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

I’ve worked at two companies that were probably technically just beyond the true start-up phase, but still had a lot of the same people, management and thinking. I am now working for a Fortune 100 Pharmaceutical with tens of thousands of employees.

And I’m actively looking to go back.

Working for a start-up gave me some great benefits that I’m now actively comparing to the huge organization I’m in now.

  1. The employees here are mediocre. There are some solid people who know what they’re doing, but there are many, many more people who seem like they’re just here taking up space. Trying to get simple things like a 1-page HTML-based, nothing complicated landing page made through our development dept could take as long as a week … and it would be screwed up. The other two start ups - it would have been done same day, and done correctly. (And no, it’s not simply because of queue time).

Or, to put in different terms - A+ employees like to be surrounded by other A+ employees. You don’t get that in big bureaucracies where B-level and C-level employees can “hide” for years. In a start up environment, if you can’t keep up, you get let go for someone who can. Start ups simply can’t afford to keep someone useless on the books.

  1. Bureaucracy. This company I’m in now has something like 40k employees worldwide. Trying to get a website hosted is atrocious. I can’t even tell you who these people are or who they report to. They sit in a different office that’s 20 miles away (and it might as well be the other side of the planet). There’s no responsiveness and there’s no one I can track down to call.

At the two start ups, on a huge number of occassions I could simply walk over to the head of IT and tell him my problem (or to be less intrusive, shoot him an email or leave a voicemail) and it’d get solved. Or the site would be hosted. Or hell, they’d give me the ability to access the webservers and host the site. Things got done quickly and didn’t have to go through 4 levels of checks and 3 weeks of “committee/guidance” meetings.

  1. Advancement. In the one start up, I went from a mid-level individual contributor to a team lead to a dept manager to the director of a couple departments, within about 3 1/2 years. At the same time, my salary almost doubled. In the large company I’m in now, I’ll be lucky if I get promoted once in the next 2 years … and if the economy doesn’t affect the company, I can look forward to 3% raises until I I quit.

If you’re a good employee, a start up can recognize that and reward you accordingly with promotions or bonus money or raises. A large bureaucracy? Not so much.

And then, as has been mentioned above, there’s always the possibility the start up gets bought or goes public and suddenly everyone’s rich.

We’ve got that here at the moment as part of the PDR process (although we’re not a tech startup) and it’s really weird bullshit.
Management actually issued a statement saying “We expect most people to be exceeding expectations”.
What they really mean is “We’re going to rate everyone on a five-point scale, which goes: Shit, Mediocre, OK, Brilliant, Outstanding, and it’s not OK just to be ‘OK’”

(which in itself is contradictory, but these things always are - “Acceptable” actually means “substandard”; “satisfactory” actually means “somehow less than satisfactory”)

The problem with that belief is that many organizations grow like trees…which means they grow upward fast but the individual part of the tree stays the same distance above the ground. When people realize this, they leaveto be replaced by another recent grad idealistic.

Also worth noting is that not everyone has the knowledge, qualifications and/or luck to be employed by a larger firm. In other words, these startup reviews may be comparing them to something like working at a low end tech support call center, rather than comparing them to working for Microsoft on an accelerated management track. On the grand perspective, it’s the relatively rare 22 year old that has the long-term vision, focus, and previous qualifications (top school, excellent internships, etc.) that leads to the career track with a major company directly out of college. No doubt you saw a lot of these career-saavy, well-qualified and ambitious young professionals in your MBA program and subsequent employement, but that’s a self-selecting group that doesn’t reflect most people’s experiences. Lots of recent grads are still drifiting career wise, and may just be happy to have a job in their field. If that job doesn’t overtly suck, they’ll probably be over the moon about it.

I don’t think this is neccessarily a reflection on the intellegence of the individuals, either. I grew up in a blue/pink collar family where “ambition” meant getting an entry level government job and sitting on it until retirement. I had never been close to someone who had a professional career, and I was in one of those situations where you just don’t know what you don’t know. I didn’t have a concept in my head for “get recruited by a large organization.” I didn’t know that happened, and I had no realistic way of knowing it.

In reality, people who think they are “A+ performers” like to be surrounded by people who coddle them and provide validation that they are, in fact, special A+ people. That sort of hyper-responsive, “drink from the firehouse”, OCD workstyle sort of works in a small company where everything is chaotic and the team is small enough where everyone knows everyone. And it makes people feel like their work MUST be important since they are constantly running around working on it.

But as a company grows, the head of IT can’t put out fires for you and another dozen people just like you who think that their project is the most important thing on the planet.

Some people think the entire notion of superstar performers is bullshit to begin with. Do you really believe you are so awesome that you can go from “mid-level individual contributor” to “team lead” to “dept manager” to “Director of a couple departments” over a space of 3 1/2 years? That’s an average of ten months per job to learn the new job and demonstrate a consistent level of competency at not only that job, but the one above it in order to justify promoting you. Basic logic would dictate that you were likely hired at a much lower level than you should have been, each of your roles were basically the same, or that someone decided you were “The Guy” for reason that are probably more subjective and arbitrary than you would care to admit.

