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Ask HN: Pros and cons of working at a startup in 2019?
116 points by askafriend 25 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 80 comments
Inspired by the 2018 version here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17286939

I'm curious if there have been any new developments or changes in thinking since the sentiments expressed in that thread about a year ago.

Have the Pros and Cons changed much? Any new considerations? (e.g. Softbank, M&A patterns, potentially looming economic slowdown)

In general, what do you think in 2019 HN?




I'm the head of engineering for a startup, was 3rd engineer at Eventbrite, built my own startup valued >$1M, turned down 2 offers at Google. Been doing startups 10+ years.

I do startups because I have a problem communicating my ideas in a way to influence larger organizations to do the things that interest me. Simple as that.

If I have a theory to move the needle, in a startup, I can do it, analyze it, and launch it with very little buy-in, although my impact to an industry may be less. In a BigCo, my impact on the industry may be more but the battle isn't about product-market fit, it's about corporate alignment and buy-in before I can even test product-market fit, which I just don't enjoy.


This x 1000. At the end of the day, I get joy from building things that people love. At a startup, there isn’t much in the way of making it happen if it aligns with the vision of the startup.

At a big co, you’re mostly playing bigco politics and ass kissing to climb up the career ladder.

I love startups and growth stage companies. There’s a ton of opportunities to make impact and learn new things.


You can definitely do that as a Head of Eng at a startup. It would be good to see how much freedom (measurably) the employees at your startup have in doing this (either for product initiatives or for technology choices). They certainly would have a smaller "surface area" for selling than in a BigCo (ie with committee for X or a leadership group for Y or a review group for Z) but their freedom is still limited wrt to a VP/Head of eng no?


It depends what your alternatives are.

This thread will fill up with comments saying start-ups won't pay as well as Google et al, but that's only relavent if you can get hired by Google (and you want to be). Comments that state "start-up wages are less than the best paying tech jobs" aren't very useful.

If you can't get a job at Google then you need to compare a start-up role with a job you can get. If that's a junior position in a small city tech co then it's probable the start-up salary will actually be similar or possibly even higher if it's done a round or two. And, if that's the case, the start-up is going to be far more interesting, fast moving, and fun. Just don't join a start-up thinking it'll make you rich because it (probably) won't.


It’s not that start-ups don’t pay as well as Google, it’s that they don’t pay as well as mid-range companies, like insurance companies, payroll tech companies, auto manufacturers, newspapers, etc.

Start-ups are just other businesses. The relevant pool of peer companies to consider for salary benchmarking is all other companies your desired candidate might work for. Nobody cares about the funding situation, age, cool new tech, meaningless options, or meaningless job titles. You just have to pay competitive market salaries and benefits, period.


Yes, exactly! I don’t care about your mission or your “key values”. What’s the comp? What are the benefits? That’s it.


The other big problem is that start-ups will sweet talk you regarding freedom to choose tooling, getting greater responsibility, etc., but none of that is enforceable and subject to change on a whim.

You’ll go in believing you traded off some salary in order to get freedom or seniority you wouldn’t get at a traditional company, but it’s just a big lie. “Flexibility” will quickly give way to a bastardized “wear many hats” failure mode where you are being grinded into a burnout by supporting a bunch of shitty tooling with no capacity to hire people to handle the workload. You’ll quickly find that growth start-ups == nobody gives a shit about craft or even basic maintenance to keep a product healthy, they just want a small number of overqualified, underpaid people to absorb that headache on a permanent triage basis like employees are band-aids to constantly stop the bleeding.


So true.


It seems you are overestimating the difficulty of getting into a FAANG. The hiring is highly optimized and standardized to attract non-experienced folks which means a rigorous 3 month diet of leetcode and grokking-the-design-interview puts you on very serious chance of making serious mullah in total comp (plus benefits, perks, good work life balance etc).

