Why do people love working for tech startups - because they sound terrible.

I’ve worked for a wide variety of companies over the years, including a number of tech startups, and I’m trying to wrap my brain around why people love working for them. Ratings on Glassdoor.com are often 5 stars and people I have worked with have consistently been like “I love working here”. But when you objectively look at the compensation, hours, culture and other factors, often based on the comments of those same employees, they sound like horrible places to work.

From various postings on Glassdoor.com and my own observations and experience:

Startups are typically run by a relatively inexperienced inner circle of management who maintain absolute control over the company.

Hours are obscenely long, often requiring late nights, weekends, holidays and long marathon stretches of no sleep.

They are typically extremely critical cultures, demanding people constantly “exceed expectations” whatever that means.

Most aren’t particularly well run or well managed.

Compensation is nothing special, at least not compared to larger companies employing similar individuals.
Honestly, it seems almost like a cult / abuse victim / Stockholm syndrome mentality. These companies hire bright kids, constantly telling them how bright everyone working there is for working there. Abuse them with long hours, absurd deadlines and “flat organizations” with not much upward advancement. Constantly harass anyone who complains or falls out of line by telling them they are not “meeting expectations” and that they need to work harder. And yet the employees “love” working there? What is it they love? Wearing T-shirts to work and playing fooseball in the break room?

Not in the tech industry, but my WAG: there is a chance for a huge payoff by being at the ground floor and there is a sense of helping build something from scratch.

Part of my job is traveling to countries and starting up new projects. It starts with a handful of people working in a hotel and (hopefully) ends with a humming beehive of efficiency. During that start up phase, you work obscene hours, but it is kind of fun. There is a comradery amongst the staff that you won’t have once the project gets larger and it’s nice to feel that your actions and decisions have a larger than normal impact on outcomes.

I worked a biotech startup so maybe the culture was a little different.

I enjoyed the ability to guide the overall direction of projects, and the company as a whole. We had the freedom to try new approaches to novel problems.

I worked, in part, for equity. Got the whole “ownership” mentality going on. The pay sucked. It was eat beans out of a can because I couldn’t afford anything else level of suckage. But it worked out well in the end due to equity.

Flat organizational structure. Loved it. Advancement was only by moving the company as a whole forward.

Well, there have been some start ups that get bought and employees (who got paid mostly in shares) suddenly become gazillionaires.

But some also work there beacuse they believe in “the cause” - whatever the company is making.


I think you are missing the fact that most workers are young and without a family to support(which sorry changes everything) so yes they will absolutely trade tangible benefits for workplace culture that is looser. Everyone else including management is culturally close to your own values, don’t have to worry an errant comment will cause you to lose your job. Management is forgiving of stuff like drinking and other drug use, hell they might use with you!

I think this is correct. Partly there is the hope of a big payoff when the company goes public or perhaps when it’s acquired. And also as the company grows, you can move up the management chain perhaps more quickly than you could in an established company. (As an example, look at Marissa Mayer. She was employee number 20 at Google and rose to a vice presidency in her thirteen years at Google. Recently of course, she took the top job at Yahoo.)

The son of a friend of mine decided before he finished college that he wanted to work for a startup. Presumably because of the possibility of a huge payoff. He got a job with one–it led nowhere although the company may still be limping along. He is now working the anti-startup Apple. I assume he is well-paid, but he will say nothing, even to his father about his job or pay. “You talk, you walk” appears to be the unofficial (or maybe official) slogan there. Microsoft (where my son works) is a lot more open. He even wrote a self-published book about his first ten years there. They didn’t object.

I’ve only ever owned a start-up so my direct experience is limited to brainwashing enthusiastic young employees - I’ve never had it done to me. However, I disagree with several of your observations.

Good start-ups are run by experienced managers who know their industry/product and have experience working at other start-ups. If you work for a bad start-up of course your job might suffer for it, but that’s equally true of working for an old private family-owned business run by an idiot. You can work for a large public company and if you get into a division that has poor managers your job might suck just as much.

That’s something most ambitious young professionals expect at any job. New hires at big law firms, public accounting firms and investment banks all work the same hours and they’re like anti-start-ups in most other respects.

I’m not seeing why this would be a negative. I guess if I was looking for a receptionist job I’d rather work for a dermatologist’s office than a technology start-up. But if I’m looking for an engineering position that’s part of the core team I’d much rather be challenged than the opposite.

I’d say that in terms of an employee’s day to day experience that is MUCH more of a problem at large companies.

Exactly. You don’t like how a big company does something, you write a memo, which is usually ignored. You don’t like how a startup does something, you say “Hey, Mark! I need to talk to you.”

