''So often people are working hard at the wrong thing. Working on the right thing is probably more important than working hard.''
Caterina Fake, Co-founder, Flickr
The ultimate social phenomenon 'Facebook' was started as a small startup by Mark Zuckerberg and his friends. However, it is important to know and accept that very few startups will end up like Facebook. Hence, if you are planning to join a startup, ensure that it is the right one. Do not get impressed by flashy promises made by the founders. You need to evaluate their validity and feasibility first.
Many times people may project themselves, or their company, in a different light. Hence, it is better to weigh the pros and cons of the workplace before joining. This can be done by questioning the founders on various aspects of the business. As the decision to join a startup will impact your personal and professional life, it is important that you ask certain questions to yourself as well. If you are satisfied with the answers that you get, only then go on to join the startup. Here are a few questions that will help you to decide.
The following questions will help you to understand more about a new organization.
What is the current stage of the startup?
Joining a startup which has a very limited budget, few members, and absolutely zero customers can be a bad bargain for you, especially if you are leaving a well-established job to join a startup. You must ask this question to understand what the current stage of the startup is, and to see if it has got any customer base yet. If the startup is in advanced stages, it will mean that the company has funds and resources to go further. In that case, it can be a good idea to join them.
What is the history of the idea behind the startup?
It is important for you to know how the founders decided on the idea for the startup. If the idea is too fresh, you must assess its workability. Many firms take hasty decisions about initiating work, and start recruiting too soon. You should find out what other ideas the founders discarded before zeroing-down on the current one. The founders should be open to accepting new ideas if the need is felt. Very occasionally it happens that a firm follows the idea it had originally started with. Ensure that there are indications that their idea will tick, and enough research was conducted before implementation.
What are the founders expecting from the startup?
This is indeed one of the most important questions that you should ask before joining a startup. You should seek answers from the founders in terms of their goals, vision, profit, expansion, etc. Raise questions related to risk-management and costs as well. This will give you a clear idea whether the startup will survive or not.
Who all are part of the startup team?
It is important for you to know about the people you are going to work with. Ensure that there are qualified and educated people who have considerable experience in the same or an allied field. If the founders are just a group of beginners, then you may be taking a huge risk by joining them. People often initiate startups but because of the lack of experience or funds they find it difficult to sustain it. Also, after sometime there may be differences among the founder members and the partnership might fizzle out. Hence, ensure that you are in the right company.
How will I fit-in with the team?
Many times, the founder members already know each other since a long time. This creates a sense of bonding between them. A third-person who joins the team may be treated as an outsider and may not be privy to the decisions of the founder members. It is essential that everyone in the team shares the same temperament and believes in the common goal of taking the startup to new heights.
How will it be beneficial for me if I join the startup?
This is perhaps the most important question you should ask the founders. You must find out what they are offering you. It should not only be in terms of money, but also to gain higher responsibilities. You should find out about the job security in the startup. Apart from this, you should also inquire if there is a possibility for you to eventually graduate to becoming a partner. You must ensure that the salary and growth prospects are attractive and beneficial for you before joining the startup. Inquire if you will be getting any stock options in the near future.
How will the founders deal with tough times?
Even well-established organizations have to face a slack in business but the only difference is that they are financially well-prepared to handle it. In a startup, if a business calamity like recession hits the organization, it can prove disastrous. It may so happen that the founders might just wind up the setup and leave. This will place you in a financial problem. Hence, it is important that you know about their risk management, loss mitigation, and disaster management strategies for dealing with the competition and tough times. If you don't get a satisfactory answer, do not join the startup.
What will be my role in the startup?
In most cases, you will have to leave your current job to join the startup. You must have gained rich experience in a particular field, and might be leading a team there. However, there are chances that your job at a startup may not offer a leadership position and may instead require you to report to someone. If your reporting authority is capable enough, you will feel satisfied and learn from him. However, if he is not up to the mark, you may regret your decision. Ensure that a capable and experienced person is leading the team.
What is the financial standing of the company?
The sustainability of a startup largely depends on the management and the availability of funds. On asking this question, if you are getting answers like, 'we are trying to find investors' or 'searching for a line of credit' then it is best to forget about joining the startup. Inquire about the net outflow of the company for every month. Money will be required for everything, and if they cannot come up with a number immediately, then there might be issues which may cause a problem in future.
Who is funding the company?
