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Working for startups sucks, you'll be happier working for The Man (substitute.livejournal.com)
148 points by idlewords on Oct 1, 2009 | hide | past | favorite | 111 comments

"The dot coms I have known were all doomed. Almost all of them were the classic two-founder startups going after a niche in the market. All of them needed outside money to achieve their goals, and in every case the outside money wrecked the company. Uncontrolled hiring wiped out the competence and the culture of these places within months. Executives who came in with the outside money were out of their depth and resorted to arbitrary decision-making and tyranny, and sometimes deliberately failed at their fiduciary responsibilities. "

I worked for a company matching that description precisely, and can attest to the fact that it really sucked, a lot. The strange thing for me was that it was a subtle shift from "wow, this is so exciting" to "I can't believe how much this sucks". I can't even pinpoint exactly when it happened.

In the beginning it was exciting. Lot's of money floating around, everyone assuming things would be wildly successful and we'd all be rich. Reality was a hard pill to swallow (I was the fifth employee of a company that grew to just over 100 then contracted to around 25). That said, I'm not really tempted to go to the corporate world. I can't just unplug my ambition and accept being a small cog in a giant machine. I would much rather take all the lessons I've learned on "what not to do" and channel that into a new (and hopefully better) startup.

I've worked at the two extremes he describes. I've worked for Fortune 250 and 500 companies with cubicle farms and bureaucracy and I've worked for a 2-founder startup with an office overlooking the beach and all glass furniture. Each had its ups and downs. Working for the "Man" meant I was just a cog in an amorphous machine that always made money no matter what I did. Working at a frathouse masquerading as a business, I learned a lot and got free beer every Friday.

Now I'm working for a company in the middle. It was a hip startup in 1998 but has now grown up to be profitable. The older guys are still here, but there is fresh energy too. The company expanded way beyond its original purpose (remember when Amazon only sold books? We're like that), and each vertical feels like a small startup sharing space with other startups. I think it's a good fit for me, but I can't help but think that if I create a startup now, in 10 years I could be the one running a place like this.

Completely off topic, but this is the sort of place I'm looking for now. I've sat in the start up, older dot com, and now in the ginormous corporation but I'm looking for a middle ground. I'd be curious to find out where you work, but I won't pry. Of course, I've been told I should set up shop for myself more than once. I'm just not sure its time yet.

To satisfy your curiosity, I work for Internet Brands. The name change reflects its "grownup-ness" over the past decade since it started off as CarsDirect.com back in 1998. I like that each vertical is like a separate company with a startup feel, but all sharing one big office space.

Since the company started out in an incubator (Idealab), I think they (subconsciously or consciously) kept that incubator feel. For example, when my team is working on a site and we have a vBulletin question, we can walk to the other side of the floor and talk to the people who wrote vBulletin.

Summary: Working in a really bad start-up is less good than working in a really good corporate environment.

There are shitty, corrupt, nepotistic, lying corporations and there are also sterling start-ups. The world's not black and white.

No, there are some things that happen in startups which absolutely don't happen in established businesses in North America. I've seen fraud, overt sexism, early-stage employees fired the week before they vest, and tyrannical abuse of underlings.

That said, the author of the post works only in the LA area, so I think all his experience has been with media-oriented startups. I have a feeling there's a higher degree of frat boy douchiness in that world. San Francisco startups tend to have a more placid, nerdy, bike-rack-in-the-lobby atmosphere, although they can ultimately be just as cruel.

Big companies have fraud, just look at Enron. The sexism isn't overt for legal reasons, but that doesn't change the end results. One very big, very old company I worked had a manager who loved hiring attractive female interns and another who almost exclusively hired people from his home country and all but openly admired to preferential hiring based on nationality.

When someone at a big company is conveniently let go before their green card is approved or that big bonus is paid out, it isn't a "firing," but a "layoff" as the company "right-sizes." Bad bosses abuse underlings when they think the job market lets them get away with it and will not hesitate to punish those who step out of line.

Come to think of it, I've seen everything you describe at some of the many Fortune 500 companies I've consulted at. Sadly, human nature defies corporate size, and bad behavior can even creep into very big companies.

That's true, but what's also true is that virtually every bigco has checks and balances to address that problem, whereas the job of HR in a post-A-round startup is mostly to screw you on health insurance.