You don’t have the accesses you need at a startup, you say “Hey Mark! I need to talk to you.”

You don’t have the accesses you need at a company that’s the biggest in its sector worldwide, coping over 60% of the market in all countries but one… well, some of my end-users still don’t have the accesses they need 3 weeks after go-live, and part of the issue is that nobody is sure who can authorize it. :smack::smack::smack::smack::smack: etc.

I’ve had jobs where any time we spent at work had immediately pinpointable results. I could say “this data I spent 2h crossing has saved us 20h of loading unnecessary data”.

I’ve had others where 90% of the time was spent looking busy. Worse, I’ve had jobs where we were required to be at work for 6x12h/wk when most of us simply had nowhere near enough work for that.

After a 14-16h day of the first, I’d get home energized, ready to do laundry, cook the next day’s lunch and kill a few illegal aliens* before tucking in. After 12, 10 or even 8h of the second I’d be ready to scream. If startups are more like the first, I sure can see the charm.

  • Civ. Anybody who’s not my citizen is not under my legal system and therefore illegal. They need to be rescued from their situation.

My husband worked for one right out of college, and it worked out well.

Pros: He started at an entry-level tech position and was promoted very quickly, so he ended up with a much better job than he probably would have otherwise. It was a great resume boost as a result.

He ended up telecommuting almost exclusively, which was nice.

He liked working on something new and found the start-up culture to be exciting.

He wasn’t one of the original employees and the stock still gave us a nice down payment on our house.


He worked or was on call All The Time. Luckily, we were in our 20s and I was in school, so he had plenty of free time.

When the company was bought out and got a new CTO, the work environment changed vastly and he ended up quitting.

His base salary was kind of low, especially to start.

It was nerve-wracking from a job security standpoint until the company started gaining momentum.
Overall, it was a very positive experience for him and helped get him the more stable job he has now with a much larger company. The bonus of his current job is that the base salary is higher and the schedule more predictable.

Would he do it again? Now now, because we have a baby and he wants to see her grow up. He definitely misses it sometimes, though, and I think it can be a good deal for a young person without other commitments who is looking to gain experience. I will say that my husband didn’t experience the “cult like” culture you mentioned; in general, his supervisors at the startup seemed to be much more respectful than average until the company was acquired. I think that’s an individual personality thing.

I have worked for two tech startups. They both sucked AND blowed. The experience permanently soured me on them; apparently they are mostly investor scams–get as many $5 million rounds of funding as you can before you go belly up, pray you get bought before that happens.

Neither startup had a product or even a clear vision of what the product should be. They were just vehicles for moving money around.

The first ran out of money and stopped paying employees before they stopped having huge parties for their board members. They were investigated by whatever organization investigates these employe welfare questions, and ordered to start paying everybody minimum wage. I was gone by that time so I don’t know what they’re doing now.

The second one was conservative with their cash but still had no product or clear idea of what their product should be. They limped along twice as long as the first–but had three rounds of layoffs that cleaned out everyone who had gotten in at the ground floor and had a claim to stock options, except the board members. They were bought and gutted a year ago.

I know that anecdotes aren’t evidence and there are a few excellent startups that don’t freaking start up until they KNOW what they’re going to do or even have a product already. But yes, many of them are basically scams, and the people who “love” working there love it because of the easygoing culture at the beginning, and pathetic delusions that it will pay off big some day.

Is it so out of the realm of possibility that people like that culture? I personally find the Manhattan suit wearing, status driven, overgrown frat-boy culture pretty awful. I look at the consultants who come to my office and can’t for the life of me figure out how McKinsey and their ilk convinced bright, ambitious young people to spend their life living out of a suitcase. Is it just money and status?

Not everyone is motivated by money. A flat organization means there are less layers of bureaucracy to wade, and not everyone wants to climb the ladder. I think what most employees want is to do interesting work, and to make a product that they believe in. It’s viscerally satisfying, and you want to work the long hours to get it done. You also want to work with people as smart and as dedicated as you are. I have very high standards for myself. I sure as shit want my coworkers to meet or exceed expectations-- or GTFO. Who wants to work with dead weight?

Many people also find not having to wear uncomfortable clothing and being able to work flexibly (including downtime at your much-derided foosball table) a significant perk. You’d have to pay me 20% more to get me to go work somewhere I had to have a business wardrobe.

All that said, startups are a young (wo)man’s game, because they’re risky and unstable as hell. They can be awful, particularly when they go south (I once got laid off on Christmas Eve). On some levels it’s almost a right of passage-- my boss joked during my interview process that everyone in Silicon Valley has at least one dead company on their resume. You do it, you grow up, you take the plethora of experience you’ve gotten and go work somewhere with stable revenue and good health insurance.

