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Want to Work for a Start-Up? Here’s Where to Begin

Start-ups have taken the corporate world by storm. Trying to dive right in? Here's how to start.

We’ve reached the end of the social-contract era, when employees worked for the same company their entire career and then retired on a fat pension. Today’s market rewards risk and flexibility. In short, it’s the perfect time to leave a dead-end job at a major corporation and move to a start-up company, but what a scary step that is. Are you ready to take the plunge?

Keeping my current job is just as risky.
The truth is, no one’s job is safe these days, no matter where you work, so now might be the perfect time to take a gamble on what could be a great career move.’s Monica O’Brien argues that with so many companies changing hands in the public sector and going under in the private sector, there’s practically no job security anymore. “You may as well work where you want and stop worrying,” she writes. “For many of us young go-getters, that’s a startup.”

After all, if the start-up you work for flops, you won’t be left high and dry. “Sure it’s tough to see something you worked so hard at fail, but you’re awesome and you will find another job easily.” O’Brien’s reasoning is that start-ups don’t hire losers; if you can get one job, you can get another one, because you’ve already proven that you’re dedicated, smart, and great at personal branding. They can take your salary away, but not your skill set. Plus, with one start-up under your belt, you’ve got a stellar résumé and connections for finding another position.

I want to move on up.
The corporate structure used to be linear: you’d start in an entry-level position and work your way up toward the top. Now, though, the career path is not so straight. O’Brien compares the playing field now to a football game in which lots of different plays can score a touchdown.

The only surefire way to get to the top is to start your own business, and for that you need experience. Where better to observe an emerging company than at a start-up? You’ll be able to watch the process of developing ideas, securing revenue, and marketing, with the added experience of being able to contribute your own talents and energy. You’ll see what works and what doesn’t, and build a strong network of your own along the way. So when you head out on your own, you’ll already know the ropes.

I want coworkers who are as interesting as I am.
Again, start-ups don’t hire losers, because they can’t afford dead weight. The people who go to work for them are mavericks, with plenty of passion and enough intelligence to turn their ideas into realities. Chances are, you won’t be twiddling your thumbs in your cubicle. Just think about how fun it would be to work at Google, which was a start-up, too, once upon a time.

Just make sure you’re the personality type who enjoys this kind of unpredictable, demanding environment and the people who thrive in it. David Segal, writing for the New York Times, argues that all entrepreneurs are crazy, but in a good way. He reports on the work of John D. Gartner, a psychologist and author of The Hypomanic Edge. Gartner’s theory is that most entrepreneurs are hypomanic.

“It’s about degrees,” says Gartner. “If you’re manic, you think you’re Jesus. If you’re hypomanic, you think you are God’s gift to technology investing.”

Segal also quotes Paul Maeder, a general partner at Highland Capital: “There are six billion human beings on this planet, we’ve been around for hundreds of thousands of years, we’re a couple hundred years into the industrial revolution—and nobody has done what you want to do? It’s kind of crazy.”

The kind of environment in which a hypomanic thrives would send a nonhypomaniac spiraling into a nervous breakdown. So make sure you know which one you are.

On second thought ...
Then again, if you’re not in a position to take a pay cut right now, or if retirement sounds like a good idea, there’s no shame in playing it safe (as much as any of us can these days). Most small businesses that are still trying to establish themselves won’t be able to pay you the same salary as a large company can, and the benefits vary widely, depending on where you work. While young, single people might be able to afford the conditions of a start-up job, in hopes that the company will take off some day, older workers with kids at home would be smart to consider a move to a start-up much more carefully. After all, in such a competitive marketplace, there’s no guaranteeing that great idea will pay for little Johnny’s college education.

Start Thinking
The economic trends that favor start-ups right now will probably continue, so if now is not the time for you, you probably won’t lose too much by taking a few more years to consider the move from a larger, established corporation to a smaller, nontraditional company. Then again, working for a start-up is all about the risk, so why not take that leap right now?


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