College Grads: 10 Reasons Why Your First Job Should be With a Startup

Last Updated Apr 18, 2011 9:38 AM EDT

The job market is picking up a bit and if you're graduating soon, you may find that it's a little easier for you to land a plum corporate job than it was for your friends who graduated last year. But I'm dearly hoping you'll run screaming from that option, because the best thing you can possibly do is to work for a startup.

I'm biased of course, because I spend the bulk of my time in the world of entrepreneurial companies. But I also had the experience, when I graduated from college, of working for a small magazine that, while not exactly a startup, certainly behaved like one. We were under resourced, with a small but dedicated staff that worked long hours for little pay. Almost every task required to publish a magazine was accomplished in our shabby little townhouse in the Adams Morgan section of Washington DC. My salary was $8400 a year and I tended bar at night to make ends meet. I had the time of my life, worked with incredible people, and learned more about the magazine business than I ever would have at a large organization. I hope you'll choose a similar route. Here's why:
1. You'll learn to be flexible. Startups rely on everyone to multitask. You may be hired for a specific position, but the bottom line is that young companies change direction all the time. So you'll have to learn new skills quickly, adapt to the company's needs, and step out of your comfort zone. All that can be a little uncomfortable, but there's no better preparation for life than learning how to cope gracefully with curve-balls.

2. You'll be forced to live frugally. No one likes being poor, but being strapped compels you to manage your resources more creatively, to learn how to do more with less, and to make tough choices and sacrifices. That engenders an appreciation for money that will stick with you your entire life.

3. You'll discover talents you never knew you had. Big companies put people in boxes, and their hierarchies force you into linear career tracks. At a startup, you may be struck with a fabulous idea at 10 PM, excitedly e-mail your boss, and find yourself working on an entirely new project the next day. You may not even know what the hell you're doing, but it won't matter because you'll be given the freedom to figure it out.

4. You'll learn how to fail. The above-mentioned new project may not work out as planned. In fact, it may fail miserably. At a big company, the consequences of failing can be devastating, but small, nimble companies value trial and error and know how to switch gears quickly. Trying and failing is almost a badge of honor because you learn far more from your mistakes than from your triumphs.

5. You'll learn how to be an entrepreneur. Whether you want to start your own company someday or not, you will most certainly want to be the CEO of your own career. That means having a vision, knowing how to make a great idea happen, and putting together a team to help you achieve your goal. There's not an employer on the planet that doesn't value those skills.

6. You may be given a stake in the outcome. Many startups can't afford to pay market rates salaries, but they make up for that by giving employees a little ownership in the company. If the company is acquired or goes public, you might end up with a nice chunk of change. But even more important than that, ownership builds camaraderie and loyalty, and motivates people more than any paycheck ever could.

7. You'll be working with passionate people. Owners are awfully passionate about their "babies." Typically, startup entrepreneurs have identified an unmet need in the marketplace, invented a new product, or figured out a way to approach a traditional product or service in an innovative way. That's exciting stuff. It feels big and important and the enthusiasm is contagious.

8. You'll have a voice. At start up companies, everybody matters. Small staffs and lack of hierarchy almost always result in more democratic work environments. No one is going to give your ideas short shrift because you're low man or woman on the totem pole, and chances are you'll go home every night feeling like you did something that had a direct impact on the company

9. You'll learn how to work in a team. There are no lone wolves at startups. Will you be like one happy family? Possibly. But more likely, there will be people who you are drawn to and who you will be eager to learn from, and others who make you want to pull your hair out. In a big company, it's often easier to avoid the people you find difficult. At a startup, you have no choice other than to learn how to get along and work with everyone. It's a skill that everyone should have.

10. Startup cultures rock. Flip-flops at work? Sure. Your dog? Bring him along. Video games and ping-pong? Absolutely. Office parties? Free beer every Friday afternoon. No, working at a startup isn't all fun and games. You'll probably be working longer hours than you would at a larger corporation, but the advantage is that work and life are typically intertwined at young companies, so if you need to blow off steam in the middle of the day you'll probably be given the freedom to do that. You won't be punching a clock, but you'll be held accountable for your work and treated like an adult, not like a child who needs constant supervision.

Obviously all startups are not created equal, and you'll want to do a fair amount of due diligence before you commit to working for one. Check out the founders and their backgrounds, find out who the investors are, make sure there's enough money in the bank so that you're paid what you're promised, and make sure you understand the company's revenue model and the founders' big vision. Last of all, check your own pulse. If you're feeling a little breathless and your heart's beating fast, you're probably in the right place. And remember, you've got the rest of your life to work for the man.

Further reading:

Ten College Startups That Want to Change the World
New Survey: GenY Loves Entrepreneurship but Lacks Resources
Cool Startups to Watch: Hipmunk
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tulane Public Relations, CC 2.0
  • Donna Fenn

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