10 Reasons You Should Work at a Startup Before Starting Your Company

 So you know you want to be an entrepreneur. You've got the bug and you know you've got the potential to build a great company.  If you're recently out of school (or still a student), are you sure you're ready? 

Last week marked my one-year anniversary working at oneforty, a small, venture-backed startup right here in Cambridge.  During this time, I've learned an incredible amount about more than just my role (Customer Development), but also many universally applicable startup lessons.  I can't put a price on the value of the experience I've gained, which is why I'd like to share my reasons why I think everyone should consider working at a startup before setting out to start a company of their own.

10 Reasons You  Should Work at a Startup Before Starting Your Own

1) You don't know what you don't know

I was very close to starting my own venture (unrelated to Greenhorn Connect) when I joined oneforty.  It turned out that I was very fortunate that didn't work out for a lot of reasons. 

At the time I thought I knew most of what I needed to know about building a startup. I was wrong.  There are so many small factors that add up quickly that you face as build your startup, especially after getting funding.  Many of the most important lessons I've learned in my time at oneforty are things I never even thought of as things I was joining the team to learn.

2) Get paid to learn

When you're building your startup, you're often drinking from the proverbial firehose as you try to build a team, move product forward and manage a million other day to day challenges.  The beauty of working at a startup is that you're still drinking from the firehose, but you're getting paid to do so.  Especially if you're right out of school and fighting the student loan demons, this is a great deal for you. 

3) Build a warchest

If you've ever seen the AirBnb story, you know that getting to the point of traction for your startup can be a long, grueling process (see video of the AirBnb story here).  Fundraising can be particularly challenging for first timers as well, which means if you want to survive the "trough of sorrow", you need to have some money to build traction first. 

I've heard the same advice so many times and it definitely holds true: it's easy to maintain a current budget and lifestyle; it's very hard to cut back.  Especially when you're young, you have the opportunity to have a very low personal burn rate. If you work at a startup, you can save up a lot of money quickly if you keep your burn rate low and save as much of your pay check as you can.  You'll also then be well prepared when you leave the company, because you'll have savings and have the discipline of a low burn rate.  

4) See how a team operates and grows

I always thought that team dynamics would be easy.  I've done a lot of class projects (6 years of college worth!) and been in many groups before, during and after college. How hard could it be to operate and grow a team? In fact, it's very hard.

I was employee #6 at oneforty and watched as the team grew to 11 employees in just a couple of short months thereafter and then early in 2011 had to cut down to our current 7 employees. During that time, I've seen how team dynamics can change dramatically and how many curveballs life sends you; our team has celebrated life and faced death, which you're really not prepared for until you experience it. 

In the end, this may be the most important lesson, because startups are all about the people: the people who use your product, the people who believe in you and invested in you and most importantly the people you work with every day trying to build a business.

5) Build your network with less stress

When you're launching your startup and trying to build your network at the same time, it can be very difficult. Often your first meeting with someone will involve you looking to discuss if they'll invest in your company or otherwise make a major effort to support you. Since you haven't proven yourself yet, that can be very difficult.

While working at oneforty, I've had the luxury of building my network more naturally. I've developed relationships with a lot of really smart people and been able to do so much more comfortably, because I haven't had to ask anyone for anything in many of these meetings.  This puts me in a position to show who I am over time and also potentially help them before I need to ask them for help.  

6) Learn an industry

When launching a business, it helps to have an understanding of the industry going in as you can avoid many pitfalls and poor choices that way.  As part of "getting paid to learn" you have the opportunity to grow a deep understanding of an industry.

Here at oneforty, because of our pivot, I've actually been able to learn multiple industries: we started as a consumer web company, working with all kinds of creative, independent developers building interesting Twitter apps, evaluated opportunities working with other APIs to help them build app stores and then settled on the Twitter for Business community.  All 3 industries provided amazing learning opportunities for me as my role as Customer Development Manager had me on the front lines at all times.

7) Meet future collaborators

It takes a special breed of person to want to work at a startup.  Only a finite number of people on this planet are masochistic and visionary enough to choose this career path.  Luckily, as you work at a startup, you'll build relationships with your co-workers and realize that some of them are people you'd really like to work with again in the future.  This is quite common, which is why the most famous case of this even has a great name: the Paypal Mafia.

The people you work with not only may work with you again, but can help you by sharing some of their network. Even if they don't specifically work with you next time, they may know peers who could.  

8) Build a reputation

In the world of startups, your reputation is incredibly important. It will dictate who you can recruit for your team, who will be willing to be your advisors and investors and what doors your network may open.  A reputation is not build overnight and so just like the aforementioned luxury of building your network with less stress, building your reputation can be easier while working at a startup.  There are few things more powerful than members of your team and especially the founders attesting to your work ethic and character.  

9) Learn from others' success and failures

Startup life is too short to learn everything you need to know if you only learn from yourself.  The best way to accelerate your development is to learn from the mistakes and triumphs of others.  If you're sitting at your job and you notice a great management hack, note that. If something happens that makes you say, "I would never do that!" write that down too and how you'd do it differently.  You'll be surprised how much you can learn if you just look beyond your job and dive into everything you're experiencing by working at a startup.

10) See if this founder thing is really for you

In the end, startups need a lot more employees than they need founders.  There is nothing wrong with just loving working at startups versus actually founding a company.  It's an incredible amount of work to get a startup off the ground, gain traction, build a team, lead your team and deal with all the fires of a growing startup.  The hours are long, and the expectations are high.  

You may go through the experience and say to yourself, "I can do this! I've seen the light" or you may say, "Woah. That life is not for me." Either way, it is invaluable to realize it as an employee; it would be much worse to get started, build your team, raise some money then realize you're not loving the life you lead.  If you learn one thing while working at a startup, see if you really want that CEO chair (read this amazing Ben Horowitz post for more on that subject).

 

It's hard to quantify all the different things I've learned in my year at oneforty, but I do know one thing for certain: my likelihood for success when I start a company is significantly greater now and I'm prepared for many things that would have blindsided me before. 

Have you worked at a startup before launching a company? What benefits do you see?