Size Matters: What to Expect Working at a Start-up

Size Matters: What to Expect Working at a Start-up

In this struggling economy where one may be forced to accept a position with any size business, understanding the differences inherent in working at a start-up, small, or large company sets expectations and diminishes frustration. Size does matter.

Start-up Companies

Working for a start-up company is sexy and exciting, filled with endless possibilities. The path is new and uncluttered with corporate politics and a muddied company history. For the newcomer, it’s a blank page waiting to be filled. Because it is unchartered territory, it’s also pretty scary. There are many questions to consider prior to signing on with a newly formed or young company. Before taking the great leap, it would be wise to consider a few of the following topics.


Risk tolerance

Risk tolerance is generally associated with finances and investment opportunities, or the risk a person is willing to take with their money. However, it can be applied to one’s life in a broader sense, and should be prior to hiring into a start-up firm. An easy way to determine one’s risk tolerance is to answer a basic mortgage question. Which is more preferable – a 30-year fixed or a 7-year balloon? Does the thought of the unknown at the end of a 5, 7, or 10-year balloon cause heart palpitations and shortness of breath? The response is a good indication of one’s ability to withstand risk.

It is, therefore, imperative to ask the question, “What is my ability to withstand uncertainty?”

Cash Flow

It’s a difficult subject to raise but it is to essential know if there is enough capital on hand to pay employees and to keep the company solvent. Knowing how the company intends to pay its employees is important information. If there is cash in the bank, it should last long enough to cover costs until income begins. Is there a line of credit that is available to pay the company’s bills? The response might be there are investors looking into the company. Investors are wonderful, but they need to be on board with checks written prior to joining a new business.

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There are a couple issues surrounding people that need to be addressed. A start-up company is the idea of one or more founders. Think of it as their baby. The founders’ personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and their own tolerance for risk determine how they will get along when the going gets rough, as it will for any company. With few people on board, it’s critical to know if their personalities mesh with one’s own. There’s not a place of refuge in a small organization and no other department to transfer to if there is conflict.

Because the employee’s are few, it is necessary to determine if a person will get along with team. New companies require a lot of work and long hours. It is critical to know if these are people one wants to spend a considerable amount of time with.


With cash flow concerns, most new companies offer scaled down benefits. Ask the questions, “Can you live with the benefits that are offered?” For some people, it’s not a problem, but for others it is. The company may not offer 401K plans or retirement or health insurance. They offset this with the offer of stock options. Tolerance for risk pops up here too. In the long run, the payoff on a start-up company can be great. The question is can one make it to the payoff when and if it occurs.


  • Excitement
  • Potential to earn money with stock options
  • Ability to create and direct one’s job
  • Opportunity for career change
  • Opportunity to join with visionaries
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  • Company survival
  • Reduced benefits
  • Loss of job due to company merger or acquisition
  • Reduced benefits

Each size company has its own personality quirks, flavor, strengths, and weaknesses. Knowing what to expect from each size business along with a good dose of self-knowledge will go a long way toward contributing to job satisfaction. Understanding and assessing the pros and cons prior to accepting a position will help diminish frustration and lead to a satisfactory job search.


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