complex system from scratch. I then left and spent another 9 years at another company where I became an “expert beginner”. (https://daedtech.com/how-developers-stop-learning-rise-of-th...).

10 years and five jobs later, I have a manager who is technical sound, keeps up with the latest functionality of the cloud platform we are using, and can give good suggestions about what areas I should research to implement something, but I still have to do the nitty gritty details. I actually enjoy that from a manager.

A big advantage to working at a BigCo is how it looks on your résume, or the "About Us" page of your own future startup.

I've seen so many hiring managers trip over themselves to hire former FANG employees, without knowing anything else about them. It's like graduating from an ivy league school.

There's also way more networking opportunities at big companies, merely because there's so many more people.

It's like graduating from an ivy league school.

It is exactly like that. An optimal start to a career would be graduate from a top 10 college, 2 years at Google and/or 2 years at Goldman Sachs. That person would be guaranteed an interview anywhere they wanted probably for the rest of their careers. Not saying it’s good or bad but there is no denying the power of that kind of signal.

I think it's interesting that the major point is that you will learn a lot, but he also says that you should not expect to be mentored or given any real direction. This is definitely my experience, but it doesn't mean that startups teach you these things, it means that you have to teach yourself these things and you are in an environment where you are forced to do it.

You can also do this and keep your day job if you start your own side project. Obviously it might not be an intense as joining a small startup, but you get to keep your day job pay. Self-motivation is a requirement though.

There are a lot of things that you simply can't learn by yourself, though. The practicalities of doing things on a team, at scale, are just out of scope for personal side projects.

Agreed. The more I grow, the more I realize it is unrealistic to develop skills in scaling architecture, massive-scale software, etc. with only your own projects.

You either need to contribute to large projects, find large projects to hire you, or push for scaling patterns which may be out-of-scope for your current job.

This is actually something I've been thinking about lately: how can I train/practice these meaningful skills without the risk of damaging a reputation or losing sensitive data in real systems?

This is a real problem in trying to learn how to scale systems. I love learning about scaling but I've never personally worked on high volume applications, there's only so much you can do by reading stuff or watching tutorials or emulating high volume in your side projects. There's so many x-factors that come into play that you can only learn on the job.

Using services like loader.io I could simulate high traffic. That opened up a new world. I was able to test different configurations under stress to find the setup that performed the best for a specific application. Highly recommend stress or load testing.

I would dispute the idea that you get any better mentorship opportunities at a large company or well established fortune 100 companies. In theory people are less busy and have more time, but the motivation isn't really there to improve or groom team members as the general attitude is "rest and vest".

It's something the industry seems to struggle with across the board.

True, but then you have a job AND have to work on the side project.

Working at a startup is a bit like going to university, while working a regular day job is like going to school.

You have to find out what needs to be done by yourself, nobody cares if you succeed anymore.

Based on my experience that's a good thing. Many startups don't care about work/life balance so you are expected to work so many hours you get burned out.

If you work with Big Corp and do a side project then you can take a break from the side project if you are feeling burned out and you have a lot more stability.

There's an important implied point that isn't really talked about in this article: the points about learning in startups are mostly only true if you are a founder or an early employee. The definition of "early" depends on the eventual size of the company.

If you are employee #10 and the company grows to 500, you will have learned a ton from the journey. But if you are employee #100, likely not much actually changes for you, and if you join as employee #500, you likely won't learn much from the journey to 1000, if your company makes it to 1000.

After spending a bunch of years in startup land without seeing great success, I still learned a ton as a founder/early employee though, and I absolutely don't regret doing it. However, I've concluded that if you're looking at opportunities to be a mid-late employee, either make sure you're paid well for it, or go to a big company.

Good points.

You'll end up in chaotic work environments, but you'll learn so much, especially how to solve the problems that arise with these environments.

These are the skills you need for your own startup.

If you "just need a job to pay the rent" it probably isn't for you.

I think the argument about existing at the extremes probably applies here. If I am going to work for an unreliable, unknown, unstable company, I'd rather own a big chunk and have serious skin in the game and control of my destiny. If not, give me the most well funded, monopolized, cushy job possible where I can accept that my agency is a small price to pay for very high standard of living. Applies to apartments too (live in a giant building downtown, for the benefits, or in the middle of nowhere, but not in the suburbs where you are lose-lose).