I work for a huge company now. Though they do still let me do very interesting work, and make awesome things, and try to hang on to as much of that culture as they can.

Fair enough. You have good and bad managers at all kinds of companies.

Except I would say that at a larger company, there is at least some sort of consistency to the idiocy and it’s somewhat buffered by the organization as a whole. At a small startup, your career is much more closely tied to the whims of your boss’s “vision” and his personality quirks.

So basically what you are saying is that working at a startup sucks as bad as being a first year analyst at Accenture, Goldman Sachs, Cravath Swaine & Moore or Deloitte? Only without the resume-building name or career track to partner / MD?

Well first of all, it’s absurd. If your expect employees to constantly “exceed expectations”, then raise the expectations. Otherwise you are bitching at them for not wearing enough “flair”.

I like to be challenged too. However “challenging” people does not mean giving them impossible assignments and then treating them as if they aren’t working hard enough if they fail to complete them 100% according to (often uncomunicated) expectations.

I never noticed much difference. Other than at the startup, the lack of resources applified every bad management decision.

Provided Mark isn’t already putting out a dozen fires for someone else.

My experience with a start up is NOT in the tech field, so take that for what it’s worth.

I work for a large, traditional institution and had the opportunity to go work at a related startup for a year.

Man, it was a blast. Yes, we worked all the time - late nights, weekends, whenever, but it was a very small group handpicked to work well together. There were a lot of moments that seemed like something from a fakey fake sitcom about startup offices – late nights, ordering in diner food and beer, everyone getting goofy and witty and super creative.

The best part is that I got to work all the time, with nearly no supervision or limits. We didn’t HAVE policies, if I wanted to do something, I figured out the best way to do it and then that became the policy going forward. It was like doing all the best parts of my job without the stupid parts (waiting for approvals, submitting paperwork, cc’ing five million people on pointless memos that none of them will actually read but will be offended if they are left off, etc).

I will say that I appreciated the luxury of knowing that I had job security and that no matter the outcome, I was going back to my “real” job after a year. I am so glad I did it, having a year that was so different (but in the same field) ended up being a great refresher for me, the experience and knowledge gained has served me very well professionally. Even more, I had gotten to a point in my career where I was feeling a little a dull and clock punchy without realizing it, the mental change of scenery was so energizing and it carried over to my real job as well.

I wouldn’t work for a startup. I’ve worked at two small businesses that sustained themselves fine but then tried to introduce a startup into the mix and both times it tanked. The first time I got laid off because of it (I wasn’t even on the startup team, but someone needed to get axed for overhead!) and the second time the owner realized that two of us were the only people bringing in the money to support the startup, so he just tanked the startup instead.

I understand why some people do though. Twenty-somethings that still have a college, energy drink fuelled mentality love startups. There aren’t any processes in place, they just get to code to their heart’s content, no one telling them how to do it, and the company founder is enthusiastic about what they’re doing. It’s like an extension of school, but you get paid for it!

Then they get older, their priorities change, and they settle in for a more steady job. But that’s okay, because there’s never a shortage of new grads wanting to recreate The Social Network.

My God, I feel so jaded - and I’m only 25!

I worked at a tech startup for a while, and it was a really fun time in my life.

I think the biggest appeal is that you and your ideas can have a real impact on bringing something new and exciting into the world. In a larger organization, a young professional doesn’t have much of a chance of doing anything beyond routine work. It can take years of climbing the corporate ladder to be in a decision-making position- and even then your decisions are often just creating a tiny minuscule sliver of increased efficiency in what is probably a tiny minuscule department. Those rare chances to use creativity and do something really different are often reactionary, rather than visionary. There are times in my job now (with a larger organization) when I need to think outside of the box- but these are often about stamping out fires and trying to return things to business as usual, rather than trying to create something new. And when I do get to make creative changes, they often trickle through so much bureaucracy and so many competing interdepartmental interests that the end result isn’t really much to speak of.

But in a startup, everyone from the secretary to the CEO are a part of a creative, collaborative process that leads to quickly realized results. I worked in a administrative position, but sometimes I’d mention some random idea that popped into my head during the morning meeting, and it’d be up on the website and being actively used before close of business. That’s fun, and it builds a sense of camaraderie. The atmosphere is kind of like grad school- everyone is working too hard and not making much money, but you are having fun, stretching yourself, learning and doing really exciting things. Every day is something new, and you feel this great sense of possibility. Even if you don’t luck out and strike it rich, you can at least feel like you gave it your best shot.

Anyway, different strokes for different folks. People vary in how risk-averse they are, how creative they like their workplace, how motivated they are by money, etc.

