Things You Should Know Before You Take a Job at a Startup

Sydney Hodgson | @SydneyLHodgson

Fueled by recent college graduates pumped with coffee and craft beer, startups can sometimes feel like a professional frat party, where the theme is “Company Swag” and employees are expected to be decked out in hoodies, bro tanks, and neon sunglasses emblazoned with the company logo at all times. Tech--a large segment of the startup environment-- is an overwhelmingly male-dominated field. According to 2015 census data, women make up 59% of the US labor force, but are only 30% of employees at major tech companies. It is a substantially smaller percentage of women--just under 23%--who hold positions of power at these organizations and have the ability to influence the direction or strategy of the company.

Countless open-floor-plan-offices across the front range are filled with bean bag chairs and ping pong tables, have a keg in the kitchen and a sports betting pool run by the accountants. Generally speaking, these workspaces are not designed for women’s success. Not only are women in these startups subject to all the traditional challenges working women have faced for decades, they must address these challenges in an environment that often celebrates the trappings of casual masculinity.

 The characters from HBO's startup-based show  Silicon Valley . Note the hoodies. And sloganed t-shirts. And flannel. 

The characters from HBO's startup-based show Silicon Valley. Note the hoodies. And sloganed t-shirts. And flannel. 

The recent sexual harassment cases at Uber have shed light on this issue and how extreme the hyper-masculine startup environment can be. Just as telling is our surprised collective response. Because Uber is a cool company, right? While tech companies are often filled with brilliant, innovative minds changing the way we live in the world, they are not always making the world a better place, and sometimes may even be harmful to women.

As a woman at a startup, it can be hard to navigate your career path, make your voice heard, and get what you need. Social scientific research demonstrates diverse teams are more successful, but unfortunately tech is still very much a boy’s club. Below are some things to consider before accepting a role at a tech startup.

Know Who is in Charge

There are two important things to look for in leadership: vision and humility. Company leaders need to have a real passion for the business and a strong vision of where it is headed in order to maintain values in the funding process. It is easy to compromise and fall victim to the boy’s club mentality when there are big dollars on a table occupied by male investors. Make sure your leadership--male or female--can push aside ego and lift up female colleagues. Arrogance can easily get in the way of success by shifting the company to become figure-driven rather than mission and value focused, forcing valuable employees to leave and compromising stakeholders’ integrity in the process.

Take a Close Look at  Culture and Expectations

Working at a startup is tough and it is important you are able to take care of yourself. Look for a company offering the flexibility to make your schedule fit around the important things in your life. Being able to pick up your kids from school, take vacations to recharge with family and friends or have paid maternity leave are all important benefits to consider. People with traditional jobs may balk or think this is crazy, but jobs at startups are anything but traditional. In an industry built around technology, it is nearly impossible to unplug. It is common for employers to act like their teams are always on the clock and for notifications from work-specific communication channels to buzz at all hours of the night. Make sure you know what you are getting. It can become incredibly difficult to be a good employee in these situations, and even harder to be a good person. Be open about what you need from day one and set boundaries for yourself, making it possible to reach your goals and also keep your sanity.

Look for Opportunities to Grow

The phrase “you will never hear me say something isn’t my job” is probably one of the most overused sentences on resumes today. But when considering a job at a startup it is important to realize your daily tasks will most likely go well beyond the job description. Titles are transient. Everyone is expected to work cross functionally and handle projects outside of their speciality or focus, and with this comes incredible opportunity. Less than 16% of technical roles at the top tech companies are filled by women. Expanding your knowledge and taking on added responsibilities in these areas can give you a major leg up and make you more attractive to potential employers. The most successful startups are innovative and jump on opportunity, and the same can be said about startup employees.

Raise a Glass - With Caution

It can be argued drinking is part of the culture in Denver, so this may not come as a surprise, but it should. At a lot of local startups, work events revolve around drinking - and I am not talking about the annual holiday party where someone over does it and makes a fool of him or herself. It is team lunches at breweries where everyone leaves buzzed, hiding bottles of Smirnoff Ice in coworkers’ desks and forcing them to chug it when they reach for their calculator, and celebrating successes with shots in the middle of the afternoon. If business is good these things can happen on a daily basis. Sure it’s fun, but pushing alcohol in a high stress environment can also be dangerous, and women, who are almost always the minority, can feel pressured to participate in order to fit in and prove their worth.

Be Prepared to Fail

When you hear the word startup, you know deep down the company has a tough road ahead. But it is easy to get caught up in the bright lights and stock options and ignore the fact this means you have little job security. Ninety percent of startups fail. Despite what you believe, your company probably isn’t a unicorn and those promises of big payouts may be just as mythical. What does this mean for your career? For your well being? For your finances? Have a plan, because things change quickly and without notice.

Demand Transparency

The common startup mantra of “failing fast” encourages making mistakes so the company can learn and move forward with a better variation. But this culture that celebrates failures can also encourage bad behavior and poor decision making in a bull headed quest to be the best without really thinking things through. Moreover, startup-CEOs feel the responsibility to brush over major failures to keep up appearances and the facade of success. Make sure you aren’t part of the game and push for transparency through the c-suite walls and at all levels of the organization. Employees at a startup are stakeholders and have an increased interest in the success of the company, and as such you deserve to know exactly what is going on, positive or negative.

Find Your Tribe

The tough times you go through with colleagues at startups form intense bonds. Be honest and outgoing and find your tribe within the chaos. If you are open to it, you can make some real female friends with a strong, supportive foundation capable of lasting throughout your various career moves and into the subsequent stages of life. These female connections are imperative for survival in the startup world. Keep an eye out for the good ones who sing your praises, lift you up, and defend your ideas. These relationships make it all worth it.

Working at a startup is an incredible challenge, but it can also be a life-changing opportunity. Know what you are getting in to, look for trustworthy leadership and colleagues who have your back, and carefully evaluate the work environment. We need more women in tech, but unfortunately it is not always an easy or appealing offer. As more strong women break down barriers by fighting the male-dominated and designed space, there will be an opportunity to shift away from the boys club mentality towards an inclusive environment where everyone can be successful and celebrated. In the meantime, keep these notes in mind, lead with your heart, and trust your intuition.