I love seeing people join startups, and it usually makes a lot of sense for everyone. Young tech companies tend to have great cultures and incredibly smart people from which to learn. And lots of startups are very generous with salaries and options — in many cases, enough that an employee can maintain a close-to-market salary and keep the lottery ticket too. But there’s one situation in which it doesn’t make sense to join an established startup: you actually want to start your own company.
As I’ve written in the past, many people who go into startups aren’t necessarily looking for the salary, lottery ticket and cool culture, as much as they may publicly say so. They’re looking to gain independence, establish themselves as leaders and self-actualize. They’re looking for the things you get from founding your own company and believe that joining a startup as an employee will be the quickest way there. But that’s a poor strategy, especially for non-developers.
That tactic mistakenly applies a corporate model of advancement — in which one starts in low-level jobs and wiggles into a management position over the years — to entrepreneurship. You aren’t going to get promoted to founder by spending a lot of time working for founders. You become a founder by starting your own company. Yet over the past year I’ve seen a number of people fall into “the non-founder trap”, which goes something like this:
1) You decide you want to get into a startup. You don’t feel that you have enough [intelligence/confidence/experience/money/ideas] to start your own company, so you search for a job within an established startup.
2) After several months of searching, you take a job in the business development / marketing department of a 10-person company. While your last job paid you $100,000 per year, you accept $60,000 and 0.3% in options.
3) While you occasionally advise on high-level decisions, 95% of your job is emailing potential clients and taking sales meetings — the same stuff you were doing at your last job. The fundraising, investor relations, and personnel management is done by the CEO.
4) After a year or two you would like to leave, but unfortunately your $60K per year salary hasn’t let you save up enough to quit your job and start something of your own. You also don’t feel that you have a good sense of how to raise money or manage the earliest days of a startup. So you begin searching for another job at a small company and return to step (1).
There are plenty of counter-examples. I know a number of people who fell in love with startup life and founded their own companies after working as an employee of a startup. But it’s not a great path for people who really want to be founders, who will struggle to be happy at their jobs and fail to save enough to go out and build their own business. If you want to be a founder, go out and start something. The inspiration, confidence and experience will come.