But you are on spot on. 99% of the time startups wont make you rich and their biggest attraction by far is working on things you are care about and are interested in which you know you wont get at a BigCo (unless you are very very lucky to be working a hot new product blessed by someone high up). So if "interesting" things are what you want to work on why not just do a side project. This wont make you rich but atleast puts you on the path of producing "small" things to build your brand. Prioritizing 5-10 hours a week is not hard. Key is prioritizing.


Not much of a change. It's still suboptimal from a financial point of view to join an early stage startup: yes, you will be screwed out of the fruits of your labor even on the off chance that your company hits a jackpot. There are people much more sophisticated than you or I whose entire job is to figure out how to steal equity from you.

To the extent there's been a change, the economics of startups and tech are more precarious nowadays. GOOG and FB both have their business models under significant threat, aside from cyclical concerns. And if a recession happens, both they and companies at all stages will have substantially reduced budgets for compensation. This means fewer jobs and more layoffs.

It's also more unclear nowadays what the next unicorn is. You're not going to become a quick multimillionaire by joining Uber or AirBnB at this point--there was awhile a couple years ago where they were a pretty reasonable choice to maximize comp. No such candidates exist nowadays.


The current Uber/Airbnb is, without question, ByteDance.


Why is this downvoted?


Maybe I'm just looking at the past through rose-colored glasses, but I feel like the golden years of startups are behind us. But I'll do my best anyway.

Pros:

1) Startups are still more willing to hire people with "nontraditional" backgrounds into technical roles. English major who bootcamp'd or self-taught yourself coding? Never attended college? Most startups aren't going to turn their nose up at you.

2) Assuming the company has product-market fit (or is nearing it): A great way to gain a holistic understanding of how software is made, delivered, consumed, and ultimately changed based on market response. This is both a technical and business learning experience.

3) You won't be pigeon-holed, as everyone has to wear more than one hat in startup land.

4) Doesn't apply to everyone, but if there's a particular niche you're into, it's much easier to get hired by one of those niche's startup's than to join a bigger tech firm and then hope you get assigned to one of those groups (which are probably highly competitive and extremely sought after... so good luck with that.)

Cons:

1) They fail, sometimes spectacularly

2) They often operate at such a small scale that you'll never encounter entire classes of interesting technical challenges

3) If it's early stage: You will ship crap code. Constantly. Can be frustrating if you're a perfectionist or even just looking to push your craft forward

4) Equity offers are stingy, but even if they weren't, it can take 7-10 years for a big exit. Will you stick around long enough?

5) Because these companies are small, any toxic people in the org will feel omnipresent

6) There are now some fairly active "problematic" investors (Saudi Arabia). You may not like the idea of taking so-called "Blood Money"


Start ups will give a chance to junior with a weak resume if he/she can demonstrate skills. You may very well end up with a mission above your skill set as well, and grow because of the challenge and responsability. Less bureaucracy and smaller size also mean a quicker hiring process, direct access to most interesting people in the company and a wide overview of the entire product.


Usually this is false. Startups are some of the most aggressive users of whiteboard trivia, live coding, etc., to filter out candidates who don’t fit precisely the mold of people desperate to work at FAANG companies.


Could you please be more careful not to post unsubstantive comments that take HN threads in snarky, glib directions? Discussion quality is noticeably lower when you (or any of us) do this.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


That seems to fit exactly what I said:

> Start ups will give a chance to junior with a weak resume if he/she can demonstrate skills.

They don't hire you on a resume, you need to demonstrate skills. Wether it's a good way to do so is another matter.

I had interviews with startup not even asking for my resume, or testing my skills. But I never had a startup getting me through many hoops in the hiring process. 4 steps over a few months was the max, while FAANGs are known for using more than 10 steps, dispatched over as long as a year.


But whiteboarding / algo trivia are not activities which are capable of demonstrating skill apart from rote memorization and superficial rapid pattern matching.


> Wether it's a good way to do so is another matter.

Do you really read the comments you answer to ?


It’s not a way. Nothing to do with bad vs good: it simply fails to satisfy the properties the parent comment attributed.