And what about all the other “A+” performers who work along side of you? Do they all get promoted every 6-12 months too? I actually worked at a company like that. You know what happened? They ended up with a glut of middle “account managers” and had to keep inventing more levels between that role and the “managing director” role where you actually run an entire practice area. They also laid off a bunch in a slow trickle of “counselling out” sessions.

I’m not so sure there is that much distinction. IME, people who work at Silicon Valley / East Coast startups are the same smart, ambitious, educated people who could get competitive analyst jobs on Wall Street or in consulting firms or in management training programs at large companies. They just have an aversion to large corporations, probably because of the relative anonymity, the rigid structure of conformity and slow methodical pace of everything.

So disclaimer: I do not work for a tech startup, but I work for a small-ish company that does technical work and has some things in common with a startup (can be long hours, flexible, relatively inexperienced management – I think there’s, like, one MBA in the entire company):

Uh… okay? How about if I talk, not about myself (I wouldn’t call myself a special A+ performer anyway, I like too many other things other than work) about people I know (some at my company, some at startups) that I think are A+ performers but who have never referred to themselves that way (and many of whom probably wouldn’t think of themselves that way anyway)? Every single one of those people wants to work with other smart competent hard-working people because it’s more fun to work with smart competent hard-working people that you can spark off of. Even though I don’t think of myself as a special A+ performer, there are times when I’ve been working through something technical with another guy on my team trying to solve something and everything just comes together and I go home even after twelve hours of work thinking, “Wow, my job is awesome!” It has nothing to do with thinking the project is the most important thing on the planet. It’s the thrill of solving problems with other people who are focused on it. (I got the same thrill in school out of staying up until 3am doing problem sets with friends, sometimes, and obviously that wasn’t important at all – in fact, in grad school I took the classes pass/fail, so it was actually pretty much completely not important for any external reason to do the problem sets)

The husband of my close friend works in a large company with guys who are just marking time, and he hates it.

Eh. I don’t think your definition of A+ performer is the same as mine. An A+ performer, in my book, is someone who is smart and competent and hard-working and good to work with, and that’s not necessarily the guy who vaults to director in a couple of years. That being said, in my company some people do this kind of jump, because yes, they happen to be very good at leading and in bringing in work, and those people do have to be A+ performers to show that. Most don’t.

Many of the A+ performers at my company stay at a technical contributor level (at most rising to technical team lead) because they’re happy doing technical work and don’t want to manage. In fact, the two best A+ performers in my department have both refused repeated attempts to try to get them into management (in one case, he accepted and then decided he hated it and demanded a demotion, actually).

…didn’t you just answer your own question in the OP? I am confused.

I disagree. So does Forbes (see #7).

The reality of the situation is that there are people who perform their job well and those that don’t. People who fall into the first category tend to want to surround themselves with others who also perform their job well. Or to put it in a direct hypothetical - would you rather work in a company making widgets where everyone performs their job and does it well, or would you rather work in a company where your co-workers spend half their day goofing off on a message board or on Facebook or whatever and take twice as long to get anything accomplished?

I, for one, am all for taking a few minutes for a “brain break”, but when I need something done in a timeline that we’ve all agreed to, then I don’t want to see you spending most of your day on Facebook.

This is a true statement and as a small company grows, they’ll have to figure out how to handle it. And it seems ultimately after enough years and a large enough company, a huge bureaucracy grows up as policies and procedures and help desk tickets are put into place. And about the time I would like to seek another place else to work.

Who? Can you let me know so I can avoid those companies?

Do I think it was possible to jump from individual contributor to director in a few years? Yes. I’m sure it makes me sound arrogant (and in this case, yeah I probably am), but I am very good at what I do, I learn extremely quickly and I am more than willing to put in the extra hours and hard work to learn what I need to. And ultimately that got recognized in additional responsibility and some rather large raises.

I think what gets missed for people who don’t work at a start up is that yes - you’re putting in long hours and the work is strenuous, but that also means you’re learning at a very accelerated rate. I was just in a “leadership meeting” with my boss and she made the comment (in discussing the yearly performance review cycle) that “when you get to have 4-5 direct reports, you need to be more careful throughout the year on taking notes to properly evaluate their performance.”

That’s a very true statement, especially since most of the people around the table only had maybe 1-2 direct reports (and a bunch of contractors under them that don’t get performance reviews). I couldn’t help but chuckle inside in that at one point, I had about 18 people directly reporting to me (not fair to me or them and really needed to change). Meaning that for the 2 years this situation was standing, I did more performance reviews and performance review meetings than my current boss (high-middle-manager) would do in like 7 or 8 years. It gave the opportunity to learn how a large variety of people would respond to their reviews in a very short period of time. Meaning I gained 8 years of performance-review-experience in 2. Other things were similar.

