Working for a newly minted company can be very different from working for an established, well-known organization. It’s true that joining a startup can be a fun, smart, and even life-changing experience. While not all startups have the presence and ambience (or the budgets) of sexy industry giants (Google and the likes), and not all are run by a visionary leader who will put you on the fast-track to success, they will offer you a unique opportunity to learn the ins and outs of building an organization from the ground up while you grow along with it.
Having the chance to intern at StartupX, not only have I learnt about how to build a company — raising money, utilising marketing channels, and finding customers and sponsors to state a few — but also about what it takes to join a startup and help build it into a large, successful organization.
One thing I can say for sure is that working for a startup is attractive — sometimes magnetically so. You’d find their job descriptions include phrases like “flexible working hours”, “casual, fun office environment” and “room for rapid growth and advancement.” And the number one expectation in a startup is of you to be proactive (at least that’s how it is for mine) — and of course productive.
But before you dive into this world, it’s of utmost importance to know what you’re getting yourself into to make an informed decision on whether a startup is the right fit for you. Given that it is my first time working in a startup, there are certain limitations to what I can advise you on, so here lies my personal opinions and thoughts stemmed from my experiences at StartupX and other corporates.
Startups provide opportunities but carry certain risks.
By comparison, from my last experience in a larger, more established organization, corporations have complex reporting relationships and defined lines of authority. At the start you just have to do what you’re assigned to do, no questions asked — unless you can’t understand. Some people might work better in such environments. However, if you’re like me and enjoy taking on new challenges, a startup can give you a great deal of experience to accelerate your learnings.
After getting the chance to intern in this industry, I’ve discovered that working in a startup is a voyage of self-discovery — a unique experience. By wearing many hats, you gain invaluable insights into where your real interests and talents lie. Although at times you have to master new responsibilities and meet unforeseen challenges, and be able to adapt swiftly — in other words, getting dragged out of your comfort zone and thrown into a war zone. So working for a startup has a lot of unexpected changes and responsibilities you have to deal with compared to a corporate.
Being able to intern at startups allowed room for more ownership in the things I do, lesser restrictions on my creativity, and faster approvals as well as tips from experienced colleagues in case I mess up. While I was placed in charge of marketing for Startup Weekend Singapore 2020 (SWSG2020), I had the biggest say when coming up with the overall marketing plan and publicity efforts. And since there were no restrictions on branding, colours and overall flow, I had a larger creativity space — a special chance to come up with literally anything that makes sense and aligns with the event. I was given the chance to trial and error while marketing for a well-known event page and that was something none of my classmates currently working in corporates gets to experience. It was a thrilling experience engraved in me that I’d brag about anytime when asked of my experience while interning at a startup — especially where you get to do things you normally wouldn’t.
That said, Startups can be unstable and definitely risky. In fact, most of them will fail. The road to success is different for everyone — succeed on the first few tries, or succeed after the umpteenth time. And succeeding equates to standing atop a mountain of (startup) corpses. Even if the company doesn’t go under and disappear, there may be gaps in funding or resources that can lower or suspend pay. At that point, are you confident enough to say that no matter how many failures your company faces, you wouldn’t give up till the very last moment and switch to a more stable job?
Take note that there is no growth without discomfort. They are tightly coupled and any unpleasant circumstance offers opportunities for growth. You can be placed in charge of Public Relations when you truly wanted Advertising and Marketing (like the company I was initially assigned to for my internship), and you may not have a say in that decision, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Just think of it as honing another skill of yours that might be useful in your next company, you’d never know when it’ll come in handy!
Failing, being held to account, or striving for something slightly out of reach are common situations you will face while working in this industry as well. You might even find your personal goals and passion lost along the way like I was accountable for designs during SWSG2020. There’s writer’s block, so having a designer’s block isn’t that surprising, right? Especially when there’s a restriction in the amount of time given and little prior experience in it — you’ll be filled with uncertainties, fear, and anxiety. Naturally, people with different characteristics will feel and experience different things, but that’s how it is in life — there’s no ups without downs. And perhaps you’d even have a little existential crisis moment — like why am I doing this, what do I like, and so on. It’s not that surprising as I had friends who went through that during their internship at startups based around the world. The startup industry is a harsh and unrelenting environment (but extremely rewarding), and it is the epitome of the phrase, survival of the fittest.
Freedom that comes with the price tag of responsibility.
Perhaps one of the many startup benefits you will enjoy is job satisfaction. It’s something deeply personal and you will feel a special connection as you witness the growth and success of your company, and the things that you’re tasked to be in charge of. No matter how small it may seem, your contribution to the company is valued, and you’ll naturally feel proud of it. Like when I managed to get 10 people to like SWSG2020’s Facebook page during a no event period — perhaps it’s a small step, but there’s still enough progress compared to the rest of the weeks to be called an achievement. Combining that with a vibrant working environment, it can be a pretty good place to be at compared to a 9–5 job with close to no certainty for future advancements due to its deeply rooted competitive environment.
However, behind the fun and hype of startups, there is a great amount of dedication and responsibility required from each employee. Afterall, startups aren’t for slackers. Most startups don’t even have a clear-cut working hour, and the difference between the work-week and weekend are a blur — especially to the founders. I’ve seen them working nearly every single day just to make sure they grab every chance they can to increase their company value. And depending on how diverse your teammates’ skillsets are, at times it becomes harder to get days off when there are a lot of things dependent on you. So in the end, you could say that you end up married to the job.