Some startups are, largely because they often lack the experience to know better. Plenty of startups are managed by people who care about having a better process.


It’s pretty universal.


I've interviewed at a few startups and worked for one. Never got a whiteboard question, just saw them at bigger companies. Small sample size, but 'universal' might not be accurate here


I’ve interviewed and worked at several start-ups, and also conducted dozens of interviews at all the start-ups I worked for, and all of them involved whiteboard puzzles (despite my objections). Meanwhile, I have many friends who have worked across many dozen start-ups over the past 15 years, and all of them report the same whiteboard puzzle culture with zero exceptions. Additionally, it is ubiquitously discussed on Hacker News that this is a known property of start-up culture and is mentioned directly as an interview step in many posting in the Hacker News monthly Who is Hiring thread.


My view is only a data point, but what I've observed is that while comp at startups has not evolved much in the last 5 years (seeing roughly same salaries + stock packages), total comp at later stage startups or bigger companies has sky rocketed.

The comments on the 2018 post you mention are all still true and relevant today.

My experience has proven than as an employee, joining a post series B will usually be a better bet with if you want to have impact + leverage on stocks, and joining a bigger company is the better bet if you want to maximise your income.

Earlier startup are just as risky for a new employee than founders, but with much less leverage, offsetting making it interesting.


I think one thing to consider with an early stage startup is the potential to advance in terms of responsibility / role far more quickly than a large company or even a post-series B company.

If you join a 20 person startup and are a good performer, it's not at all unlikely that by the time the startup is at 60-70 people (which isn't going to be a long time at all for a funded startup), there's a high likelihood that you'll be in a director / manager / other senior position.

In terms of equity though, I'd say you should value your equity at 0, since that's what it's overwhelmingly likely to be worth even in most positive outcomes and only join if you're comfortable with your base comp.


> If you join a 20 person startup and are a good performer, it's not at all unlikely that by the time the startup is at 60-70 people (which isn't going to be a long time at all for a funded startup), there's a high likelihood that you'll be in a director / manager / other senior position.

If you're looking at this from a compensation perspective, that's only helpful if the company also starts paying competitive wages at that point. If you end up wanting to switch to a big tech company as a director with only 3 years of total experience, you'll probably be hired at L4 which you likely could have gotten within a year if you started your career at that company.

Of course if you think you'll like the job and it's not a question of compensation, then this can be a big benefit of startups.


It's worth noting that depending on the senior role, it may not transfer as you might expect. Being in charge of a group of people shows something, but it may or may not be the kind leadership needed to be in charge of the same sized group of people at BigCo. I'm not saying BigCo managers are better. I am saying they have to worry about internal networking, internal recruiting, working with infrastructure teams, and other things you don't have at SmallCo.

Point being, depending on the BigCo and the role, you might have to take what feels like a step back in job title to eventually end back where you started. At least the competition for influential roles will be more intense since there will probably be several BigCo employees that want the same job and have advantages of shared culture and better access to the people doing the hiring.


The rub is that many 20 person companies will never get to 70 people.

Having stagnated at a start up and grown a lot at a BigCo, I think easy career growth is really more about company growth than absolute company size. The scenario you outline still holds if the company grows from 1,000 to 2,000.


It's sad and strange at the same time that the market isn't reacting. Early employees shouldn't accept the huge difference between preferred and normal stock options, they should exactly understand how much their stock will be diluted at the point when they can sell it.

Anyways these kind of HN threads are awesome, I hope they can rationalize the market somewhat.


True but it's very hard to rationalise. I only know a lot of (great) engineers who either don't believe it when they are told the level of income in BigCo, or think that the comp is that high because people are much better at BigCo and they'd never be able to get a job there.


After having just gone through this with my startup - the litigious nature of society makes it hard to reveal any of the information. If the board or the C* reveal too much, it opens the company up to a lawsuit.


I have tried recruiting many of my close friends from FAANG companies to my well funded startup.

