Startups won’t build your career on your behalf. You must.

Startups are sexy. Here in Silicon Valley, most people I meet either work for a startup or are thinking about starting one. Working for a startup is an alluring proposition for those seeking a challenge. Startups promise ownership, exciting work, and the opportunity to be part of the next big thing. If you’re considering a switch, I’ve written about the case to quit consulting to join a startup.

The often unspoken assumption is that career growth opportunities in a startup will be abundant. With dreams of revolutionizing an industry, it may seem frivolous to think about career management. Yet, challenges unique to startups complicate career growth. I discuss these below not to dissuade you, but as a starting point towards a solution. In fact, I encourage you to make the transition from a large company if you haven’t already. Be prepared to do the necessary work to succeed.

Career difficulties in a startup.

Startups face many challenges related to its product maturity and funding status. Cash reserves are limited and the prudent thing is to be conservative when hiring. These conditions bring in some of the following challenges to a startup.

Quick changes in initiatives. Efforts that you are working on may get cut. You may not be able to go through the full learning cycle of completing the effort.

Not enough people. There may be more critical items to address than the team can absorb. You may stress over having to deprioritize a critical request.

The pace of change far outpaces communication. Startups must also be quick to incorporate new market knowledge to remain relevant. You often feel that you’re learning about important changes late.

Because of these issues, employees’ career growth can be overlooked. It is often not a top priority for the company to focus on career development plans. The executive team may recognize the importance of it, yet be pulled in other directions. This will bring the following challenges when working on your career development.

Unclear career path. Startups rarely have a career path defined for most employee functions. This gives you flexibility but doesn’t provide you with a growth framework.

Unclear promotion requirements. You may not understand why someone was or wasn’t promoted. You may have a general understanding of what it takes to get promoted, but no specifics. You may not understand why someone was or wasn’t promoted. Titles may change in confusing ways. The company structure may change quickly and often.

Promotion timing may be odd. Due to business needs and finance’s forecast uncertainty, startups have to be extra careful about promoting. The business may have growth spurts in which many promotions happen at once. You may be ready for a promotion but have to wait until the business needs your skills at a new level. This may come as part of growth or when a leader in your group resigns, both situations more likely to be unexpected at a startup.

No starting cohort. You will rarely find a group of peers that joins the company at the same time and position as you. This is often a group leveraged in large companies for growth discussions.

Difficult to find mentors. There will be a small percent of experienced mentors and managers in a startup. They will be managing many people and initiatives. This will make it difficult to get their undivided attention on your career growth.

Lack of personal time to focus on career reflection. The startup asks so much of your time that you deprioritize career reflection. Reflecting often feels like inaction, which doesn’t bode well with the startup-type.

Limited training options. Your company won’t have a mature HR department with a large training budget. There may be no training specific to your function. You will need to learn on the job. You may be unaware of how your efforts have helped you hone useful skills.

No clear benchmarks on skills or compensation. There are not enough peers for the company to provide guidance on how you compare to your peers. Your compensation includes equity with an unclear long-term value. It will be difficult for you to compare your compensation on a risk-adjusted basis.

Future employers may not understand your title. Recruiters may have a good understanding of the caliber of a Director at Google or Facebook. They won’t know what to expect from a Director at a small company.

Not every challenge above is unique to a startup, but you are more likely to encounter them in one. I put aside companies that simply don’t care or invest in employee growth. Those companies are unlikely to be hiring at the talent level that startups need to succeed in this knowledge economy.

Although you may encounter many challenges in a startup, the good news is that with the right framework these challenges can turn out to be blessings in disguise.

Develop your own growth plan

There is no shortage of career challenges in a startup. On the flip side, startups offer a unique level of freedom and flexibility. If you know where you want to take your career, you are more likely to be able to find opportunities to do so.

Before doing this I encourage you to reflect on what growth means to you. It is important to reframe career growth by factoring in the challenges discussed. This is critical if you’ve enjoyed success in a large, structured work environment so far.

Redefine your view of a role

In a startup, you will find yourself working on tasks that go beyond one function or level. You may be a manager doing analyst work. Or in Customer Success and contributing to product documentation. As a Designer, you may help tweak CSS for an engineer. You may be a product manager stepping in as a technical project manager for a customer project. Or the talented marketer that helps the support team craft better customer responses.

This work may feel counter-productive. You may feel that you are working on tasks that go beyond what you signed up for. But that’s the point. A startup’s blurry role responsibilities let you develop skills outside of your function. Jon Stein, CEO of Betterment, thinks of a startup as a test kitchen. There are always many initiatives at work and as you deliver results you’ll own more of those. This will help you grow your skills and career.

The key to making the most of this flexibility, then, is to know where you want to be. That will allow you to volunteer for the initiatives in the test kitchen that will help you get there.

Think beyond your current company.

Unless you’re a founder or in an executive role, your job at a startup is unlikely to be the last stop of your career. You should, instead, think long-term and beyond your current company. Your top goal must still be to make your current company successful. If your startup succeeds, potential employers will associate you with the company’s success.