There's an unspoken thread here that shows the benefit of startup communities, which is that they help you survive failure much more easily. It would appear that the unsuccessful ventures didn't severely limit access to opportunities and compel him to go work for a big company. If his community had been different, or if he had listened to the well-meaning people who undoubtedly recommended that he get a 'real job', this likely wouldn't have been the case.

I’ve learned much more at a normal company (1) than startups (2).

I think giving people jobs they’re unqualified for is a large part of that.

I've worked at several startups and some big companies.

Doing things you've never done before, and being thrown into the brink is I think the best opportunity to learn.

This happens without necessarily being pushed into roles, merely by the scope of activities one might be involved in.

You can work at a large company, as an Engineer, and literally never learn how a company actually works.

A lot of things that go on at big companies are dumb - but so many people there have no context for knowing one way or another, they think it's normal. What they are 'learning' is bad behaviours and some things on courses etc..

Granted - in a specialized discipline - you may have the opportunity to work on projects that fly or not, or take time. For example, if you are doing some kind of big data implementation that's going to take 2 years, but it takes 3 but the company has the resources to handle it and you've been able to do it 'properly' - that's great and it's a kind of learning you may not get at a startup.

> A lot of things that go on at big companies are dumb - but so many people there have no context for knowing one way or another, they think it's normal. What they are 'learning' is bad behaviours and some things on courses etc..

Working at a startup can be exactly the same. Especially if it’s staffed by inexperienced people full of ego :-)

Yes but you see the effects immediately. Small means outcomes are a function of the people there.

In big companies, people can do nothing and the gears keep turning.

> ...because they just wanted to work on interesting frontier projects...

This is the exact reason I have exclusively sought out startups in the past. But quite frankly the Bay Area is simply to expensive to do that anymore.

I deeply miss that life and still tinker with side projects. But if that city can not solve it's cost of living crisis, there will continue to be a smaller and smaller pool of people that can afford the startup life.

I came to Boston to work in a startup. I had the same exact problem as you. I was just too curious about fast paced startup life and wanted to experience this. Boston is not that better than the Bay Area (in fact fresh food and wine are more expensive than what I found in Berkeley) but it's relatively better and I have a pretty good living standard and I can save more money than I care. Startup life has been very stressful so far for me. I definitely learn a lot and it's tons of !!!FUN!!! but I'm thinking maybe in a year or two I'll go back to the Bay for a larger, more stable company.

This is a big problem with the Bay Area! I often wonder if I need to move for a few years to get something started elsewhere.

Also I had a question on this very topic if anyone has any insight: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17744930

An anecdotal experience I had was that working at a large corporate was an incredibly pleasant experience. This is obviously due to where I worked being the type of company that was very generous to its employees, in all ways except remuneration which is why I eventually had to go elsewhere.

I still dream of going back there. Due to the size of the company and it being around for so long. I found my job was incredibly well defined and my deliverable's where always right in front of me and measured regularly. This made it very easy to deliver more than was expected of me. Due to this really tight feedback loop between you and the company your career moves forward at an encouraging pace.

It can take some extra effort from your end to move horizontally within the company but where I worked it was a massive stepping stone and I found I could really leverage off of the mechanisms put in place by the company to reduce employee turnover.

My point is you really feel pampered and cared for. I reckon this has a lot to do with the company, as well as my immediate managers being total rock stars at their jobs.

Anyway, now I am in a startup in the truest sense of the word. First employee through the door. Second developer and third person on site. This is not comfortable, and I do not feel pampered. In fact I am considerably more stressed but hell's teeth, nothing makes you up your emotional maturity/expertise/business game as much as this. Much like the post eludes to I suppose.

The problem with startups has always been a fundamental one, and not really one you can change without redefining what a startup actually is - people try way too hard to start them.

Let me explain; it's reported very very often on YC that 90% of startups fail, and while a lot of these points in the article are disguised as separate ideas, they're all part of the same problem being that people want to make something from nothing, hence why it is called a startup. Traditional businesses begin by pivoting off an exiting business or product, whereby if you're a chemist working for DuPont and develop a new chemical, they might make a subsidiary to produce that. That process is way easier, the money and infrastructure is already there, and everyone is already neatly on board.

Contrast this with a startup. You're probably young, lacking financial and networking support, education, and many other things. You want to make a product the world has likely never seen before, completely from scratch. Well, of course your management is going to be shit. Of course you're going to find shit employees. Of course it's unlikely to succeed. This article was completely unnecessary because everyone should know by now what a startup entails, and that it is fundamentally unstable, but that doesn't mean it's not important as a venture and concept.