It starts with them talking about feeling miserable in their jobs and that they badly want to quit.

I then ask them to try something new, join my (or another) startup (or another company). Then they get paralyzed by the pros/cons of various options, (salary, stock, commute, role, title etc. etc.) they end up not making any changes at all and continue feeling dissatisfied.

I have come to believe that dwelling on these pros/cons doesn’t help anyone and just causes analysis/paralysis related misery that is completely unnecessary.

It is better to pick one thing and then focus 100% on making the most of it. After a while, if you notice it has stopped giving you joy/learning/growth, make a switch, try something different and again focus on making the most of that.

Being clear in your head about what you want to do, why you want to do it and aligning your actions/efforts 100% with that clarity is the most valuable thing there is to have in life. The rest is noise.


There are 3 potential reasons to join a startup:

  1. You're the founder
  2. You have no other choice
  3. You think it'll be fun

Just switch-case that.


You need your default case :)


You have no other choice should be the default case.


It could be all of the above.


I'd say in my experience, atleast in the Bay Area unless you are a co-founder, dont bother joining an early stage or that's not as late stage as Airbnb or Uber. The problem is the base salaries are good. But, startups try to be too stingy with your equity valuing themselves at a pretty high valuation. IMO putting in the hours for someone else and getting almost nothing in return is not worth the effort. Saying this having worked at one of them for ~3 years.


Why did you work there for 3 years? Was there any particular reason why you accepted bad terms?


A bunch of possible reasons:

- A lot of people don't know what they are actually worth and undervalue themselves

- or they do not understand the caveats of things like dilution and classes of stock

- or they were offered stock in units of shares without knowing the valuation

- or they accept a job and relocate to the Bay Area from a reasonably-affordable place and mistakenly think that a $100k/year salary is hitting the jackpot

- or they were persuaded by the founders that the company was going to be a rocketship without fulling knowing how to judge potential in companies or in the personal traits of the founders themselves (we're not all superstar VCs) and then it didn't turn out to be the case but they didn't want to eat the sunk cost with their unvested shares (takeoff was always just ostensibly around the corner!)

- or they didn't realize just how much more FAANG actually pays than late-stage startups or even other top-tier companies (even Glassdoor is wrong)

- or they preferred to take on more risk without fully understanding the reward aspect (the survivorship bias here in the Bay is real, as enforced by a tough housing market)

- or they previously worked for a big company with poor culture and were turned off by it and decided to only work for startups

- or they weren't prepped in the art of negotiation

- or the founders acted against their employees' best interests and took an early buy-out offer that brought everyone in as acquihires of BigCorp for cheap

- or the founders took money off the table for themselves with zero intentions of ever doing anything favorable to the employees that would actually let them to liquidify such as trying to go public or sell the company, while still keeping up the whole carrot-on-stick shtick


> or they didn't realize just how much more FAANG actually pays than late-stage startups or even other top-tier companies (even Glassdoor is wrong)

This is true for a lot of people I talk to. It seems very odd that there's not more compensation transparency from these companies, because I know several people who would have jointed FAANG if they knew what they'd be making 3-5 years into their career.


I had a roommate that was frustrated by a startup who left for Google. Once I heard him talking numbers I was shocked! Also using Blind (of all places) for comp data was eye opening.

Ultimately though you have to find out for yourself. For me, I found out I was leaving $90k/year on the table. I love startups, but I don’t know if I love them that much.


You're leaving $90k/year with its compounding interest on the table. Trust me, $90k/year is nothing compared to what it will worth in 20 years if you invest it.

I'm 36 and my life is just getting easier every year while I see people around me working their asses off and being stressed over time.


Plus the opportunity to get promoted and make significantly more in a couple years.


I’m curious, how much is it then?


For FB/Google:

L3: ~$165k

L4: ~$225k

L5: ~$335k

L6: ~$450k

I think Amazon is a little less and Netflix is a little more.


Suppose you have a family.

