There is so much hype around being the founder of a startup. Yes, the world needs more founders, but sometimes I feel like people want to start something because the title is sexy or because they’ll get rich. The reality is being a founder is really, really hard — and it’s not for everyone.
But there's good news: you can get a lot of the same fun and experience of being a founder by joining a seed-stage startup. Specifically, I’m referring to being one of the first ten employees at a company that’s raised somewhere between $2m-$5m from good investors.
So if you’re looking to join a fast-growing, young business and accelerate your career, the seed stage is your sweet spot. Here’s why — and how you can find those opportunities.
The advantages of joining a seed-stage startup
Yes, there’s risk involved in joining a seed-stage startup. But I think the level of risk is very misunderstood and over-hyped. It’s very different to the level of risk a founder takes starting from scratch.
"Joining an early stage startup will also give you a title boost and more experience to catapult you into your next job
A seed-stage business is still so early that you get to actually be an integral part of shaping its future. It’s fun and has very similar vibes to being a founder. There’s the camaraderie of toiling together to make something work that can often be lost in later stages when a lot of time and energy is spent trying to implement systems or undo legacy ways of doing things. And if you’re a generalist, chances are you’ll get to be involved in many different sides of the business — from sales to engineering to fundraising, expanding your skillset. That’s very similar to the wide view of a business that a founder gets.
Joining an early-stage startup will also give you a title boost and more experience to catapult you into your next job. Even if you have to take a bit of a pay cut (which actually isn't that big usually), you’ll be earning even more in your next position given your experience solving real-world problems and having a level of responsibility that people from a corporate background won’t be able to match.
Startups are usually pretty open to negotiating titles — if you have a job in mind post-startup, don’t be afraid to negotiate for the title you think will get you where you want to be in your next role.
This is especially relevant for people who don’t have a ton of experience and are early in their career. If you join a startup that’s later than seed stage, the team will be big enough that the founders are looking for proven specialists for roles. At that stage, you’re not going to be given the opportunity to punch above your weight.
How (and how not) to run a startup.
I know I started off by saying that not everyone is destined to be a founder or should feel pressure to be one, but joining an early team will give you the needed experience if you decide that’s the path you want to take. Being involved in the formative days of a company is an experience that investors rate highly — in case you’re thinking of raising money for your own startup.
The one reason why people often advise against joining seed-stage startups is compensation. The company doesn’t have the track record or the money to pay big salaries yet. But the base salary is often not as bad as you think. You’ll also probably get enough equity to make you rich if the startup succeeds.
How to find a seed-stage company to join
So how do you find the perfect seed-stage company to join? Young companies are by virtue risky, but one that’s been backed by reputable investors is much more likely to have strong potential.
- Take a look at which companies have recently joined prestigious accelerators like Y Combinator;
- Reach out to top-tier VC firms, tell them what role you’re looking for and attach your resume and then ask them “What new companies are you most excited about?”. VCs love helping their startups find great talent, so they’ll be happy to receive these.
- Follow tech media to see who has recently raised a seed round. A startup that has just raised is definitely one in search of talent.
When interviewing with the startups, here’s some important things to look for when evaluating the company:
- Do you get along with and believe in the founders?
- Do you believe in the vision?
- Do you connect to the problem and product? Does it excite you to work on it?
- Is the team open to you proving yourself to grow into the role that you want to hold?
- Do you have similar approaches to product building as them? For example, it may cause lots of friction if the team likes to build scrappy MVPs [minimum viable products] and you prefer well-scoped and fully built-out products.
- Work ethic similarities: some teams work really late, some don’t. Make sure you’re on the same page with work/life balance as the startup you’re joining.
Why an early stage startup may not be right for you
It will be a rollercoaster ride, there’s a good chance the startup pivots, things won’t work, etc. You need to be able to stomach those turns and enjoy the ride.
You’ll need to get your hands dirty. Small startups are very scrappy and they do things that don’t scale, which means that not all your work will be glorious. If you’re an engineer, you may need to put together less-than-perfect MVPs, and if you’re a business person, you’ll be doing a lot of manual tasks.
Be prepared to deal with less-structured guidance and mentorship; while the team will be there to help you, everyone is very busy. This means that a lot of times you’ll need to take ambiguous tasks and be quite autonomous and do a good job. Seed-stage startups are different from big companies in the sense that they don’t have the resources for robust training and mentorship programs.
But if those risks and uncertainties sound like something exciting rather than scary, you’d be making no better choice than joining a seed-stage company.