Whether those checks function well or not, there's usually nothing you can do about an irrational or abusive CEO or VP/Eng at a startup.

the job of HR in a post-A-round startup is mostly to screw you on health insurance

That goes only for the USA. Sorry to touch that topic, but it's true.

I've always had good experience with health insurance at the startups I've worked for.

IN the UK, it's just not an issue that you think about. Your NHS cover is unaffected by who, if anyone, employs you.

The sexism isn't overt for legal reasons, but that doesn't change the end results.

Hmm, Oddly enough, I think that laws on sexism, racism and reasonable behavior by employers actually influences their behavior. There may still be sexist attitudes, say, at a large company but the norm is to make a serious effort prevent them. Believe it or not but laws actually matter... Laws don't prevent bad behavior but they certainly mitigate it. Also, I suspect that one sees bad behavior most often the very top of the large corporations, since those with the most power are naturally mostly likely see themselves as above anyone's else's laws. But the top of a large company is a small area compared to the vast middle.

Big companies have infinitely more to lose. Something else I've seen repeatedly in my career: even frivolous claims of harassment are settled with cash, because the cost to fight them is too high.

You can't do that with a tiny startup because there's not enough to sue for.

The outcome of such lawsuits and the possibility to settle them for cash varies greatly with location.

In the USA you'd be right, in Europe or Asia much less so.

Well, they clearly don't have infinitely more to lose, that is ridiculous. Don't throw that word around, it make you look stupid to mathematicians, and you don't want to make a mathematician angry, They understand the language of the universe.

So they can what? Talk to the universe? I'm so scared.

Here's another one: employees that vest, buy out their options, and have them made worthless despite mid-8-figures acquisitions.

I'm curious how they managed to dilute only the employees that left without harming everybody else. Can you please elaborate?

Easy. Nobody's options are worth anything, but retained employees get a retention grant from the acquiring company.

Private company shares are very risky.

Indeed! Never exercise options without a full understanding of preferred vs common stock, and what sort of preferences the founders and investors have. Naive founders may end up signing deals with ridiculous liquidation terms.

Also beware offers of significant amounts of stock in exchange for sticking around for an acquisition. The investors likely know the company won't reach its liquidation preference and thus whatever shares they give you are actually worthless.

I wouldn't say placid. ALL the nibbles I get since my last contract have been up front about 70+ hours/week. Is that standard? Seriously!

+1 - I dunno how many times I can say "the plural of anecdotes is not data". This guy either had bad luck or was really terrible at vetting the startups for product quality/traction and founder quality (or both).

Seriously, how do you vet a startup for "founder quality"? The entire tenor of the company can (probably will) change after the next funding round. Seen it happen, heard it happen, it clearly does happen. Steve Blank wrote it up really well.

In cases where the founder has started other companies before or the current company has been around for a while, you can (and should) ask former employees of the company how the founder and the work environment are. This saved me a ton of grief when I took my first job. A very helpful former employee told me all about the company and told me which group to join (I had some choice in the matter).

Sure, there is no guarantee this won't change, but there is no reason to believe you can't vet for founder or team quality at least initially.

And if/when the dynamic changes, quit. It is true that as an employee in a startup you don't usually have much control over how much you make from your options. But you do always have a choice - whether to continue working there or quit.

The same way you vet any employer. Find references. Talk to people. Go to LinkedIn and find 3 people who worked for the guy and ask for their opinions.

Yeah, shit happens. But what you want to vet for is what this guy experienced. Ethics, loyalty, temper, commitment, smarts, cooperation, etc. That doesn't guarantee that you won't have a bad experience, but it helps a lot.

If you go into ANY job knowing nothing about your employer/manager/leader other than what you read on their web site and heard about in the interview, you're doing yourself a disservice. Going into a startup like that is like a professional equivalent of a mail order bride.

I couldn't agree more. Actually, it doesn't even have to be funding that changes the dynamic of the team. I worked at a startup that had 3 people (2 founders and 1 employee) in 2007, and 15 by 2008. That changed everything.

And the attitude displayed at the outset does not have to stay in place as time goes forward, even without funding.

I've seen really nice people turn into absolute jerks as the success of their company went to their heads.

This sounds suspiciously like what one tells oneself to avoid considering that startups might have different and more severe risks than big companies. If those terrible risks weren't there, why would startups have this mythical "upside"?