Moving the decimal point to account for the cost of housing, L6 is just ~$45k at FB/Google. That is not something to get excited about.

Yes, it works out differently if you are happy to rent a garage with a roommate. In that case, the pay only needs to be adjusted by a factor of 2, making the L6 have ~$225k at FB/Google. Enjoy your shared garage.


What's your point? I don't think anybody was commenting on how far those numbers go.


Thank you SO much for the very thoughtful answer, this is a lot more sophisticated than "value it at 0". A couple of considerations though:

1. Short of being friends with co-founders have you ever had a company actually share dilution/classes or cap tables with you? They flat out refused and still refuse despite having worked there for a while

2. It is somewhat common knowledge what FAANG salary bands are, but how does one value themselves across different stages of startups and expected salaries/stock?

3. How do you know if the founders have ill intentions? I've heard horror stories, but short of the founder being a serial entrepreneur with a history of public exits, arent you at the risk of a slick-talking ill-meaning founders?


1.) The best time to make these sort of requests is when you have your unsigned job offer in hands. If they aren't even willing to discuss, that's a red flag.

2.) Get an offer from FAANG and negotiate. You should be getting market value.

3.) If you aren't confident, then you shouldn't risk YOUR career on them. I can write a book on this one.


Damn, 1-3 & 5 apply to me. I need to leave. Now.


Sorry for the late reply. - Was a little upset with my previous company over certain things and took the first offer that came my way. And I had to get some immigration stuff done and this company was willing to(Which is really good for me at that moment) and they did it really well. My base was decent. But, looking at equity and the company valuations, I realized I was paid peanuts. When moving out, another company offered to pay me a 10% lower salary and give me 30k options which would amount to 280k per year when they would be worth 500mn. They are currently post-seed, pre series A. Thats a laughable compensation. You can look at how some founders think they can give nothing and still get experienced engineers.


Financially speaking, the odds are incredibly against you as far as equity goes. One advantage. of working in startup is what Paul Buchheit calls working above your correct level, a kind of Peter principle in reverse (https://triplebyte.com/blog/interview-with-gmail-creator-and...). E.g. if you are one of the few seniors in a team, you can fairly quickly become head of eng, that kind of things, and that definitely helps your career in general.

If you want to stay an individual contributor, and can get into one of the famous companies, then I would say there is not much advantage working for a startup today.


Either start one or join one close to IPO. It’s not worth being first employee etc, too much risk for no reward(dilution through rounds , no payout in small acquisition, low salary, etc)


I don't think this is anything 2019 specific, but working in a niche startup is probably the only plausible way of working on anything niche like say blockchain or serverless.


There are many big companies wasting money on the latest fad.

Hell, there are many big non-tech companies throwing money at blockchain


I don't disagree but their rate of innovation is rather slow because it isn't something their survival depends on.


Cons:

- Startups are disorganized

- Most startups fail because they make a stupid product no one wants and the team is awful

- Startups pay below what a large company can afford and often pay below market rate

- Startups will try to low ball you on equity. Don't start with me about negotiating. If they refuse to negotiate, you have your choice of no meaningful equity or working somewhere else. This is often the case.

- Insane sociopath founders who also are terrible at their jobs

- Startups are full of startup bros who are fucking insane sociopath assholes in general. Why the fuck would you want to play ping pong during normal business hours, you stupid fucking asshole? We're trying to build a business here.

- Startups idolize hustle porn

- Startups are increasingly choosing to not even exit which defeats the entire fucking purpose of working there

Pros

- Things are so disorganized that you if you accidentally fuck up, no one might even notice

- If you win the lottery, you'll almost make up for the money you could have made working at Google or some other big company


> Things are so disorganized that you if you accidentally fuck up, no one might even notice

I accidentally fucked up at a startup. My reaction was to provide infrastructure such that that particular class of fuckup was much less likely to happen again. Guess what happened ... I got thrown under a bus some months later over the fuckup anyway. Learned a lot. Was worth it. Would not do it (i.e. work for that type of organisation) again.


