The 7 Secrets To Job Stability At A Startup

With so many startups launching each month, there are plenty of opportunities for exciting roles. Likewise there is also a myriad of reasons why a certain startup would be appealing to join. They may have a hot product you find fascinating or the people who work there radiate positive energy. But for this post, I’m going to focus on a more narrow factor: job stability. In other words, how to keep your job once hired.

I’ve accumulated these insights by observing startups while working at various investment institutions, like Startupbootcamp, Rockstart and GAN. If you benefit from this article, consider subscribing to my blog and newsletter The MBA Is Dead. There I write about everything startups and startup accelerators.

Startups Don’t Know What They Are Doing

Before diving into the 7 Secrets, allow me to provide an example as to why jobs at startups are inherently unstable. Let’s look at a hypothetical company called Socialbook, an up and comer that has for objective to take on Facebook. The founder of Socialbook may decide her first priority is to build a great product. So she hires 5 engineers and they start coding their killer app. 3 months pass. The app is completed and launches, but no one downloads it. At that moment she realises they need to pivot and focus on marketing and sales, but at the same time her investment is running out. As she is not yet profitable the company is living solely on the $50,000 of funding she received last June. Money is tight. She is put in a tough position and decides to let go 3 of her engineers and hire 2 marketing and 1 sales people. It is emotionally painful, as her coders are top-notch, but she has no choice. It’s do or die.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘but CEOs are brilliant! Every single one is a Steve Jobs in the making. Surely they can foresee such needs and hire appropriately’. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Founders are human, just like anyone else, and are learning as they go along. Even the best of founders find it next to impossible to predict their HR needs 6 months down the line.

Of course, it’s not all bad. There are a ton of benefits from working at a startup. The opportunities to grow on a personal level are endless and the challenges are fascinating, to name a few. But this post is not about that. It’s about how to deal with with the volatility of startups and how to make sure you won’t lose your job 3 months after starting, as did our aforementioned proverbial engineer. And so I give you, the 7 Secrets (or Actions) you can take to ensure stability when finding a new job:

The 7 Secrets To Job Stability At A Startup

The following are 7 actions you can take to understand if a startup is stable enough for your level of risk tolerance. The focus is on creating a comprehensive view of the company to help you make a better choice, catching any red flags before it’s too late. Keep in mind no single point will break the deal. Rather it is about making a decision based on a complete picture you have of the company.

  1. Note The Length And Depth Of Their Hiring Process: Hiring processes can vary greatly. One founder can put you through 3 interviews with 3 different people over a period of 2 months. Another founder could find you at a meetup and call to hire you the next day. The old expression ‘easy come, easy go’ somewhat applies here. Having a long hiring process indicates they are putting a lot of thought into your role. Inversely, if they hire you spontaneously, they may also feel that they can eliminate you just as easy.
  2. Learn What Tasks You’ll Be Doing: One of the great things about startups is that the companies evolve quickly and so will your role. No two days are the same. But if there is not some structure laid out, that could be a sign of instability and unrealistic expectations on their part. To make sure this doesn’t become an issue, ask them what work they expect to be done on a typical day. Also inquire if employees are often asked to do work that is outside their role. This will help you decide if the role is a good fit for you, but also will show how much they have thought about your tasks and whether they have been clearly established.
  3. Ask If The Role Is New: Obviously some questions are hard to ask as you don’t want to come off as grilling them, but if possible make an attempt to learn about the context of the role. If 3 people already have the same exact role, then the work is likely based on real needs and is a sign of stability. On the other hand, if you are the first one to be hired into this position, try to find out what motivated the company to take this action. If the decision was based on little but the founder’s gut feeling, that is a red flag.
  4. Confirm Redundancy Terms: If the founder doesn’t succeed in getting her next round of funding or her business model needs to change, you may be out of a job. It’s good to know if she will give you notice of 2 days, 2 weeks or 2 months. Also, find out if there is a probationary period and what are the conditions are around that.
  5. Discover The Company Culture: If you have ever watched Silicon Valley or The Social Network you’ll have seen the stereotypes. Beer pong, video games and fun parties. In and of itself this can really be great as it brings positive energy to the workplace which makes your tasks easier to handle. But if you hate beer pong and video games, the situation may be less than ideal and could cause friction. In that scenario, they may see you as less of a team player and that could jeopardize your position.
  6. Find Out Who Else Works There: If 8 out of the 10 people who work there were hired in the last week, that lack of history makes it harder to judge whether the company is on stable footing. Also, if the founder has hired his sister, his 2 cousins and 3 mates from university, that somewhat signals a weak hiring process. Hiring only friends is just bad business as it creates conflicts of interests that clouds one’s judgement. Of course, there are situations where hiring your brother does make sense. But forms of nepotism are signs to be wary of.
  7. What Does Their Feedback Process Look Like? Formal reviews are important. It helps ensure that your work is being judged objectively and on clear criteria. If a company has a formal review process done regularly, that is a great sign they take your role and your personal growth seriously. If they lack a formal review process, it is a red flag that you could be let go on the subjective perception of your work, rather than on your true performance.

As I mentioned above, there is no single indication that a startup is frivolous when dealing with human resources management. These are actions you can take to see if the volatility level of the startup is a right match for you. Some people love the risks and change that come with working for a startup. Others don’t. And yet others are looking for something in the middle. Hopefully these tools can help you find the right job for you.


Written by Eric Brotto, founder of The MBA is Dead.
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