Also, while there are shitty bigco's out there, you can switch bigco's with less career friction than you can switch startups. You have lots of choices, and a lot more information about company culture with bigco's; the founders of a startup probably can't reliably tell you what the culture's going to be like next year.

Startups have risk associated them, sure. But that risk is different for different parties, in general those that are in control experience much less risk than the small time stockholders.

The pay can be lower in return for 'options', but whether or not those options are ever going to be worth anything depends on how the company is run and how ethical the management will be when vesting and/or buyout time comes around.

It's not rare for small time shareholders to be totally screwed in that case.

A good way to protect against such trouble is to make sure that a mid sized shareholder and your interests are suitably aligned.

That way you're not the only one fighting, and the other party has a lot more clout to make their point than you do. So if you're going to be in that position make sure your type of stock and conditions match that of a larger shareholder.

You've missed the main point of the article, which is that startups can become pathological work environments in ways that are not an option for large companies.

All of those problems can also happen in large companies.

shareholder meetings, properly run AGMs and the SEC are pretty good at weeding out boards who zig-zag or bicker. million dollar plus investments in companies with very little oversight are a different story. This is why it's called high-risk, and VCs accept it- but in reality if 9/10 listed companies crashed-and-burned after IPO...

I have friends who have worked in corporate environments that were just as screwed up as what he describes.

The honest truth is that it's often unsettling for people to work at startups. They are chaotic and messy.

It's not right for everyone.

The best people we hired into our startup were often refugees from the cubicle world looking for a little adventure and ok with making less money. In the interview we would try to paint a picture of daily life in a startup, the true odds of success, or even survival, and how different a work experience this was going to be for them.

And what an adventure we gave them. Some stayed, others ran back to cubicle farms. Some had been at such bad places that in our worst moment they still said "this isn't that bad.. I've been in worse jobs!".

I've been taking a 'break' from the startup world at a large gaming company and I totally understand the appeal of an established company.

There are times in your life when you don't want work to be an adventure.

I have a little speech I give candidates about how bad life is going to be at our little company. When you find someone you want to hire, especially if you've been looking for a long time, your brain switches to a mode that says "don't screw this up!" Which is bad, because the thing that's worse than not managing to hire an excellent candidate is hiring an otherwise-excellent candidate who can't handle the company you're running.

It's actually worse to hire someone who is awesome and a deal-breaker culture mismatch than it is to hire someone incompetent. The incompetent you can send on their way. With a real talent, there's hard feelings and reputation hit.

Yea, it's funny---I was reading the blog entry and found myself agreeing that most of what he said was often true about the startups I've worked for or had acquaintance with. The difference is that's how I like it. Chaos is fun. Of course, there are certain undesirable consequences of disorder you want to try to minimize in order to maximize the chances of success.

You know, I think the real insight in the piece is about the two startup founders where no one is really in charge. I think it's a good kick to remind founders that there needs to be a process for decision-making so you don't end up in stalemates.

I've found there doesn't necessarily have to be one founder who's in charge, just that founders have to be able to cooperate. If the founders can't work together, it's not likely to solve the problem to designate one as the boss.

Nor is the problem limited to groups of 2 founders. You can have groups of 2 that work together well and groups of 3 that bicker. I'm guessing the author just had a limited sample size.

Who doesn't have a small sample size when it comes to work? Even the most determined job-hopper can only work at a small number of companies long enough to really understand the dynamic. And even the most perceptive outside observer won't really know what it's like to have devoted a big chunk of one's life to a job.

There's an endless variety of human experience and we only get to live one fragment of it ourselves. That's the point of swapping stories.

I agree entirely. One of the great things about the Internet, which I believe we still don't appreciate fully, is the degree to which it allows us to step back and see the mosaic formed by these fragments.

The post in question is a good example. It's much more valuable when combined with the comments on HN, many of them by people with first-hand experience of startups, than it would have been as an isolated article in the print media.

Merely enabling us to collect and collate information we already "knew" is surprisingly valuable. The clearest example may be open source software, but I think we will see similar gains in almost all fields.

Actually, I found it curious that the livejournal comments were far more interesting than the thread here. The OP has some very articulate friends.

Very well said, sir.

I can relate to this article.

I have experienced working for startups and large businesses. In my experience I have preferred working for large businesses. For me, I actually find a lot of the "perks" of startups to overall be worse for the environment. Sure, I can show up whenever I want and dress how I like, but overall is this really a good thing? Or does it just trend toward laziness and lack of personal responsibility? What's so bad about a little structure -- I grew up in a structured educational environment and learned to thrive in it.