This could have been a great comment with some more carefully crafted language... I generally agree.


What do you have against ping pong?


It's noisy and distracting when it's taking place ten feet away from your open plan workspace.


This is far more compelling as an argument against open plans than against table tennis.

Taking a break from a problem can be really valuable. Personally, I skew more "take a walk" than "table tennis", but having some indoor options for people who prefer those (or rainy days...) doesn't seem such a bad thing.


"Should I work at a startup?" Eh, maybe, but be skeptical of their promises.

"Should I work at a startup that puts developers in private offices?" Hell yes!


> Startups are full of startup bros who are fucking insane sociopath assholes in general. Why the fuck would you want to play ping pong during normal business hours, you stupid fucking asshole? We're trying to build a business here.

Preach!


Ironically, it’s become even less likely you’ll find people at startups who tie their self-esteem to money and more likely at big cos.


Particularly deadly are alleged heroes. So-called JavaScript gods who push nothing but bad code into bad infrastructure. People who shoot against everything and everyone, but always celebrate themselves as heroes for night actions. To succeed leads a heterogeneous team that pursues the same goals. Mood killers and finger pointers belong in no startup.


While not new, maybe https://80000hours.org/career-reviews/startup-early-employee... might be useful to have a look at.


I find 80,000 hours to be an interesting website. It has useful information for reflection and critical thinking.


Don't do it unless it's your startup.

If you want to join a startup, make sure you know everything about their background.

I would say most startups are mismanage and only a few are truly good.

The longer you do startups, the harder it is to re-join corporate. a) because you don't want to be a cog again, now that you have seen the light b) because hiring is broken, and recruiters could care less about your startup

I would say doing startups is a lifestyle choice. Constant stress, but ultimately, you wouldn't want to do anything else.


I'm really disappointed (?) that nearly all of these answers are about money. I strongly prefer smaller companies for the larger impact you can have, the intimacy between a smaller team, and more freedom for self directed work.

That is worth a lot of money to me, to each there own, but I definitely prefer less money but a more enjoyable work experience.


To me, the only benefit of joining a startup is in startups you're usually given tasks for which you're not qualified for. But I wouldn't join a startup if startup doesn't offer me compensation package (salary + stock option) at least at market average.


Engineers generally have worse data about market averages. It's better to get some offers and get a feel for what that engineer can reasonably expect. Then at the negotiation table, she can either argue for market average or provide anecdata that they are are an above average engineer as far as market rates are concerned.


Pro: You will have larger responsibility.

Con: The same.


Nowadays, a good startup is one that is going to run into massive legal issues: Uber, Airbnb, any cryptocurrency-related company, or any similar platform that is going to ransack vested interests. Otherwise, it will not make a difference. I mostly do it because I like the fact that the new concept may end up bankrupting entire self-serving industries. I would have loved joining Uber back then, and get a kick from pushing every taxi company on the globe into chapter-11 proceedings. There is still so much to disrupt!


First and foremost Uber is disrupting social security. Not sure why that's sth. to look forward to ...


Pros: interesting(-ish) work, fun(-seeming) people, bragging rights

Cons: amateur hour 24x7


I am the only software engineer at my company so here are my tl;dr;

1. Pro: I have ownership and gaining experience in multiple areas ranging from networking, QA, Testing, design architecture where at bigger companies I may only be in one of those foci.

2. Con: No Coding Reviews. I cannot bounce ideas of someone and trying my best to produce the best codes but I believe I need a Senior/Prinicpal above me to help me on this front.


The worst part of it, in my experience, is that it can be hard to tell a food founder from a bad founder until you've spent some time working with them. I think that venture capitalists have the same issue although they generally have a much larger database of wins and losses to shape their opinions.


Startups? Sociopaths, psychopats everywhere. They don't have empathy, expertise, they don't even have money (for the salaries) in most cases. People should start treating seriously their mental health and how working with socio- and psychopats impacts it.




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