In non-tech industries big companies actually have a lot of trouble innovating, or driving resources and infrastructure to new initiatives. Startups exist to overcome this lack of maneuverability at big companies. Often the entrepreneurs are seasoned execs from these big companies who can't realize their vision under big company constraints

Biopharma is a perfect example. It represents over 20% of venture funding. Most entrepreneurs are 50+ years old. Big companies get orders of magnitude lower return on r&d investment than VC backed companies. And the returns have actually been better than tech startups in the last few years

An incumbent's return will be weighed down by lost share from their legacy business. Colloquially known as the innovators dilemma.

Even if they overcome it they will still have lower returns than a startup who steals 100% of their market share from incumbents.

> This article was completely unnecessary because everyone should know by now what a startup entails, and that it is fundamentally unstable, but that doesn't mean it's not important as a venture and concept.

Strong disagree. Living in San Francisco I often hear the phrase “I work at a small startup, we have just 100 employees”

That is significantly different than what you describe which is more of a 5 to 20 people stage. By the time you have 100+ employees and are hitting proper growth curves, your management can no longer be shit, there has to be mentoring, and there’s little room for shit employees.

> I work at a small startup, we have just 100 employees

Is that even a startup anymore? To me, any company of that size is just a normal company, not a startup.

A lot of these are still taking venture money and require it to exist. They're usually not profitable or have very low amounts of profit (such a low amount that it wouldn't allow them to chase high growth). Only way for the business to sustain would be to axe a lot of staff but then they wouldn't be able to improve their product. (Thus they'd get outdated and overtaken by the competition eventually) So they're still startups because they're looking for that hockey stick growth, don't have a sustainable business model (one that doesn't require consistent innovation), and require VC money to keep going.

Plenty of startups here in the bay with well over 100 employees.

Depends if you subscribe to the "company just starting out" definition of "startup", or the "burning money for hockey-stick growth" definition.

"That process is way easier, the money and infrastructure is already there, and everyone is already neatly on board."

This is rare. Most companies do not have processes for change and innovation, and the only way anything gets done is if the CEO pushes hard for it. Those things are far and few between.

" Well, of course your management is going to be shit."

It's only 'shit' if you assume managements job is to provide clear and detailed plans on how it's going to work out. If you grasp that startups have inherent ambiguity, and that all systems have to be highly adaptive and you'll be 'micro-pivoting' every week, well, then management may not seem so bad, depending on.

Good, thoughtful, professional managers might often fail miserably at a startup. It takes a little bit of experience actually to recognize what makes good leadership in a dynamic situation, because often it's counterintuitive.

I hope I won't bore people if I repeat a point that I've made before: far more startups die of suicide than homicide. The tendency to self-sabotage, among entrepreneurs, is surprisingly strong. And I’m hardly the only one who has noticed this odd fact. The great business guru Peter Drucker made the point repeatedly. In his 1985 book Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Drucker includes a long chapter on the tendency of entrepreneurs to destroy the innovation they’d created.

For those interested, I've written about this elsewhere:


We might hope that those in leadership positions possess strength and resilience, but vanity and fragile egos have sabotaged many of the businesses that I’ve worked with. Defeat is always a possibility, and not everyone finds healthy ways to deal with the stress.

Each person matters. Established firms will have a bureaucracy that can ensure some stability, even when an eccentric individual is in a leadership position, but when a company consists of just two or three people, and one of them reacts neurotically to challenges, the company is doomed.

From 2002 to 2008 I worked with an entrepreneur who had inherited a few million dollars when he was twenty-five. He admired musicians and considered the music industry glamorous, so he built a sound studio. It never made money. The bands that stopped by were broke. Those few who came up with a hit song mostly signed with a major label which, typically, had its own recording studio.

I met him in 2002 when his focus was shifting to the Web. I had developed some software that allowed people to create weblogs. Typepad, which fostered something similar to what I’d built, had just raised $23 million in funding. Surely we could do the same?

Our difficulties were self-imposed. We might go like maniacs on some project for four months, and when we were on the brink of unveiling it to the public, he would grow bored with it and move on to something else. The first time this happened, and I asked him his reasons, he improvised some arguments that sounded plausible; there were already too many startups doing the same thing. But this pattern, where he walked away from a project just when we were ready to introduce it to the public, repeated itself.