Beyond this though, what I really like about larger companies is the expertise at my fingertips. I think I'm a pretty good programmer, but I can't do everything, and I don't have the experience to be good at everything.

At Corporation A, adding a new feature requires the following process: marketing identifies a need, project manager creates a plan, software architect decides how it should be implemented, programmer implements the feature, designer spruces it up, QA ensures that it is correct, and sales creates a pitch. Money rolls in.

At Startup B, it works like this: Investor X identifies a need, Investor Y disagrees on implementation, 95% of time is spent discussing exact wording instead of the usefulness of said feature. Programmer implements it, no one remembers what it was for, it gets dropped at the next redesign.

People say they don't want to just be a "cog in a wheel", but I see nothing wrong with being a cog in well-oiled, efficient machine. I find it very satisfying to be a small but significant part of something larger than I could ever create on my own.

I work at a start up now after working at the largest software corporation for about two years, and I guess I see the complete opposite. Sure, at the start up, we can dress how we like, show up when we want, etc.. but honestly, people dress the same as they did at the corporation, and people show up at roughly the same time. And I feel (and see) more of a trend of personal responsibility at the start up. With 20 engineers, there's no one to pass the buck to: if something breaks from your area, you fix it. Especially dealing with a live site with millions of customers, versus a two year release cycle at my previous job.

I'm going to have to disagree on the point of expertise too. At my corporate job, I tried bringing up functional programming at a happy hour and got a lot of blank stares. Anything programming related that was not directly related to the job, my coworkers didn't seem to care about. At the start up, people learn different languages for fun and try to stay up with new technology.

I know that all I've done is provide more anecdotal evidence, but my experience has been so 180 degree opposite from yours, Markus, that I felt compelled to comment. I guess the big difference I see is that of passion: corporate programmers are rarely super excited about what they work on, and start up programmers almost have to be. I'm not saying passion means a better product or success, but I'd choose working with passionate people any day of the week.

Sure, I can show up whenever I want and dress how I like, but overall is this really a good thing?

I'm going with "yes". I fail to see how it's an improvement to have to wear less comfortable clothes than you'd like, and have to be there when your body really doesn't want to be. My company went back to a minimal dress code after a year of "business casual", yet somehow we still do our jobs and as a result I'm much more inclined to stay longer when it's needed. And we've always had flexible hours; if I had to be in at 9 I'd be useless for the morning and would be gone before my most productive time in the evening.

At Startup B, it works like this: Investor X identifies a need, Investor Y disagrees on implementation, 95% of time is spent discussing exact wording instead of the usefulness of said feature. Programmer implements it, no one remembers what it was for, it gets dropped at the next redesign.

Look into Bugzilla or FogBugz. You don't need 6 layers of bureaucracy to handle new features.

Perhaps the OP would be happier again working for an organically grown startup (rather than a "well" funded one). In such companies "Real money is being made and lost" - and a lot more directly than in a huge company (with all its inefficiencies). What each employee does matters, and stupidity is punished.

As someone bootstrapping a company that has no chance of getting funded by doing consulting - and having started from next to nothing in savings + high living expenses inherited from salaried days - I couldn't agree more.

I've found I was most happiest in a startup environment. Even a couple of hundred people feels too big for me.

I think it comes down to where your interests lie. I love wearing multiple hats, and working on a million different things, and the excitement of that type of environment.

I'm definitely happier in startups too. Being in the middle of a startup with traction [1] keeps you sharp. I tell myself that it also makes me more valuable in either a bigco or another startup.

At some point though you need to seperate the emotional from the rational. And building up career qualifications in challenging startups stops meaning that much when you lose sight of any ways to deploy those qualifications down the road.

[1] Important qualifier.

To paraphrase: you'll be happier working for The Man than working for The Boys.

I think the point here is he's talking about being an employee, not a founder or a partner. The great benefit of running a startup is doing things your way. Unless employees believe in and are able to contribute to the startups direction, they're just as powerless as they'd be at BigCo with none of the upside that stablity brings.

I suggest trying both. Completely different worlds and each satisfies different financial, career and personal needs.

My only "sucks" advice other than that: when looking at startups avoid family run businesses where there is even a hint of nepotism like the plague.

