Would you thrive in a startup? TechTalent February 24
28 Feb 2024 by Joel Hard

Would you thrive in a startup? TechTalent February 24

​The UK technology sector is vast and varied, but if there’s any kind of business that distils the unique excitement and appeal of the industry today, it’s the tech startup.

Startups provide outstanding opportunities for personal and professional growth, but they come with a degree of risk and aren’t for everyone. This is especially true today with our economy so volatile and global supply chains so delicately-balanced that promising startups can grind to a halt almost overnight. Tech innovation is rife with examples of stop-and-go, boom-and-bust; it is defined by opportunity and uncertainty, risk and reward.

Job-seekers considering whether to apply for roles with startups must be clear-headed about the opportunities and challenges they present. It’s something we take very seriously when we speak to candidates.

A mission, not a job

There is fabulous opportunity within startups. It’s been widely documented that younger generations of job-seekers are highly motivated by organisations with a mission and purpose that resonates with them (although this can be equally true for career-changers far deeper into their working life). Tech startups increasingly seek to address societal problems, so they appeal to people who want to work for an organisation aligned to their own values: those who want work to provide them with a purpose as much as a job.

For the right candidate the opportunities here will outweigh the risks of working in an organisation whose future is unclear. When we hire for startup clients, our job as recruiters is to be clear about the fundamental “why?” of a business, its potential to scale up, the culture and ethos candidates will be walking into, and what will be expected of them that might differ from a more established employer. Because this is where the culture of startups can feel very different.

A culture of risk...

Startups normally begin with a small team, no structure, no HR, fluid job descriptions (or none at all), a deep focus on customer needs or product purpose and a lot of tinkering and finessing. After what can be years at this stage, they may secure Series A funding, and it’s now that recruitment starts as the founders begin building a team. In this environment, new hires can progress rapidly.

Throughout these years, startups are volatile and vulnerable. Around 20% will fail in their first year, and 60% within their first three. About a third won’t make it from series A to series B funding rounds, but once there, they become much more secure; the failure rate falls to just over 1%. The most celebrated startups can be pushed to the brink by the vagaries of the supply chain—consider how Volta Trucks stalled due entirely to issues with its battery supplier—and then given new life by investors, as Volta, happily, has been by Luxor Capital Group.

Change is guaranteed in startups, and not always the welcome kind. Even those whose journey is relatively seamless have to make workforce adjustments repeatedly as they grow, their progress marked by periods of shedding and then hiring (or re-hiring) staff, continually readjusting and flexing. It can take a decade for a business to level out into something approaching the stability of an established business.

...and reward

A new employee in a startup can expect direct access to the founders, who are pretty likely to be either industry leaders or disruptors and possibly both. They are very likely to be energetic, inspired and inspiring. The organisational structure could be very flat, with a lot of autonomy. As a learning environment, startups are often intense and allow you to grow rapidly. Things are done quickly, problems and learnings widely-shared. There is often little or no micromanagement and you could well work outside of your job description...if you have one at all.

The accelerated learning curve within startup culture can be rewarded with accelerated career opportunities. I’ve seen a great startup employee achieve in five years what might have taken twenty to achieve in more established organisations. Good employees regularly achieve two promotions within three or four years in startups. And if they lose their jobs, they’re usually in demand. They’ve gained exposure and experience disproportionate to their tenure, whilst demonstrating qualities and a willingness to do it all, that any employer would want.

What does it take to thrive in a startup?

Great startup candidates are people with a passion for a mission that speaks to their own values, an opportunity to reap the rewards of hard work, and a desire for personal and professional growth. They must be comfortable with risk, very hard work and lack of demarcation: all things that are anathema to some. They must be believers. If you’re seeking a cosy 9-5, look elsewhere.

Remember: it’s challenging everywhere

Markets today are volatile and it’s not as if the alternative to startup culture is a guaranteed job for life. In recent years, even the most established manufacturers—we could name almost any—conspicuously open and close sites, resource and then cancel huge new programmes, make sizable layoffs, secure funding from new sources and re-hire.

The urgency and demand for continuous improvement and change in technology is far greater than it was twenty years ago. Engineering is now addressing some of the most important humanitarian, social and environmental issues that we face as a species. With their ambition, commitment and willingness to take risks in order to drive change, startups are thrilling. More than that: they are essential.

What caught our attention this month

Two innovative technologies are going head-to-head in the race to power zero-emission vehicles. But will hydrogen fuel cells surpass batteries?

Could conversational AI be a solution to loneliness?


Subscribe to our LinkedIn Newsletter, TechTalent, for news and opinions from the frontline of tech recruitment.