Some of them, absolutely. We were in a position where the company was actually growing pretty quickly, so there was room to create - and a severe need to create, in some cases - mid-level and eventually junior-executive-level management positions.

But the reality of the situation is that not everyone wants to or needs to be in a management role. There’s a whole class of workers who are happy to be individual contributors, and eventually very senior individual contributors. A bunch of the A+ people I worked with fell into this and they were more than happy to get big raises and keep doing their job, or take on new projects/new technology and learn new things.
Going back to the “some people… notion of superstar performers is bullshit” comment … In my opinion and experience, the people who complain about the “all star performers” who “constantly get promoted” or “are so-and-so’s best friend, so they get the raises” complain because of two reasons.

  1. There’s a legitimate complaint and you have a manager who’s doing a poor job. Thinking around, I actually can name two or three of them in the company I’m in now. Can start ups or smaller companies get stuck with a bad manager? Absolutely, I had to suffer through one for a bit.

However, in a good* start up or small company environment that sort of poor manager doesn’t last very long, because it’s very, very obvious even to the upper layers of the company what’s going on. In a larger corporation, it’s a hell of a lot easier for that person to hide, or to get a chain of poor managers pulling the same tricks.

  1. The complainer is lazy or otherwise a poor performer and would rather blame someone else for their lack of advancement. Again, it’s very possible for this type of person to be in a start up, but they usually don’t last very long. They either burn themselves out or get fired for poor performance. In a large corporation, it’s very easy for this person to hide, or to find one small job that they’re okay at and stay there. They still won’t advance in the corporation, but they’ll have a job.

Ultimately, we can politely discuss management theory till we’re sore from typing. But, getting back to the OP question, the reason I gravitate towards small companies and start ups is because of those three reasons - I can find a place where I’m surrounded by other people who are doing their job well, I know most of the people in the company and know how to get things done and I advance more quickly than elsewhere.

(a) Free kool-aid.
(b) A steadfast certainty that something like the dot-com bubble couldn’t POSSIBLY happen twice in one lifetime.

This is quite the opposite of my experience. Small, fast growing companies want/need the best recent grads. Big places like MS will hire generic meat to fill slots. They then filter out the ones that can’t make it. Small places can’t afford to hire a bunch of maybes just to see who sticks. They also don’t have the resources to mentor someone and wait until they get up to speed.

The big places only get finicky when they have to hire someone from outside to fill a senior position.

Malcom Gladwell, for one.

His take is that high achievers don’t create great systems. Great systems enable high achievement.

Well let me ask you this. How do you define “doing your job well”? If my team is offline for an entire day because the Director of IT is so preocuppied responding to half a dozen equally important issues that he can’t get to it, is he “doing his job well”? He may be working hard, acting super responsive and doing his job to the best of his ability, but assuming it’s not due to a lack of talent or know how, the job isn’t getting done.

That was one of the things I had trouble reconciling at the startup where I worked. In spite of all the highly educated, impressive “top talent” and “super achievement” talk, shit wasn’t getting done.

Would you say arrogance is a good quality for a manager to have or that it is a trait that should be nurtured in an organization?

I would mostly agree with your definition of a real A+ performer. What I don’t agree with is that someone is only an A+ performer if they consistently work until 3am every night, respond to every email on their vacation (if they get to take one) and have no life outside of work. That just means they work for C- management.

I’m not talking about people who can’t cut it. I’m talking about smart, capable people who didn’t take the standard path- the guy who toured Japan with his avant-guarde rock band rather than having his dad hook him up with a big-name internship, or the Laotian girl genius who is amazing at what she does but didn’t know enough about the recruiting process to realize she needed to show up for the on-campus “information sessions.” The startup I worked at focused on music, so it attracted a lot of smart people hoping to combine their love of music and tech. Startups can put a lot more thought into their hiring and can consider the whole person, taking time to understand how ALL of your experiences and talents fit in, meaning there is more room for those with a slightly different career narrative. Larger corporations are often just looking for a checklist of standard accomplishments covering a relatively narrow perspective, and if you don’t happen to have those for whatever reason it’s going to be tough.

The point is that not everyone who doesn’t choose the standard path does so because of some irrational fear of corporations.

I may have missed this but I didn’t see anyone talk about working on interesting new problems. That is one of the best things about working at a tech startup. At bigger more established companies you are far more likely to be working incremental updates to established things

Interesting new problems are not the sole domain of small startups. I just left a small startup to work for one of the biggest financial services companies in the world. They basically formed a group the size of my old company overnight to work on similar interesting issues. It may be a bit more beurocratic by virtue of being a big company and not as “sexy” from a Silicon Valley startup nerd perspective. But the actual business problems are at least as interesting and I don’t work in a roach infested loft anymore.

Trying to get the office phones to work is not an “interesting new problem” to me, but it is a typical startup problem.