I talk to job seekers all the time about what they can expect if they join a high-growth technology startup. Many have never worked for a company that doesn't earn profits (let alone revenues). I tell them the obvious stuff -- the hours are long, the pay (at least initially) isn't great, and chances are good that the company will fail within the first few years. You never know what will break from one day to the next, how your market will react, or whether you've got enough cash to validate your business model. It's decidedly not for everyone.
How do you know if the pace, pressures and pivots of a startup are right for you? There was a time when I wasn't sure it was for me.
, I had only worked for high-growth or startup technology companies. Many of those companies didn't make it. Even with those that did make it, the ride was very, very bumpy. As a result, during a brief period between the summer of 2000 and late 2004, I lost my job three times. In one case, the business model simply didn't work (at least not in 2000). The bubble popped and took Mobshop with it (ironically, a similar business model is thriving for Groupon and LivingSocial today). In the second, a management change at the top basically meant the end for the founding team.
The third time wasn't a charm. It was a heart-breaker. Netflix had been in business for five years when I joined in 2003. They were a publicly traded, profitable business. However, the pace of growth, change, and innovation, could best be described as breakneck -- both then and today. About a year after I joined the company, my boss asked me to accompany her to London to open our first international expansion effort. My then-girlfriend/now-wife and I decided "What the hell" and were living in Westminster 90 days later. We "burned the ships." By that I mean that we sold everything we owned, she quit grad school and we said goodbye to San Francisco, knowing that we probably wouldn't be coming back. We were all-in.
In London, we built a team of 10 people within a couple of months. We purchased over a $1 million in DVDs, leased a distribution center and beta-launched our product. We were ready to roll and excited about the future. Then, we learned that Amazon was launching a competitive service in the UK. This was not about competing with Amazon in this little market of 20 million households. It was about competing with Amazon for the 100 million households in the US market, while continuing to fend off Walmart and Blockbuster. The decision was quickly made to cut bait in the UK and circle the wagons around our core business in the US. Netflix initiated a price war that eventually scared Amazon out of entering the DVD side of the business altogether and broke Blockbuster's back. However, it meant that we had to lay off our UK team -- only threeBob Perkoski
months after we hired them. That included the two guys that I convinced to leave their jobs to join my team. It also meant returning to the US if I wanted to keep my job with Netflix, a company that I'd come to love.
After many pints of lager with the newly jobless UK team, I started to wonder if I had the stomach for this lifestyle of constant change and uncertainty. A little drunk, I called my old boss, friend and mentor from Virgin Mobile to get some advice. Was it time for me to consider a more conventional career path? He told me to look at my decisions over my career (my life, even) to that point. It wasn't a mistake or coincidence that I had chosen to repeatedly put myself into situations that others would find overly risky. Failing, starting over, and coming back for more was just part of the fun for me. And I had accepted the terms of that deal again and again. It was in my blood. I had to accept that.
Before moving to London, my then-girlfriend/now-wife and I committed to ourselves that we'd stay at least two years and experience life together abroad. We knew the risks if we stayed in London. Along with my job, I'd be forfeiting my work visa and would be unemployed in one of the most expensive cities in the world. After my conversation with my old boss/friend/mentor, I realized that the decision had already been made. Our commitment to experience the world won out over my commitment to a great company.
So, are you cut out for working at a startup?
In blog posts about behavioral interviewing, I've written about the importance of spotting repeated patterns of behavior. Unlike stocks and securities, with people, past performance is the best indicator of future returns. If you want to know what someone is like, look at what they have done previously. Look at your own background, choices and patterns. If you always seem be going against the grain, get (overly) passionate about certain things, and feel bored when life seems comfortable, you will probably enjoy working for a startup. In fact, you have probably chosen a path that reflects this, even if you have never worked at a startup before.
However, if you spent the last 15-plus years working in highly stable, corporate environments or have never failed in any real way, you are not likely to enjoy the dynamic (read: chaotic and risky) world of startups. And that's OK. I have many talented, successful and happy friends who have chosen very different paths than mine. What's important is being honest with yourself and knowing what makes you happy, even if you need a little outside help. I was lucky enough to have a mentor who knew me better than I knew myself.
A version of this article first appeared in hiVelocity