On the other hand, at a large company you have virtually no chance of impacting the strategic direction of the company. At a start-up you should be able to make your voice heard. That’s a huge value to certain people, specifically people who gravitate toward start-ups. For some people feeling like a cog in a giant company is soul crushing, so to be able to work in an environment where you can make your case to the CEO is a big deal. Just making a difference is extremely valuable to a lot of people.

For instance, say you’re one of two developers the start-up has who are working on the new API product that’s a critical part of the company’s growth plan. Sure they could fire you and get a new developer. But you actually matter, and that’s very fulfilling to some people. A less chaotic office where you’re working on a new version of one of 400 products the company offers just isn’t an appealing alternative for everyone.

I was saying lots of young people expect to work extremely hard early in their career. None of those names you mentioned are good resume-builders for tech start-ups. If you want to work in start-ups you should seek start-up experience.

Well I never did that and I’ve never worked at another start-up. For what it’s worth, I did my start-up, pursued my dream. There’s no way I would work for somebody else’s. So as much as I’m defending working for a start-up I wouldn’t.

I think the difference is the lack of resources precludes there being much of a bureaucracy. If you’re annoyed by the company’s overall bad strategy then that’s fine, it’s a different story. But big companies are better at annoying you and distracting you from your day-to-day work, I think.

Do you really give every employee a chance of impacting the strategic direction of your company?

Maybe a kid right out of college should spend less time worrying about “making their voice heard” and more time learning how their company or industry actually works?

I found it distracting working for a startup and not being able to get the office phones to work because they weren’t set up properly. Or that my boss would bother me every 2 minutes with his latest “great idea” that was completly unrealistic. Or that I had to work for weeks with a laptop that blue screened every 20 minutes until the lone IT guy could finally get around to fixing it.
What seems to be a common theme is that startup folk think that the rest of corporate America is inept or irrelevant. And encouraging that sort of thinking is similar to what cults do. Cults tell their members how special they are for being part of a cult and how anyone outside of the cult wouldn’t understand or is actively against them. They reframe their message so that desiring working conditions that most people would consider reasonible - normalish hours, defined structure, career progression - are perceived as a weakness or character flaw.

I’m not even making this shit up. One company I worked for in the 90s actually provided a well known corporate book with entire chapters on creating a cult-like environment.

Not everyone wants or needs the structure and career progression that you value. You have an MBA and work as a consultant (right?) so you have a lot of interest in management, organizational structure, corporate strategy, etc. These are the things that get you wet about a company. And in your field, things like name value and career progression hold a lot of weight.

But a young person with an applied skill, like coding or design, doesn’t give a flying fuck about corporate structure and name value, as long as they are reasonably sure they’ll have some notice so they can get another job before the company folds. When you have a practical skill, what you need to do when you are young is to build up a really compelling portfolio of things you have done with that skill. And so the most attractive job is going to be the one that gives you the best opportunity to shine, to grow, and to take on increasingly impressive projects. Startups are a great way to go from "rookie coder’ to “demonstrated expert at X, Y and Z” Walking the rigid corporate ladder, going from “Assistant coder A” to “Assistant coder B” to “Associate coder A” is the long, slow, boring route to the same thing. Why spend five years going up the corporate ladder when you can walk into a startup after college and have the same title after a year and have a lot more freedom while doing it?

Eventually, you may want a corporate job and the stability that comes with that. But tech is not management consulting. You may have gone to MIT, worked for Microsoft for five years, and put in all your dues, but Google isn’t going to hire you unless you can show that you have done some pretty badass things with code. Likewise, your formal experience may be limited to “messing around with the computer in my basement”, but if you can back that up with the work you have done, you may well be able to get yourself hired to a high-level position. I have friends in high-level positions with good companies who walked in with nothing but half-assed expereince at no-name companies (and great examples of their skills). Unlike management consulting, people in tech are not going to face much discrimination from spending some time with small, shaky startups. It’s a part of the culture, and it’s expected. It’s where people get their chops.

Again, you are comparing apples and oranges. Big consulting firms only hire from a select group of elite universities. Tech firms actively encourage people to drop out of college and get their hands dirty starting businesses (seriously- there is a tech leader who is offering 100k to promising students to drop out of college.) Big consulting firms rely on a rigid merit structure because if you walk up to a major company and say “Hey, I’m a badass consultant and you should hire me” they just aren’t going to believe you- you get your credibility by working up the ranks. But a coder has some real, tangible deliverables to back up their claims, so they are less reliant on having an impeccible career record. Technical jobs lean more towards being skill based meritocracies, rather then being relient on networks and impressive credentials. So people are going to value where they can use their skills, not what has the biggest name value.