Look before you leap: A practical guide for those who want to work in startups

Startups have undeniably fueled global economic growth over the last 30 years. In Africa, success stories like Paystack, Moniepoint, and Piggyvest have demonstrated the value startups can create. The irresistible allure of startups, driven by their achievements, entices many to join their ranks.

However, here’s the question, “is everyone truly cut out to work in a startup?”

Focusing on successful startups alone is like admiring a pretty, healthy child without acknowledging the traumatizing birthing experience for the mother and the challenging journey that led to their growth. Startups can be likened to sperm cells; billions of them are produced but only very few are fertilized and end up becoming children. In the same vein, startups emerge from a myriad of ideas, yet only a fraction possess the potential to flourish and only a handful of passionate individuals believe so deeply in their viability that they bring these ideas to life as companies. 

Startups are built on rocky ground

Building a startup is extremely hard and the odds of success are strikingly low . Statistics show that 90% of startups fail. The stories we hear of successful startups are compelling, but the incredibly painful journey and exhaustive effort behind their success often remain untold — after all, these stories don’t exactly fit the glamorous narrative. 

For job aspirants, it’s easy to romanticize startups, envisioning young people like them accomplishing remarkable things. They believe in their own potential and aspire to contribute meaningfully to the cause. Or it could even be that their pastor told them they’re destined for greatness and they want in on that ASAP. 

Work-life balance who? Sorry, she doesn’t work here!

Reality check: over 95% of individuals who join a startup without a clear understanding of the demands end up regretting their decision. Note, this doesn’t imply that 95% of startup employees experience regret, but rather those who plunge into the startup world unaware. So, a word of advice— people, do your research! However, since you’re already here, let me be nice and give you a glimpse into what lies ahead. 

Imagine running up a moving escalator that’s heading down.

Yes, that’s exactly what building and working in a startup feels like —exhilarating if you make it to the top, yet spectators don’t understand your struggles and some may even think you’re crazy for trying.

Now, back to my analogy on startups and child-rearing. Working in a startup is a lot like raising a baby; they’re cute and they coo, and people love to look at them and pinch their cheeks but the reality behind closed doors is far from ideal. They pee, poo whenever, scream like banshees, fall ill a lot and don’t grow fast enough.They demand an enormous amount of effort but most of that stuff, however, isn’t visible to outsiders.

Working in a startup is immensely challenging. Work-life balance? That idea might need to take a backseat, at least in the initial stages. If you try to balance work and personal life in a startup, you won’t be successful in either; you’ll struggle at work and your life won’t be balanced. And that’s not a curse.

Hold on, before you come for me,I’m not discrediting the importance of work-life balance. Eventually, the “child” will grow up and maybe even end up taking care of the parent; but there’s an initial stage of dedication that’s necessary for the future well-being of all involved.That’s the same way it is with a startup. There’s no work-life balance at the early stages; not until the startup achieves stability and success and grows enough to accommodate it. 

Much like parenting, a startup becomes your life, but only temporarily.  If you grind hard at it and the start up becomes successful, then you have the chance to be recompensed for all you put in. Ask any parent who sacrificed for their children’s future—their sacrifice pays off over time.

Reality check: leave startups alone if this is you

Let’s pause and answer a brief questionnaire:

  • Do rigid boundaries and structured roles appeal to you? – If you were employed to do A, you must not be asked to do B.
  • Do you struggle with health issues like high blood pressure, etc.?
  • Can you work and adapt quickly to rapid changes?
  • Can you handle high-pressure situations?

If you answered yes to any of the first two questions and no to the last two, please go back home; working in a startup isn’t for you.

Startups aren’t for the faint-hearted

The glory of a successful startup is enviable but one has to be fully aware of what it takes to get there. It’s unfair, deceptive and downright reckless to enter a startup if you don’t have the mental fortitude required. You will definitely fail and maybe even endanger the entire company if you fail epically enough. 

It’s equally misguided to request a founder to slow down for the sake of your work-life balance. Doing so could spell doom for the startup.You either agree to do that mad job to raise the startup ‘child’ or don’t get into it. It can destroy you if you don’t have the fortitude to get through it. 

I’m not trying to glorify pain, I’m simply telling what it takes to build something great.

So what do you do if you get in and realize you can’t cope with it? Leave!  The nature of the startup won’t change to accommodate your preferences. If the startup slows down for you to give you that time you want, that startup will die a miserable death. You have to ask yourself: do you want to leave the job or do you want to destroy the company? There’s no other way. If an alternative exists other than full commitment, then it’s not a startup.

Startups aren’t the only fertile ground for greatness …

As much as I’ve spoken about how much strength and determination it takes to thrive in a startup, does this mean you can only achieve greatness in a startup? Not at all.

If you’re good at your job and are responsible with what you do, you can find yourself work in an established organization and build an awesome career. For instance, if you work in a bank, that means the possibility of getting promoted every two years with a salary bump and if you’re diligent, you move up faster. The same applies to opportunities for growth and advancement if you decide to work for the government.

The point is that you don’t need to contort yourself to fit in a startup or try to disrupt the workflow there, you can go somewhere else your talents are appreciated and you can truly shine. What is it they say, go where you’re loved (as you are)? Yes, do that.

… But here’s the greatness you can achieve in a startup

I do hope I’ve not tarnished the image of startups as modern-day boogeymen. Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s greatly rewarding. Now, let’s address the question: “What’s in it for me if I commit to a startup?” The short answer: fulfillment and financial success.

You know that feeling you get when you finally get that broken thing in your house to work again after trying for what felt like forever? Just hold on to that feeling and multiply it tenfold.That’s the bliss and pride that surfaces when a startup finally overcomes its challenges and breaks into success. 

In a startup, solving the problems might feel a lot like having to find the right key to unlock say 5 doors from a bowl containing 156 different keys. And no, the keys aren’t labeled or tagged. So it’s only fair those who are around long enough to make it work win and win big. 

For those who stay and decide to build a startup to success, no one can take away the satisfaction of conquering a million and one obstacles. Also, unlike most established organizations, startup employees handle huge amounts of responsibility and are able to see a more direct relationship between their decisions and the impact on the company and customer satisfaction.

If ever there was a “Jack of all trades, master of one, novice of none”, it’ll probably be in reference to startup employees. The solutions required in a “baby” company are varied and often require employees to know a lot about everything in addition to their core area of expertise.This presents a unique opportunity for both wider and deeper learning and what the younger employees may not have in years of experience, they make up for in depth of experience. It’s little wonder that startup employees are often rewarded with a stake in the company. 

Finally, for the million dollar question, “will I get my life back?” The answer is a big fat YES. Work-life balance will come naturally when the bulk of the work has been done and dusted and all that’s left is to watch the company flourish. The great thing is by this time, most of the stuff works on autopilot anyway but that’s only because you already poured blood, sweat and tears to make it great.

New beginnings are wonderful, but we can’t get carried away with the pretty stories and forget that it’s back-breaking labor that births greatness.