That said, give less importance to titles and focus on skills. Your primary goal can’t be getting a promotion and a new title. Your goal has to be new skills development. Owning crucial projects and delivery flawlessly must be a priority. This is what you will take with you once you’ve made this company successful. That is what will help you be an executive at your next startup, or make you successful when you build your own startup. Remember, a recruiter won’t understand what a title in your company means. What how you’ve managed and delivered is what they can compare with other candidates.

Define the skills you want to develop

Have you made peace with defining your career growth based on skills, and not titles? Great. Now you may find it difficult to define what specific skills you should focus on. Here are a few suggestions I’ve found helpful over the years.

Find a mentor, think beyond your function. I mentioned above that it’s harder to find a mentor in a startup. However, finding a mentor is still one of the most impactful things that you can do. I encourage you to think beyond your specific function and company. The best career advice and insights I’ve received over the past few years have come from people outside of my department or at a different company.

Today vs. t+1 year resume reflection. A great mentor of mine, Christy Augustine, suggested this exercise to me. Write your resume as you want it to read a year from today. What would you have delivered by then? What position could you go after with that resume? Compare that to your current resume. Identify what skills and experiences to focus on from a career perspective. This approach helped me plan my transition to product management in 2014. Although this exercise is focused on work only, your resume, it is important to put this into the perspective of your overall life goals.

How do your current skills compare? Look at what skills companies look for in the roles you want to pursue. How do you rank in each of these? Use a mentor or peer to help you have a frank discussion on this. Consider general skills besides specific skills. It is also helpful to look at lists of skills and understand what they mean. You may have skills that you don’t know are important or what to name.

Engage with your peers. Many of your peers have figured out ways to develop certain skills. Look at their LinkedIn profiles or resumes. What areas are they highly-skilled in that you want to develop? Reach out and ask them how they become well-versed in that area. These can be folks in the same role at a similar company, don’t limit this to your current startup.

Identify resources and feasibility to develop your desired skills. Can you develop these skills at your current company? Can you develop through books, seminars, courses, or volunteer positions?

Talk to your manager about your career plans. Most of your conversations are likely far more tactical, focused on the day to day work, than you may like. That’s why you’ve read this far. Ensure that your manager is clear on what opportunities you seek. Ask her to find you work that develops your preferred skills. Otherwise, be clear about priorities and make time to develop skills outside of work.

Consider creating a side project. This can be within the company or outside. This may also be something fun, helpful if you’re looking for a distraction from your day job. My friend Ailian Gan writes about side projects as a way to create something that you want to see exist. Great ideas and outcomes often come from where you less expect it.

Use industry benchmarks to demand fair treatment

Data and benchmarks are great. I love mining through data. When I worked at Accenture, I was clear on the compensation ranges for various positions. The company provided salary ranges. This was a great benchmark for me, in addition to performance reviews.

At startups, your compensation isn’t as straightforward. You must establish your benchmark using industry data. You should also look at how much your compensation changes over time. A prudent startup is hesitant to overspend on employees. Thus, a good pay raise is usually a strong sign that your contribution.

Make sure to consider equity (stock and options). Get an estimate of what it’s currently worth based on your company’s last round of funding. Your company should be transparent with you about this information. (If that’s not the case, discount it as worthless). Then consider likely exit scenarios for your company to see its potential. Consider both upside and downside. Find a risk-adjusted average.

Compare your compensation to what other companies would pay for you. You can use PayScale or Glassdoor’s Know Your Worth to access plenty of useful industry data. Remember, however, to focus on skills and not on titles. Titles often don’t capture your scope of work or contribution level at a startup. When establishing a benchmark, check out various titles corresponding to your skill level.

Recognize when it’s time to switch companies

I have focused this discussion on skills development as a clear way to grow your career. But the reality is that often your career growth is capped by opportunities to contribute. I have a simple career growth model.

Career growth = (New skills + new experience) * (opportunities to contribute)

Skills growth and learning from experience increase your capacity to contribute to a company. However, you can be the world’s most gifted manager, but if your company doesn’t need another manager, who cares? You must recognize when your skills are undervalued. Look at your total comp as a benchmark. If you find that your startup is undervaluing your skill-set, I encourage you to have a frank discussion with your manager. Give them a chance to rectify the situation. A great manager can surprise you with solutions you couldn’t imagine before. If, however, your manager is unable to find ways to help you grow your career, it may be time to move on.

Closing thoughts

Startups are fun. Making the transition in 2013 from a company with 250,000+ employees (Accenture) to one with 120 employees at the time (BloomReach) has allowed me to grow in unparalleled ways. However, this growth over the past 3 years came with many bumps on the road. I was fortunate to get sound advice at critical times to continue growing and learning. I hope that by sharing these learnings I can help a few folks, and learn from the experiences of many others.

References

(1) Jon Stein, CEO of Betterment, wrote for Fast Company about startups.

(2) Avery Augustine gives compares career growth at startups vs large companies.

Thanks to Ailian Gan, Stella Treas, and Christy Augustine for their help and insights. 

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