Most start-ups are usually founded by close friends who hire more close friends and so on... So one can hardly avoid nepotism in start-up sphere, at least this is my experience.

I'm not sure if that's nepotism though. When I think nepotism I think of people getting hired purely because of their relationship to the boss. If I was doing a startup I'd be hiring people I knew could do a great job because I'd done good work with them in the past.

I was mostly speaking of hiring within family.

There is a corollary to this which almost runs counter to the author's argument. In my experience, if you work for a startup where you enjoy your work, and the startup gets acquired, chances are your work will start sucking within the year.

This is both because the culture will change very fast (except in rare cases) and almost always the type of people who enjoy working for startups find it very hard to enjoy working for BigCos.

I know its hard for us at HN to believe to someone is actually happier working for the man. It's a personal choice. He likes the structure of cooperate life to the adhoc environment in the previous startups he worked for. I can appreciate his sentiments.

Having worked both, I can say I too definitely prefer working in a startup environment. I give this guy in the article a few months before he changes his tune. Working for a large company, I often felt like slamming my head against my desk. If you enjoy bureaucy and make that work for you, then you'll probably do well otherwise try a startup. Personally, I enjoy consulting now but in a down economy it can be tough yet BS free. Work is work at the end of the day, you have to do it. Nose to the grind stone.

I wouldn't be so sure he'll change his tune. At my corporate job, the majority of the people were very happy there. They were mostly older, with families, kids, mortgages, etc.. just happy to be doing a job and being compensated well for it. I was the only squeaky wheel (mostly because I was younger and didn't want that other stuff yet), and I left as soon as I could.

Full agree. Large companies are great if you have a familiy, not if you've something to prove.

This guy should not have been working for a startup. That's the main lesson. For people that like them, they're really good.

Working as an employee at a startup is a gamble. A startup employee needs to be willing to look out for himself or herself. Employees need to be willing to pick up and leave if they're consistently treated poorly.

Unpaid, un-comped overtime? Leave. Political bullshit? Leave. Illegal activities? Leave.

The other mistake I see commonly made is employees assuming their options will be worth something. Unless there's a market where the stock's value is known (and the stock can be sold), it's a gamble with crappy odds.

Not all startups suck, but only fools stay at the ones that do. This guy (girl?) left, and it was the right call. In fact, being willing to leave means this person was exactly right for a startup.

Given the start-ups he described, he's wrong for the job. Ok, I'll go along with your proposition. Out of curiosity, What kind of person would be right for the job?

Do you mean to imply that people who have consistent negative experiences are startups are somehow constitutionally different from people who have good experiences?

Because to me, it just looks like luck of the draw.

Startups make bad day-jobs. They make good "doing important stuff" vehicles. BigCo is great when you just want to not care, and sometimes, that's perfectly valid. (e.g. when I was doing most of my open source work and needed something to pay the bills)

This post reminds me of the seminal "EA Spouse" post (http://ea-spouse.livejournal.com/274.html). Together the two posts bookend the pitfalls of both startup and big company high tech employment.

He compares some aspects of the bubble lifestyle to a typical corporate job. He's right that even typical corporate jobs are often far better than big bubble blowouts.

In the kind of startup he describes, a large amount of outside money is injected into the company. Predictably, this makes all kinds of things go wrong. You'll notice that one of the nice things he says about the big corporation is essentially that there's some sanity there. Again, when compared to a bubble company, that's very true in some ways.

I worked in a large successful tech company right after school. One of the best periods of my life. I learned a lot, worked on really cool technology, and I was treated well. I left for reasons unconnected to them, with much regret.

There exist great start-ups, great big companies, lousy start-ups and lousy big companies. And within great companies, big or small, there exist lousy situations. Your immediate boss and your colleagues have more to do with your happiness than almost anything else.

This sounds just like my last start-up. It went to hell. We had a perfectly great (SaaS) product and a great team (5 employees - 1 founder, 1 programmer & myself, 1 salesperson/marketing, 1 human resources/finance.).

Things were great until after the second round of funding: The board basically took over: - They forced us to increase to about 20 employees (within a few months). - We hired former "big time" CEO/Presidents/Vice Presidents as our EVP's to help us grow fast. - We were basically working 12 - 16 hours a day. I slept many times at work during data migration (which took for ever) - We were taking more customers than we could handle which resulted in lawsuits because we could not deliver on time (even after postponement).