Ideally, you should get the names of at least one or two venture capitalists. But there may be cases where the founders may have invested in the company. This is acceptable as they will be sowing the revenue into the business all along. This means that they will be working towards getting more and more profits. It is best that they utilize their own revenue for raising capital. This will lead to controlled-risks.
Is there any growth so far?
Promises of making it big are not same as actually achieving success. In most cases, the founders will make promises about the viability of the venture. Don't get impressed by the estimates on paper. Ask them about the growth they have seen so far, profits earned, or about their existing customer base. If they have done well in a small period of time and their profit is showing an upward trend, it is a positive sign. Ideally, they should have finished at least one project already, or must have shipped a consignment of products. This will give you a fair idea whether the startup is going in the right direction.
What does the brand stand for?
It is important that the brand of the startup stands for delivering quality products or services to the customer. If the founder members are ignoring important brand reputation aspects like delivery, payment to vendors, quality, health and safety, ethics, etc., then it will not be the best idea to be associated with such a brand. Be part of a startup venture where immense care is taken to manage the reputation of the company and that of the people working for it.
Who are your customers?
Ideally, you should have at least one known brand in the customer list, but it is okay if they have a few unknown ones. However, ensure that these customers have placed orders with them and they are not just 'prospective' clients. The founder members may show you an impressive list of customers, whom they might have approached for work. However, it does not mean that the customers have placed actual orders. The growth of the organization will depend on the number of customers and their orders. Hence, verify the existence of customers before accepting the job.
How are you different from your competition?
This question is important because it will also speak about the startup's standing in the market. If their product is unique then it may take some time to pick up profits. Even when it is a tried-and-tested product, it may face tough competition from already established firms. Hence, understand how different the product is and whether or not it will be able to sustain the competition.
The following questions will help you to judge your readiness before joining a startup.
Why am I joining a startup?
If you are working in an established organization then there should be some specific reason or strong motivation for joining a startup. Whether it is monetary, career growth, or personal fulfillment, it should be justifiable enough. Before joining a startup, ensure about your role, position, salary, job satisfaction, benefits, perks, etc., only then take the decision.
Is the risk of joining the startup worth taking?
There are many insecurities when you join a startup, and you should be mentally prepared to face them for a period of time. You should be completely aware that you will be leaving the job security of an established company to join a new company which has been recently initiated. Unless you are absolutely sure that the company will survive in all circumstances, do not join the startup.
Where has the startup reached when they are offering me a position?
An easy way to judge if the company will withstand for a long duration is to see its growth since its inception. If it has collected a number of good customers and orders, then the risk is worth taking. However, if you find that the company has not been able to build a considerable customer base or gain profits then you should think twice before joining them.
What will I redeem by joining a startup?
You have to realize that joining a startup will upset your work-life balance. You will be required to put in long hours of work everyday for a few years. On the other hand, it will give hands-on experience about all aspects of the business. It will serve as a great opportunity for learning, if you aspire to start something of your own someday. Apart from this, ensure that the monetary benefits are attractive enough as a startup tends to offer limited remuneration.
What about my job security?
It is important that you assess the backgrounds and personalities of the founders before you join them. It may happen that in the initial excitement they make promises which they may not stand by in the long run. Their commitment should not fizzle out when the business faces financial or competitive pressure. Many times, founders wrap up startups overnight and their employees bear the brunt as they are rendered jobless.
Do I have scope to grow in the organization?
Startups are often autocratic organizations, where the founders keep the reigns of the business in their own hands. It is not the best place as far as equal opportunity employment is observed. You may not be given career growth opportunities as promised before joining the organization. The founders may keep the managerial positions only for themselves, in spite of your capability and skills. So, ensure that the organization will allow you to grow.
How can it affect my personal and professional life?
Startups can be a very risky bargain and at times your salary may not come on time. It will affect your personal life, especially if you have a family to take care of. You will have to divert your full attention to the startup by working for late hours at a stretch and this will affect your family life. Moreover, you should also consider the fact that after working in a startup with little recognition, whether a well-established company will hire you again. Hence, it is important that you give a patient thought to the repercussions that working with a startup will have on your personal and professional life.
Always remember, working with a startup is risky but it also gives you an enriching experience. However, if you ask the right questions at the right time, you may not regret accepting or rejecting the offer of joining a startup. It is essential that you evaluate your prospects of working with a startup based on the answers given by the founders, and decide an option that works in your best interest.