Career Path

Welcome to the Pressure Cooker: How to Succeed in a Start-Up

You may have the freedom to show up in a T-shirt, but when more than 1.8 million start-ups launch each year, culture can take a backseat to competition.

When Luke interviewed for his current tech start-up job, the CTO promised a supportive culture, great work-life balance, flexibility, and plenty of opportunity for professional development.

But soon after he started, Luke realized the company was riddled with problems: his manager was inexperienced, his young colleagues were constantly one-upping each another, advancement opportunities were few and far between, and the CTO—who lived in another country—would regularly ask Luke and his team to join last-minute calls at all hours of the day.

By nature, start-ups are racing to beat the odds of survival: 20% of small businesses fail after the first year.

Indeed, while many start-ups have the best intentions, their quest for breakneck growth can create a toxic culture. With more than 1.8 million tech start-ups launched worldwide each year, the competition to get ahead is fierce, and steps that would make more established companies pause are overlooked: friends are hired, first-time CEOs don’t put themselves through leadership training, and everything gets sacrificed to keep the customer happy. By nature, these start-ups are racing to beat the odds of survival: 20% of small businesses fail after the first year, and only half survive beyond the five-year mark, according to the US Small Business Administration.

But even at start-ups where the culture is great, the reality is that such a life isn’t for everyone. “How you frame your time at a start-up can determine your success there,” says Nancy Von Horn, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. “Are you going to be excited or anxious about the competitiveness, the work hours, and unpredictability?” Here are four common start-up stressors to be on the lookout for.

Problem #1: Your colleagues act nice, but they’re cutthroat when it matters.

One of the hallmarks of start-up culture is the idea that everyone “works hard, plays hard.” But the reality isn’t always so rosy. At Luke’s company, where limited advancement opportunities often created tough competition, employees tended to be cliquey and often took credit for others’ work. One colleague, who was sweet to Luke’s face, would often reject his ideas only to propose them as her own later on.

In situations like these, experts say it’s OK to be guarded around colleagues. But there’s also nothing wrong with some tactful directness about their behavior. Gabrielle Bill, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance, recommends asking about their intentions. “It’s possible that you might be misinterpreting their behavior, and getting to know them better might clear the air.”

Problem #2: The recognition you receive feels superficial.

We’ve all watched a flurry of “Go team!” and “Anna is awesome!” emails or Slack messages come through to celebrate an accomplishment. But they can feel empty if people aren’t encouraging one another during the time leading up to that win. That void can be an opportunity for you to show your leadership skills. “Making others feel good and being likable gets you farther—even in a start-up. It doesn’t show weakness to cheer on the team, but rather emotional intelligence and confidence,” says Von Horn. Give colleagues compliments by using specifics about what they did and how it helped you or the team.

Problem #3: Only those who blatantly self-promote get promoted.

Communicating your accomplishments isn’t the same thing as tooting your own horn. Von Horn says to speak about your wins in terms of the value you added and the unique skills you bring to the organization—and not to assume that people know what you’re up to. Try saying, “The team responded exceptionally well to my idea of…,” or “I’m working on something really interesting right now.”

You can also ask your manager to have dedicated professional development time during your regular one-on-ones. “If you know it’s a standard element of your meetings, you’ll feel less awkward broaching the subject,” Bill says.

Problem #4: The promise of work-life balance is a joke.

Many people seek out a new job specifically for benefits like work-life balance and flexibility. If the company doesn’t hold true on its promises, that can be a tough blow. When you’re brand-new to the role, more can be required of you while you get up to speed, so a good way to get a sense of the company’s cadence is to observe your colleagues. Are they in the office late every night? Do they send emails all weekend?

If so, you need to hold the company accountable. Val Olson, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance, notes that the people who have the most to gain from your long hours are the founders. “Figure out what you personally need in terms of work-life balance, and take control of your own destiny,” she says. “Many people can get ahead in their careers while preserving what they value most. Be that person.”

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