Top 10 Secrets Behind A Job Application That Says “Startup”

Top 10 Secrets Behind A Job Application That Says “Startup”

No matter how smooth the recruiting and hiring process goes. Even with the coolest office and best on-boarding process in the world. Even if the company crows about culture over restrictions every day and even with charming phrases in foot-high letters on the halls and walls of shiny office. Even if everything looks amazing on the outside, you may find that the actual work environment to be much more oppressive than it seems.

It typically happened on a Friday at 6pm, all the executives looking frustrated crowd into the CEO’s office.

As a job seeker, one of the problems is these company are *always* advertising for new employees. Some are trolling (just trying to get resumes and potential talent pools for later) and some are trying to fill the same position every few months. When you see companies in your Indeed search week after week, and you see positions come, go, and come back, you might be weary of some issue that is making it hard for them to attract and then keep good people.

STARTUP RULE #1: Good people don’t stick around horrible places.

You can ask some questions in your initial screening. If you are desperate for the new job you may choose to gloss over their alarming answers, but at least you will have some real data about the culture and work style of the company.

In a recent 4 month (perm-to-gone) role I should have listened more clearly to several questions and the astounding answers that my future manager told me.

“What about work/life balance here?”

She laughed. Just laughed. Never directly answered the question. “Well, we’re a startup, so you know…”

The problem was I did know. The second problem was I needed the job at that moment. I followed up, “So, you work hard play hard?” I was giving her a softball question.

“We’re all professionals. And we do what it takes to get the job done. We try not to encroach on nights and weekends. Everyone need downtime.”

Okay, Work/Life answer: NO.

Typically start-up mentality means

1. The executives keep random hours, typically coming in around or after noon. (Working from home during the morning.) As a worker bee you will not have the luxury.

2. As their day gets ramped up after lunch, say 3 – 4 in the after noon, they begin to make decisions about the requirements of the day. Requirements that may affect your evening and weekend, even without your input or knowledge.

3. By 5pm you may or may not know yet what is going on in the impromptu meeting of execs in the CEO’s office. (This happened on Tuesdays and Thursdays, typically. It typically happened on a Friday at 6pm, all the executives looking frustrated crowd into the CEO’s office. You think, “If they are staying here, I guess I’d better stick around.” When this becomes a pattern, your life as a non-executive will become unmanageable.

4. Culture may be raised as the glue that keeps everyone happy and all boats pointed at the same goal. But culture breaks down the minute the staff meeting (“We don’t do average work, we go for EPIC!”) is over. You can see it when the chatter between employees has an anxious whine to it.

And when culture is sold as a real benefit, at least ask yourself why they are having to sell you so hard.

5. Some days you will have no clue what you should be doing. If you ask your manager you will be exposed as an idiot. If you do what you think needs being done, you risk contradicting orders/intentions that you haven’t been given yet. If you sit on your hands playing BeJeweled you do no harm, but you also move none of your MBOs forward. (Management by Objective)

6. You may be hired for one thing (I read the job description once a week to see if I could understand what I had missed.) but be immediately strapped doing something completely different. And if it’s really not in your skill-set, deep programming for example, you’ve got very few options. (1. Hit the learning curve hard and hope for the best; 2. Quit and look for a job that represents itself accurately; 3. Ask for help; 4. Ask for resources to get the technical job done, the one you told them you were NOT interested in.)

7. Your manager may not be much of a manager. When my hiring manager was telling me about her experience at the company, another great question to ask the company you are courting, she said this several times. “I’m the first VP of Marketing who has lasted more than six months. And I’ve been here 2 years, so I’m feeling pretty confident.” Um, yeah. That statement talks more about the culture of the company, and perhaps about the leadership skills of your future manager.

8. Your manager has less than 3 hours a week to guide, approve, or work with you on the big stuff. But they can throw the little stuff, stuff not related to the success of the company or your MBOs, at any hour of the day or night.

9. Most employees have no children, or children already away in college. Or if they do have children, they are often seen frustrated and beat down by the number of times they’ve had to make excuses to their kids about missing some critical parenting moment. This is why the younger generation is so attractive to startups: no kids, unlimited hours available, ambition, building a career.

10. Startups with no real momentum may continue to raise money to keep themselves a float. They will often tout the next release, the next product as the one the market has been waiting for. But in the end, most startups fail. Keep that in mind. The average CMO, CFO at a startup lasts between 6 – 9 months. How’s that for stability and security.

When I say I have “startup experience” on my resume, what I’m saying is “bring it on, I can handle late nights, intrusions on my private time, heck I will even answer my fancy smart phone at all hours if you give me an allowance to pay for it.

STARTUP RULE #2: Startups fail often. And most startups will fail in the first 2 – 4 years. The leadership that can keep a crew together on a rat-infested sinking ship has some powerful influences.

Watch your ass when you hear the word startup as you’re looking for a new company to align with. And when culture is sold as a real benefit, at least ask yourself why they are having to sell you so hard. If you’re willing to work under ambiguous and often leaderless managers, and you are flexible (very flexible) about when you need to leave each day… Maybe then the words “startup culture” won’t scare you. If you’re into those things you are probably under 35, single, and without children. Good luck.

As they used to say on Hill Street Blues, “Let’s be careful out there.”

John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also used to be seen on Google+: jmacofearth)

image courtesy of, creative commons usage and attribution

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