When my students ask me about whether they should be a founder or cofounder of a startup I ask them to take a walk around the block and ask themselves:
Are you comfortable with:
- Chaos – startups are disorganized
- Uncertainty – startups never go per plan
- Resilient – at times you will fail – badly. How quickly will you recover?
- Agile – you may find the real opportunities for your company was somewhere else. Can you recognize and capitalize on them?
- Creative / Pattern Recognition – can you think “out of the box?” Or if not, can you recognize patterns others miss?
- Passionate – is the company/product/customers the most important thing in your life? 24/7?
- Tenacious – can you keep going when everyone else gives up? Can you keep giving 200% despite all the naysayers who don’t believe in your idea?
- Articulate – can you create a reality distortion field and have others see and share your vision and passion?
And I remind them that they should be bringing some type of domain expertise (technical or business) to the table.
This is the minimum feature set for founders.
Other Roles in a Startup
Generic advice given to entrepreneurs assumes that everyone is going to be the founder/co-founder. Yet for every founder there are 10-20 other employees who take the near-equivalent risks in joining an early-stage company. If you’re not a founder (by choice, timing or temperament,) you may be an early employee or a later stage startup employee.
(And my advice to students who believe they want to do a startup but are unsure if they want to start one, is to join one that’s already raised their first round of funding. Founders know they want to start something. If you’re unsure, you’ve just decided.)
I believe that founder, early and later stage employees require different risk/personality profile.
The Early Employee
If you’re a founder/co-founder all the attributes I mentioned above are needed in spades. However, if you want to join a startup as an early employee (say in the first 25 employees,) you can modify the list above.
You still need to be comfortable with chaos and uncertainty, but by this time the major risk of where the first round of funding is coming from is gone. However, you will be dealing with almost daily change, (new customer feedback/insights from a Customer Development process and technical roadblocks,) as the company searches for a repeatable and scalable business model. This means you still need to have a resilient personality, and be agile.
Early stage employees are “self-starters” and show initiative rather than waiting for other people to tell them what to do or how to do it. (You may be wearing multiple hats in one-day.) You have to be passionate about your work, the company and its mission to be working 24/7. But more than likely you don’t need to be as articulate or creative as the founders (they’re doing the talking, while you’re doing the work.) And while you do need to be tenacious, you won’t need to be the last man standing if the ship goes down.
The Later Employee
If you want to join a startup as a later employee (say employee number 25-125, before the company is profitable) you can continue to modify the list above.
You still need to be comfortable with chaos and uncertainty. And you will be dealing with change, but it won’t be the constant daily change the early employees dealt with. By now the company may have found and settled on a repeatable business model. And at this stage of the company rather than everyone doing everything, actual departments may begin to form. However, job responsibilities and organizations will change regularly and you need to feel comfortable in embracing those changes and taking responsibility and ownership.
And you’ll still need to have a resilient and agile personality, as new customer and product opportunities will appear and change your work. But it won’t be happening daily. And while you still need to love what you do your passion doesn’t have to extend to tattooing the company’s logo on your arm.
The Adventure of a Lifetime
Take the time and think through who you are and what level of challenge you are looking for.
You’re not joining a big company. Startups are the adventure of a lifetime. But make sure it fits who you are.