What led to this self-sabotage? As I met his whole family over the years I got to see the sad dynamics that ate at him. A modest business success would not be enough, in fact, it would leave him embarrassed. Only the creation of something as big as Google would suffice. But to grow that big, we would first need to be small, and that was the step he had no patience for.

As the years went by and he burned away all the money he’d inherited, the stress wrecked him. His self-image became increasingly grandiose. He told people that he was a visionary, someone who was able to tell what the future would look like. Late at night he would smoke weed and read articles on Slashdot and TechCrunch and then put together an amalgam of words that seemed full of the bright hopes of humanity, which he offered up as our marketing: “The Universe is fundamentally electromagnetic yet non-sentient, and we are sentient but only partly electromagnetic; the Internet is the ultimate harnessing of sentience to the fundamental forces of the Universe. Therefore our software will put you, our customer, in the driver’s seat of real-time conscious human evolution.” Later, when he wrote up our business plan, he put these two sentences in the executive summary. I’m not joking.

We had one modest success, in 2007. His girlfriend, a yoga instructor, suggested we build an online marketplace where yoga instructors could sell videos, as well as other health advice. This site was an immediate success. Within the first month it was profitable. We were written up in all of the major yoga magazines. It seemed obvious to me that we should use the same technology to build a series of similar sites. We could do a site devoted to cooking videos, another devoted to tennis, another devoted to golf. Indeed, just a few years later, the team behind Revolutiongolf.com did exactly what we could have done.

My business partner, however, was enraged by the success of the yoga site. He had burned through several million dollars chasing ideas that he felt were “visionary” and then his girlfriend came up with a simple idea that turned into our one true hit. To this day, it remains a popular yoga site. We could have built an empire around that site, but instead his girlfriend’s success left him bitter.


" “The Universe is fundamentally electromagnetic yet non-sentient, and we are sentient but only partly electromagnetic; the Internet is the ultimate harnessing of sentience to the fundamental forces of the Universe. Therefore our software will put you, our customer, in the driver’s seat of real-time conscious human evolution.” "

Ah ah ah shha hshhs ahaha.

That's golden!

I'm sorry that you mightn't have had the life experience to realize how clueless this guy was earlier, but hey - you learned.

Though, sometimes the most offbeat people truly have the greatest things going, it's really hard to tell sometimes. It gets easier with age, I think the 'crazy realists' tend to have deep knowledge of something and focus on an actual problem.

“The Universe is fundamentally electromagnetic yet non-sentient, and we are sentient but only partly electromagnetic; the Internet is the ultimate harnessing of sentience to the fundamental forces of the Universe. Therefore our software will put you, our customer, in the driver’s seat of real-time conscious human evolution.”

Great writeup. Also those 2 sentences remind me of https://www.reddit.com/r/iamverysmart/. Simple is better

> entrepreneur who had inherited a few million dollars

Perhaps there is the problem!

Excellent writing. I've been working on an essay on the same topic but my experience is not as rich as yours. Bought your book.

I started a startup together with a colleague. It´s a lot of work and you don´t get rich (as you said) but there are so many other points that matter. The teams are friendlier, open-minded and are more family than employees. You share time together and work is not strictly planned. Yes, you can learn a lot but you need to work hard to do so and failure is part of it.

I work for startups because middle management is a mind numbing disease. I certainly am not maximizing my potential earnings, but I'm maximizing my happiness and I find it really fulfilling to take pride in my work and leave the office knowing I accomplished something.

Just love Justin's "no BS" style. When I see folks straight out of college try to get hired at FANG (or even worse, tier 2/3 companies), I feel sorry for them. They would have little clue about getting in to daily grind that sucks their soul away little by little for some whims of incompetent higher ups. At starups, you would get in to even more grind but it's just of different kind and everything you learn and experience would be 2X-10X faster. If you are straight out of college and try to join a company with > 1000 people, you are not doing yourself a favor. On the other hand, if you have kids, mortgage and car payments then FANG is your best friend.

I joined a startup for stability once. It was way more stable than the megacorp I left.

I think it depends on your definition of stability.

Megacorp: The company won't disappear overnight, but you might get tossed around different positions and have projects you've spent a year on shut down out of nowhere.

Startup: The company itself may shut down, but in the meantime everything is more focused and transparent.

