Do you want to work for a startup?

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(MoneyWatch) Wherever I teach entrepreneurship, there is always a debate about our purpose: Is the measure of our success the number of businesses that our students go on to create? I always argue that it isn't, because it's valuable to deter students who discover the entrepreneurial life is not for them. But I also think we do something useful when we prepare graduates to work in a startup because it isn't the same as a traditional, corporate job.

What makes the difference?

1. Insecurity. According to recent Harvard Business School data, 75 percent of VC-backed startups fail. That means that startups can't guarantee a long term career and it also means that life in new businesses is a lot edgier than elsewhere. Many people love this: They know that much depends on them and that nothing is a given. Others can't take the stress.

2. Time. Most VC-backed startups run to a pretty fast clock. Funding is limited and that means time is limited. You can be frugal or you can be fast. But money is running out every day and it had better be spent where it can make most impact. So these are not great companies for time off or vacations.

3. Flexibility. Although every startup has a business plan, it changes constantly. You may not end up doing what you came for. Some people love this; others don't. It also means that you may join to do something that quickly becomes irrelevant and your job can disappear. It isn't personal but it can still hurt.

4. Opportunity. The basic job description for everyone in a startup is the same: Do whatever is necessary. Nothing should be beneath you -- but equally, you may get to fill roles it would take years to access in more staid firms. That goes for titles too. Start ups offer a lot of stretch and if you're up for, and have a good idea for what's needed when, you will learn a lot fast.

What this means is that people who care a lot about status, security and clear demarcation lines won't thrive in a start up. The best people I ever employed were those who weren't rattled by chaos but had a significant desire to sort it out. They always brought a lot of order and clarity while also having fun. The worst people were those who thought that any startup was a path to wealth and early retirement. You may read about the early Facebook and Google employees retiring with a fortune in their thirties; they get written about because they're rare.

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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