Do young people know what they’re looking for when they want to work at a startup?
The reasoning seems to fall within a predictable range every time I ask:
The people at my current job don’t seem to care about what they’re doing. I want to be at a place where people truly believe in the product and its future.
I just feel like I’m a small cog in this big machine. I can leave and someone can take my place and nothing will change. I want to be at a place where I can make an impact.
What I hear is that these people want to feel special, be surrounded by people who make them feel special, and feel like they are building towards a greater future. In between the lines, these people want to make decisions and have unchallenged authority. And I think they’re wanting the wrong things.
To be clear, I don’t think these are wrong as if to say that these are character flaws. I think they’re natural and inherent desires, especially for people who excelled in structured environments and feel lost when the structure disappears.
I do think they’re the wrong reasons to join a startup, especially an early-stage one.
Sometimes, startup work is dirty and thankless. You will feel “lower on the totem pole” than you originally imagined. And even when people recognize you for taking the brunt of that menial and tiring workload, it won’t mean even close to what you had wanted.
Having authority is scary, because messing up is scary. If you’re suddenly put in a position of power within a startup and you’re not prepared, it’ll be a whole world of hurt before things feel meaningful.
A better career development step for people in their early to mid-20s is to look for safe environments embedded within whirlwind environments - places where you can learn to stay calm in crazy situations.
It is incredibly empowering to hear a leader say, “I’m not afraid of anything.” And as much as the naive young professionals may believe that they can confidently say the same, I know that most will crumble at the tiniest semblance of pressure.
Startups are valuable learning experiences because they are volatile. You either grow really fast, and you get to see how people, organizations, processes, product, etc. change as the company grows, or you crash and burn, and you get to see how mistakes and fundamental challenges arise and how these same people, organizations, processes, product, etc. react to them.
The worst is to have a startup that is just middling along. Growth that is fine, but not spectacular. Headcount change that goes up or down a constant amount every year, but in the grand scheme of things, the company looks the same today as it does two years ago.
You might as well be at a more established company with more certainty, better pay, and better management.
For the brave who decide to venture into startups, the growth comes from the crazy ride in either direction.
And if you’d like to thrive in that environment, you better know how to turn ambiguity into action, to decide thoughtfully, to focus on what matters, to uplevel the people around you and to absorb their strengths within you in turn.
When you have thousands of customers requesting new features, and all of them claim its urgent, how do you decide what to build first? What about building a rigorous and understandable approach to performance marketing when you don’t even know what a Facebook ad looks like because of your adblocker?
You need to know how to ride that crazy ride.
This is why I think consulting was the most fruitful option out of school that I had on the table.
Consulting, at least the way McKinsey did it, could make you feel like everything, including you, could blow up at any moment. In reality, things never did, or the impact of that explosion never reached you - there are so many layers of safety between you and that result.
But it taught you how to turn that feeling, which almost tastes like liquid fear, into momentum. You could invent your way forward because you had to, no matter how broken things seemed. As you progressed at your time there, you always found a path, no matter which project you were in. You never got trapped.
You can see how that’s a useful transformation to go through. It’s certainly not unique to consultants, though. I think you can reliably find these experiences in banking, private equity, and growth stage startups, too. For me, I’d say that joining Palantir in 2014/2015 (when I would have joined post-internship) would have been a fairly comparable experience.
In any case, I think joining an earlier stage startup sets you up for sub-standard performance if you don’t have this skill set. Worse, it’ll set you up to have bad habits looking forward. Panicking at new, confusing situations is really bad reaction to have.
If I could have my way, I’d strongly recommend to most recent grads that they carefully reflect on this - do they really have what it takes to thrive in chaos? If not, what move should they make to build that skill set?