In some sense the startup is lower cognitive load, because everything is great until it all implodes and then you look for a new startup. A punctuated equilibrium. At a megacorp, everything is vaguely doomed all the time, but never so clearly doomed that it's obvious when to make a move, and you spend a lot of time reading political tea leaves so as not to end up on the wrong project.

The worst thing that most big companies do is continue to employ good people on long death marches.

"Vaguely doomed all the time" nicely much sums up my most recent bigcorp experience.

Easy to end up on a soul-destroying maintenance project that you can't leave because it's business-critical and nobody else wants to do it.

Haha, nicely said. I'll add reading political tea leaves to my skills.

Instability is 3 teams in a year, due to projects being shutdown or transferred.

This piece did feel a little PR/recruit-y, and a bit name drop-y (though obviously the author is a bit of a startup celebrity himself), but even still, it really resonated with me. All the pros and cons have been dead on with my experience. Especially “do work you’re unqualified for”, and that being a great way to learn super quickly.

join a startup if you are a founding partner, believe in the product, have or believe in some vision or value that you can add to a product, and if you get along with the people (and are ideally around the same age as the main founders). Otherwise, in my opinion, do not join that theoretical startup--and start your own project.

also id add--regarding picking partners--one thing to be aware of is how your partner treats others--as nice as he/she treats you initially (whilst trying to recruit you) keep an eye on how he/she treats others he is not trying to recruit, because at the end of the day, that will ultimately determine how he/she will treat you. I overlooked these red flags to my detriment--and as soon as our company got required my CEO (who did next to nothing) sold our company's IP (which I as the CTO and only software engineer wrote alone) and cut me out --leaving me with nothing except the distinction of having sold a startup--while he pocketed all the profits, earned that distinction and went to business school (with all the other twats who train to do the same thing). For all the technical founders out there, do not join a business founder without vetting him/her in a variety of situations and trust his/her heart with your destiny.

I got rejected from YC at the interview stage, and Justin sent me the rejection email. Great frigg'n guy. I protested and he out-classed me by replying to my objection.

Also, this article is spot on. This is a back pocket article because this question comes up a lot.

how does one find startups to work for? I enjoy intensity, chaos, and learning in my job and my big corp job is just not providing that. I'm planning on moving to one of the tech hubs next year and trying to work at a startup of sorts, not sure where to start

I've never met a startup that wasn't desperate to hire :) That being said, many startups ignore inbound applications, because the signal to noise ratio is so bad.

If you want to work at a startup, I'd recommend a few of the following:

1/ Apply for A-List, Hired.com or Triplebyte

2/ Look at Who's Hiring posts on HN

3/ Update your LinkedIn and AngelList to seem hire-able (but not TOO hire-able!) Use a real pic of yourself, have a personal website with a resume, and fill out info about jobs you've had. (Related: put your name/info in your HN profile!)

4/ Have friends at startups? Talk to them! Everyone at a startup knows someone who is hiring.

awesome points, in your experience does having experience in big corp tech (am a .NET dev) hamper your success in getting hired at a startup? I really do enjoy the .NET world and invested many hours in it, i would hate that to be a crutch.

Good and bad news! The bad news is there's way fewer .NET startups out there (most are Ruby/Node/Python). But the good news is that you'll have a lot less competition for jobs!

StackShare has a way to search job listings by language:


TripleByte gets plugged a lot on HN, but I think a lot of people still don't realize what a great time investment it is. I woke up early and did their 3-hour interview before going to work one day. Within a week I'd been offered 30+ on-site interviews at well-funded Bay Area startups, as well as a couple of bigger companies (Palantir, Stripe). Their interview was engaging and challenging and produced lots of useful feedback.

You also get lots of chances to talk to the founders of companies (or sometimes employees for the bigger ones) and evaluate whether an on-site is worth your time.

Especially valuable if you lack a big name on your resume and can't open doors that way.


HN who's hiring threads (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17663077)

TripleByte.com Angellist.com Hired.com

Between all of those, if you're good, then you'll be swimming in startup opportunities.

awesome, I'll check these sites out. thanks for the input

Find a startup that's actually trying to solve a problem. "Uber but for college kids" is not a problem. E.g. "how do you make aviation safer" is an actual problem and if you can find a startup attacking this problem using technology, it might be interesting to work with. Imho -- I'm currently working in a startup solving what I believe to be a real problem -- it's a fun ride to work in a startup, it's stressful but you learn a lot. I recently graduated from college (UC Berkeley) and I can't say my learning muscles found time to relax. It's all about what problems you can solve.