Finally (after 2 years) the board fired the founder, brought in a new CEO from "big time" company. Needless to say employee moral died and I and the original employees were forced to resign (I was personally already on my way out). Two months later at the collapse of the financial system, unable to get more funding, they filled for chapter 11 . Everybody got fired and also lost their shares, health insurance etc.

I now run my personal consulting firm and I am loving it. I actually get to see my son everyday.

This is rosy if that's what you want to accomplish in your life, but you're ignoring the upside potential. Maybe you just saddled up with the wrong founders?

What upside potential? The notion that a startup is going to make you a millionaire (or even --- what you're telling yourself right now --- a hundredthousandaire) is one of the most misleading things about startup culture.

You will make more money plugging away diligently at a career in the Fortune 500 than you will spending the same 30 years in startups. I use the word "will" here in the same same sense as you "will" win with KK facing 72 unsuited. Anybody here capable of starting a company is equally capable of walking in the door at six figures in a big company.

The reason this "upside" notion is so pernicious is that it's fed by powerful biases. We read about the successes. Even the failures we hear about, we're reading about them by and large because they were "successful". The overwhelming majority of startups won't get fundng, won't get significant customer traction, won't feed their founders 2 years out, and won't get enough press attention for us ever to hear about. Their stories are also boring.

As for what you accomplish with your life, remember this: over 10-20 years at a big company, you will build things that people will use. Over the same years at a startup, you're inevitably going to pour your heart and soul into code that nobody will ever see. If you're unfortunate enough to "score" any funding, even after the company dies, you're probably not going to get to do anything with that code.

The economics for a non-founder in a startup are drastically different than they are for a founder; however, the risk is only slightly better than the founders. It is among the worst risk/reward tradeoffs I can think of.

The two reasons to do it are (1) some people love the opportunity for responsibility/growth or environment and/or (2) the poor risk/reward is actually an investment in themselves, so that they can gain the skills to become a founder.

For founders, I don't believe it's relevant that the median startup doesn't make money: the more you found, the better you become; a diligent and intelligent founder is bound to ultimately make quite a bit of money, but it may be a good number of tough years and failed startups before that happens.

Your reasoning here is tainted by survivorship bias.

Yes, founders and employees share similar levels of risk in a startup that has reached the point where it can hire FT employees.

But before the startup hit that point, it endured a period of drastically higher risk, which the employees never saw, and which the founders are being compensated for.

The only conditions that must be true in my reasoning is that (1) an early non-founding employee faces substantially higher risk than a corporate job, (2) at lower pay and with substantially less equity than would compensate for that risk.

That the risk was higher for the founders prior to the FTE is certainly true, but irrelevant, because we are not comparing whether an FTE has a good risk/reward tradeoff relative to an opportunity to join earlier in the startup under the same terms, but rather relative to a corporate job.

Totally agree. For the average employee, their potential upside is pretty small unless the company experiences Google-like levels of success. And if it fails, they aren't even likely to get respect from potential employers for the attempt. After all, a startup that doesn't take off is just another small company. If you're going to work for a startup, you need a better reason than the money.

You make excellent points, but consider that "upside" isn't entirely measured in dollars, and the situation the OP describes isn't the only possible one.

I've done my time at Acme Corp, and it doesn't interest me. I built really great, really fast software that did [insert generic thing here], for people who didn't even want to be doing that, but did it because they were paid $9.25 an hour to operate the software I wrote to do [generic thing].

In addition, I had very little agency of my own -- I did what I was told to do, and I did it quite well, and was rewarded for doing so.

But human beings are bright sparks in a simmering universe of dust -- I feel like in some existential sense, we as humans not /meant/ to toil at arbitrary tasks. We're meant to live, to experience, and to make connections. To be in love, to witness beauty. Maybe to create some beauty of our own.

What it boils down to for me that the independent way of operating, as opposed to the structure of a corporation, gets me that much closer to my dream of existing as a "real human being." You can't really buy that.

You pretty much hit the nail on the head as to why I don't want to end up in BigCo. I worked as a cog in a moderately sized company that had been around for a good deal of time. I felt like the work I did didn't honestly matter. I was scolded harshly for my mistakes and hardly recognized for my achievements. Now I'm doing web development with two other guys in a cool little house-turned-office. I show up when I want to and I dress how I want to. I'm appreciated for my work, and I feel like I'm actually doing something useful.

