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December 22, 2022 - 6 minutes

What's it Really Like to Work at a Tech Startup?  

Everyone has assumptions about tech startup life. Let’s shed some light…

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Not even the star of the New York City ballet makes such a split. Tech startups are seen either as "sexy and well paid" or "a complete mess where you’ll be a slave." In this guide, you'll find an outline of what working at a startup is truly like. Let's jump in!

What’s a Startup Anyway?

First of all, let's agree on what a startup is. The common definition in the ecosystem is that it is a company that has not yet found its business model. It is neither a question of age (there are startups that are more than 10 years old — look at Uber! — and much younger companies that are not startups anymore) nor of size (a company with 3 employees as well as a mega-scale-up with 3,000 employees can be one). 

Since the company is looking for financial balance, it often seeks to raise money, which it uses in a "cash burn." That's why it's common to have weekly, monthly or trimestrial meetings where the management shares the financial balance sheets and where they take stock of the money they have left when working in a startup.

It’s quite common for those kinds of companies to hold check-ins with the C-team to compare goals with actual numbers, congratulate their teams if it is a good match, or improve if it is not. In these cases, employees do know how many months of funding the company has left if it does not become profitable. No surprises there!

A Faster Ecosystem

These notions of possible bankruptcy and test and learn on the product to find the best market-fit explain why in a startup, everything goes faster than elsewhere. It's far from being a smooth ride, but that's what's so exciting about it! It's an excellent ecosystem for those who want to test things quickly; we generally spend little time on an idea that is not very successful, whereas we spend money on those that are promising with potential customers. 

Since you have little time, you use methods specially developed in Silicon Valley to quickly test an idea, develop it, and put it on the market at low cost

Two examples would be the famous Sprint invented by Jake Knapp (testing an idea and making a prototype in 5 days) or the MVP (Minimum Viable Product), which aims at creating a saleable product or service in only a few weeks. 

There is a saying that tells that one year of work in a startup is worth four elsewhere. On this kind of professional rollercoaster where you have to learn on the job and test things, you also acquire experience quite fast.

This all can be very frustrating for perfectionists who like to release polished features. But for builders who like to invent, create, and start over, it's an absolutely exhilarating playground.

KPIs Are King

In a startup, you can try a thousand things but you have to decide if they make sense quickly. For that, there's no secret: you have to set goals and thoroughly measure if they are reached, exceeded, or failed. 

Generally, the key performance indicators are set on several levels. 

- The company level (usually 3 to 5 super-objectives to which the whole team contributes)
- The team level: objectives to be reached collectively
- The employee level

The least we can say is that for people who are averse to numbers, 6 months to 1 year in a startup will overcome their reluctance. They will become test and learn leaders and will be better able to justify their decisions through data analysis.

This does not mean that intuition has no place in a startup; however, it depends on the training and the mindset of the founders and C-Team. But it surely has a lesser empire because every dollar must be used wisely and justifiably.

Try Fast, Fail Fast

In startups, HRs often hire creative and hybrid profiles, capable of thinking out of the box. These multi-skilled people will allow the company to be competitive and innovative. They are asked to prototype their ideas with three bits of string (the sprints we mentioned earlier) and to move on quickly if it doesn't work.

Flexible Environments

A high level of work in a startup is required: the ability to be productive, efficient, and to put in a lot of hard work during peak periods for the business. 

On the other hand, working environments are often pleasant and the conditions are quite flexible. Startups were the first to repaint their offices, install nap rooms, and ping pong tables. One could say that it is abnormal to have to sleep in the office, yet more and more people are happy to nap 20 minutes before a rush of meetings. 

Silicon Valley startups were also pioneers for remote work, long before the COVID wave. Some of them, such as Spotify, Atlassian, Reddit, and Lyft, are fully remote. In short, startup founders don't really care how you get the job done, as long as it is done and done well. This suits a lot of employees quite well. And it works, as long as you can discipline yourself to protect your work-life balance (because the company usually won't do it for you!).

High Risk But High Gain Potential

Finally, let's talk money! It's no secret that Facebook's first employees are now so rich they don't know what to do with their money. Same thing with many "early stage" employees of startups that eventually became profitable, or even unicorns. But that's not so common. 

One of the hopes when working in a startup is to hit the jackpot. But this only happens if the company raises enough money and manages to perform well enough to be valued. 

However, it is necessary to have negotiated participation in the company in the form of BSPCE, shares, or even profit-sharing. And above all, that it's contractual; many young entrepreneurs have been tricked "on trust."

The other side of the coin is that you can be very poorly paid because you have shares in the company (in return), but they will never be worth anything. This is a way for startup founders to get cheap labor: some people believe that they will succeed; they are not dishonest even if they fail. Others take advantage of workers' trust. In short, it's the responsibility of the employees to weigh the potential of a young company and negotiate their fixed, variable and possibly their package containing shares with full knowledge of the facts, so they won't be surprised if this is just a smokescreen. 

In any case, an experience in such a frenetic and demanding environment is well worth it. You will at least enjoy the ride!

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