Go to startup oriented meetups in your city.

how do i find those?


I get that this is a just a PR piece to attract new talent but I think you're selling a startup short still.

Learning is hardly a thing at startups. So many people are incredibly junior and know nothing about the industry or tech to begin with. (I mean, who else would take such low pay?) Yes, you can get to get pushed into unqualified roles and learn from it - depending on who you are. But that's really only at the cost of others - you're maximizing for one person and not the group. So it's really a startup is a system that maximizes the happiness of only a few individuals - which we already know with how stock gets treated. (Founders frequently being the only ones who get rich no matter how early on an employee you are) e.g. Wow, X got promoted to be the team lead/manager. X is definitely not qualified and, in fact, makes the most productive members of the team more unhappy by being a manager now. This only happened because the rest of management is desperate, broke, and can't afford anyone who is a good manager. People under X will leave the company. I've seen it happen a lot at startups and it results in crazy churn. Same with more technical decisions. Seeing people promoted to Senior/Staff who have are barely better than their junior counterparts (just more arrogance). A lot of folks recognize dumpster fires when they see it and bounce. They're is also so little growth opportunity once those positions are taken unless you're on a rocket ship.

In terms of learning tech: A lot of tech is also outdated at startups compared to big N. There are large enterprise companies that are using even older tech but there's no reason to join those as they pay on the same scale as startups (And your job security is no better than at a startup). Scaling problems only exist once you've hit rocket ship status (so who cares about anything) - whereas they're everywhere at a big company. There are startups that are trying to use the latest and greatest and do interesting things but the number I interview with who are using outdated tech seems worse than any Big N I've interviewed with. Big N seems to be way more cutting edge (because they can afford it in terms of resources and know it attracts talent). Upgrading tech at a startup only happens when the company finds out no one at $Y salary with Z options will join the company until the company updates their stack. It's not like they can really afford it anyway. The company is so focused on churning out features and pivoting wildly to extract any bit of $$$ that they can out of the market while they find their cash cow (cash cow being actual profit $$$ or just magic numbers that can increase their next round of funding).

Anyway, back to my point about selling a startup short, I think the only reason I'd truly consider startups is being able to choose the people you work with and the problems you solve (although that could change easily once the company finds out it needs to pivot - again). There was nothing about that here and it's obvious from reading the article that it's all about that but it's not brought up. You chose to work with your brother and all these folks. You don't get these choices at a big company. You're mostly thrown together and just deal with it.

Good point. I guess I've always taken choosing who you work with for granted. That being said if you join a startup you don't exactly get to choose who you work with any more than if you join a team at a big company.

With a startup, you have choice before you even join. You frequently know who you'll be working with. Not deeply but you've met them and can make some kind of assessment (to the same degree that they do about you). I can filter out companies when I meet the people and know they're not what I want to work with.

At a big company, I am saying yes to a company - not the people. Team selection is later (if at all) and you can be a victim of circumstance. You don't usually meet the people you'll be working with before you take up an offer at Big N or what not.

At the last three big companies I've worked at I was directly hired by my (future) boss to work directly in his team. In all three cases at least one (future) co-worker was involved in the interview.

> At a big company, I am saying yes to a company - not the people. Team selection is later (if at all) and you can be a victim of circumstance.

Only a few companies work this way, at least for experienced hires.

I love working at a startup, there is simply no cap on number of hours i can work.

I can meet any other employee without any appointment.

I can try my hands on accounting and legals. Go meet customers and give them the demo when i don't feel like working.

I can collect cash from customers, take a photo of the cash and send it to boss where he sends me a thumbs up emoji.

I often bring kids of my boss or colleagues from their school or drop their wifes to hospital when they are sick or if their want to go to shopping when her guy is debugging the server.

I don't have any family of my own other than a girlfriend. Doing all these things for others give me peace and makes me feel as if i am part of their family.

For an orphan kid, this is all i wanted.

I've helped my collegues mop whole floor when it's their turn in their apartment building.

I don't know if i can get all this in a big company.

After this i got 10% equality in a small company. Post sale where i made 15 million and gave 10 to my girlfriend for her support. I still work there and enjoy everyday.

You need to see where i started when i had nothing, zero saving..... No family.

Today, I've everything and I can't complain.


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