I can understand how the whole "dress like you want to and show up when you can" thing can make people automatically think of laziness, but I really disagree. I show up when I'm ready to get some shit done. When I was working at the more "standard" business, I had to show up at 8, whether or not I was actually capable of doing any sort of real work. I'm far more productive being able to set my own hours, and so are my two co-workers. We do in a week what used to take my previous employer over a month to do (with a significantly smaller workforce).

The reason this "upside" notion is so pernicious is that it's fed by powerful biases. We read about the successes. Even the failures we hear about, we're reading about them by and large because they were "successful".

You hit the nail on the head. I know 4 very talented engineers who have been in silicon valley for 12+ years each. I have tried to recruit all of them at various times, but they have always been swimming in great offers, in good times and bad, so they are good. Between them, they have worked in at least 10 start-ups. While none of them are starving, no one got rich either. They have lived frugally, so they have a decent pile saved up, but that was done the old fashioned way, not through hitting the lottery.

Its also possible that within a big company you can build stuff that no one uses. I've seen it many a time. And in a big company you lose that other important thing ... whats that called ?? ... Oh yeah ... your soul. As you ascend the ranks its just one big political game.

That's not an argument, it's a My Chemical Romance song. If your work doesn't mean anything, you change jobs.

You can do everything right at a startup and still fail. In fact, even if you do everything right, you're probably still going to fail. You have many more opportunities to correct in a bigco career.

I agree with everything you said... except useful stuff part.

There is much more stuff being thrown out or made totally useless in a year at big companies than all failed start-ups have ever produced!

and they did not require someone else's money to lose it.

I don't think that's strictly true. A shareholder, somewhere, lost value. VC's are just shareholders that make riskier bets.

And the downside potential.

Announcement - everybody in cubicles 1000-1999 are fired. We just merged with a competitor or had a management consultant report/market survey that said this business unit is no longer a core competency. So you're all out, doesn't matter how good you are - the shareholders have decided.

That's what everyone says when this discussion comes up, but of course:

* It is far more likely that your pre-cash-flow-positive startup is going to die, abruptly, with no severence, than it is that NYSE Euronext or Coca Cola is going to cut 1000 IT jobs.

* If you can hack it in a startup, you are worth enough that finding another job isn't going to be hard. If you're doing it right, you're always going to have another job in your back pocket.

A point that this "debate" often misses: just because you're doing a bigco career doesn't mean you get to be lazy. You have to actively manage your career either way. The debate between startup life and parking your ass in the same cube for 15 years is a straw man argument.

Fortune 500 companies announce that they are killing their IT depts and outsourcing to $SERVICE CO$ all the time.

When you go for the next job interview do you want to say.

I was developing Rails apps to link facebook to Xbox for iPhone users. Or

I was a level 3.2 group manager responsible for coordinating all inputs from level 3.3 staff and collating them for level 3.1s ! And I have technical experience writing macros in XYZ running in our custom ABC billing system.

Again with the straw man argument. If you're worried about being the 3.2 group manager responsible for etc etc etc, manage your career better. Crappy roles and big companies aren't synonymous.

So, let me respond. What looks better on a resume:

"I was developing Rails apps to link Facebook to Xbox for iPhone users", or

"I designed, implemented, and successfully deployed the first 3 revisions of Instant Bloomberg for Bloomberg, which provided IM capabilities to everyone with a BB terminal".

Because Bloomberg is notorious for crappy 3.2-group-manager-of-GS-integration-backend-foo-XYZ development jobs, but I have a couple friends who got to do Instant Bloomberg.

Crappy roles and big companies aren't synonymous.

Talking about strawman, crappy startups and startups aren't synonymous either.

No, but risky startups and startups are.

The difference is that at a startup, virtually everyone gets to work on something meaningful. At Bloomberg, a handful out of hundreds.

The odds are decent that nothing you work on at your startup is going to be meaningful, because nobody is ever going to see it.

You're switching definitions of "meaningful."

True story: I worked for a startup that was acquired by a large company, which then went public, and a bit later laid me off (and everyone else in my division apart from a few poor chumps kept around for maintenance). I got more in severance than I got from my stock options.

When you also consider that the same large company took one look at my skillset and responsibilities and promptly doubled my salary post acquisition, it's not nearly as clear what the downside is.

Announcement - We lost our VC funding, we were bought for a small portion of what we are worth by a company that is just taking a few of the best employees and some intellectual rights.