Building a business from the ground up takes a significant amount of passion and dedication. Hours are often odd as well, seldom sticking to the 9–5 as you push yourselves to launch an event, build a customer base, or accomplish multiple jobs. It was something I hadn’t experienced before and it caused a few internal struggles. Failure is the most common thing for startups, and the need for quick, early and impactful wins can accelerate stress and urgency — eventually leading to emotional distress. So if you’re not prepared for working beyond 9–6 even on weekends, startups might not be the right place for you.
You’ll learn a lot, and at an alarming rate, as long as you can adapt well.
Your time spent in a startup will teach you things two to five times faster than a corporate position. If you’re in a startup that has a smaller team, it’d mean more responsibility for the team members. Sometimes you’ll even find that you may be the only person with a certain skill set, and therefore responsible for the whole division — like I was during SWSG2020. Back then, with the team having only 11 members to help with the publicity and etc. , I had to be in charge of nearly all the designing tasks and a little bit of everything else during the event itself — as extra help came only during those 3 days of the event. And I wasn’t prepared for this at all — it’s a completely different experience from what I’ve learnt thus far in school and while working on projects with advertising agencies like Leo Burnett and Strategic Digitalab. Having to come up with a series of designs and the overall theme for the event within a short amount of time was something that I’ve never thought I’d be doing prior to joining a startup, but the process gets better and faster as the day goes by — with the help and encouragement of my colleagues so the stress wasn’t too overwhelming. And in exchange for the motivation and discipline leading towards the event and till it ends, I experienced a profound sense of accomplishment together with the team when we achieved successful outcomes that went beyond our initial expectations.
So as the business grows, your responsibility grows with it. It’s something that you normally wouldn’t get to experience other than being in a startup. But the downside to this is that there will be an overwhelming amount of stress and expectations pinned on you. It’s also totally possible that the role you were hired for will look completely different after a few months, and you’ll have no choice but to learn as you go, and as the company grows. But you will definitely be working closely with skilled entrepreneurs, who are often uniquely driven and creative, and that means you get to observe your colleagues and company leadership at a close proximity.
Unlike seasoned companies that are hierarchy focused and have well-defined processes and procedures and hundreds of employees conditioned to repeat the same routine day after day, startups make changes quickly. Things like titles, assignments, and project plans are changed more frequently than you’d think — as long as it’s proven to be not viable at that point of time, the project will be scrapped. And at the start-up I work for, you can be working as a programme manager at one point, but in a split second you’ll be on calls for business developments.
I guess in summary, being in a corporate would mean having less flexibility during the early stages of your career, more competition, a rigid schedule, lesser say in the things you do, and a stricter process — while a startup is the opposite. Hence, you have to be very comfortable with the culture of chaos — something that you either have to get used to immediately, or at least survive from the changes. That was one of the things I learnt and experienced the hard way during SWSG, the first event I participated in at StartupX. You have to be on standby and adapt quickly to meet the short deadlines given, and the success or failure of the publicity efforts is dependent on how capable you are of adjusting.
The constant change can be frustrating and hard to cope with, especially when you’re just getting acclimated to the place or if you’ve come from a company entrenched in its ways. But to succeed at a startup, you need to embrace chaos.
There’s always a fun and energetic vibe at startups that gives off a sense of freedom, but building a successful business, customer base, and a company that leaves an impact requires a never-ending amount of patience and perseverance.
I entered my internship semester based in an industry I was completely unfamiliar with, and I didn’t have many friends at that point of time that had experience working in startups before to consult with — the only one with experience was from my part-time job. I have to admit I wasn’t that excited initially, I glamorized corporates to the point of giving little thoughts to the startup industry which I only had interest in during my first year of Polytechnic. So I had to be prepared for the unexpected. Prior to the interview, I had done a fair share of research on things to expect, look out for, and experiences from various writers — and it relit the passion I had for the industry. It’s been four months since I started interning at a startup and thus far, I have no regrets — rather, thankful for the opportunity. Working at a startup had been a magical time, and it is no doubt a whip that strengthens your foundations and abilities by whacking you out of your comfort zones and throwing you into a jungle. But don’t be misled by the previous sentence, I’d opt in to join a startup as an intern again given the opportunity to.
Working in a startup is definitely not for everyone, but it is definitely a good experience to have as the things you’d learn would be so much more — just keep in mind to relax as the stress could be overwhelming to some. Two things I observed based on what my classmates mentioned was that being in a corporate would mean exchanging freedom for stability and an indefinite amount of time to get a promotion.
So what are the first few things you look for when considering a job opportunity? Is it the salary, benefits, career growth, company culture, work-life balance, or something entirely different? If job stability and higher compensation are the most important factors for you, then don’t make that move (or switch) to join a startup. But if you want instant recognition for your work, an opportunity to gain new skills quickly, or even a chance to build on your foundations, it is definitely for you.
After getting a glimpse of how it’s like working at a startup, what are your thoughts? Would you still like to take up the challenge like I did, or would you prefer a safer route as a result?
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