You weren't "bought for a small portion" of what you were worth, or someone would have paid more; more likely you had an inflated notion of what you were worth.

"They were all white college grad males."

I think it is irrelevant here - everybody is free to start a startup, this is not a sign of any conspiracy or discrimination.

I don't think he was implying conspiracy or discrimination as much as noting a common thread.

I feel completely the opposite. I personally will avoid by any means to join a company who silences my thoughts and ideas. In a startups your ideas might not always be put into action, but from my experience they're heard and maybe discussed further. Do you know how long it takes to make a simple change to a production environment in a big corporation. It's called change control, I get it, a lot can go wrong, a lot can be lost. I choose not to be a part of it. I've been fortunate and have live through the journey of going from a startup to a publicly traded company. It was a great experience and I learned a ton. I've worked for a few big corp / business casual companies and It's not what I enjoy, it's not how I choose to spend my work day.

It's nice to see an alternative view for a change.

I think the main take away is: some jobs/companies are good, some are bad.

The Man was once a startup.

I don't think this is entirely accurate. There are a lot of companies out there that end up being bought by wealthy investors or companies. These investors or companies may have gotten their riches through inheritance or by some other means.

Even then, The Man may have been a startup, but money and power can transform people in surprising ways, or they might have been The Man from the beginning.

I think that generally you don't really want to be working for the man whether it's in the context of a startup or a large company.


I've worked with several venture funded startups, all entirely satisfying experiences, and twice for large corporations. The big places were both good for the first six months, and then you ask yourself repeatedly 'what kind of fucken life is this?'

edit: important to note, the caliber of the founders is key. if they have done this before, or if they've held senior positions at large organizations before, then it's a good bet.

I'd like to question the two founders paradigm. We see Microsoft, apple, facebook all with one iconic leader. Having cofounders implies each of the founders are equally invested and dedicated, which the article shows can cause power struggles. So it seems the best mix of founders is to have one lunatic visionary dominate and regular people cofound.

> So it seems the best mix of founders is to have one lunatic visionary dominate and regular people cofound.

Woz and Paul Allen were pretty visionary themselves. I think working at the same company after they've made it doesn't appeal to everyone and Allen actually got sick and left. Microsoft was well on it's way to being massive so I wouldn't chaulk it up to Bill Gates alone.

Then why would most people attribute apple with jobs, Microsoft with gates, facebook with zuckerberg, and yahoo with yang?

There is one guy who is more invested in it than the others right?

You should get someone to help, but I don't think it would be good to have two founders who have visions for the company. Their respective visions would eventually diverge and then conflict would arise.

Woz left Apple a long time ago, so did Allen and Filo (Yahoo Co-Founder). It's a bit of survivor bias and interest in the limelight that the more famous names persist.

If they left then that's a sign that they had less interest or was less invested in the company.

You can't have two people trying to dominate. Unless both founders have perfectly matching visions, their joint command will be as bad as design by committee. Someone is bound to leave or become somewhat subordinate to the other. In the end one person will come out as the main visionary guy for a specific company.

I suppose it's a good thing, then, that I've apparently been saddled with the leadership aspect of my own venture. Sure, it means I have to make all the decisions (and yes, there've been a few nightmares), but at least somebody making the decisions, right?

It makes sense that even if the mean quality of work experiences at a startup, the standard deviation would be so much higher than in a corporate environment that the worst experiences are much worse.

It's fun to watch the Justification Machine rumble on, here on HN. Not that it ever turns off.

The past few days I've been counting the number of articles on the front page that are "meta." That is, to do with HN itself, or meatless 'questions' such as "What are the true traits of an entrepreneur?" (Not an actual news item, but it captures the idea nicely.)

It hovers around 30%.

Everybody here is getting high on their own supply.

The value of HN to me has dropped dramatically over the past 9 mos. The critical thinking has all but disappeared, and the boosterism (Yay startups! I have the traits of a true entrepreneur!) has gone way up.

This author makes very many excellent points, but sure, go ahead, dismiss them out of hand as jealousy or aversion to "risk" rather than a well-formed critique.

Ok, so working for a company is better than working for a doomed startup, full of racists and incompetents. Really? That certainly is good advice, I am just not sure that anyone else needs that to be explicitlt pointed out. I can't wait for your next article, eating a donut is better than being punching in the face.

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