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How to Work at a Startup

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It seems like the cool thing these days, as far as the jobs market is concerned, is to work at one of those mystical companies known as startups. Working at a startup can connote everything from who you are as a person to who you are as an employee to where your loyalties lie.

Not everyone is cut out for a startup, but if you are (and you know if you are), how, exactly, do you work at one?

Levo spoke with Lizzy Klein, VP of Product at Seamless, during yesterday’s Office Hours. Most people don’t see Seamless as a startup anymore (to me it’s just the awesome tool I use to order my food online); the company was founded in 1999 as a food ordering tool for companies, and opened to individual consumers in 2005. But Seamless still retains many of the qualities of newer startups that, as Klein explained, are some of the many reasons why you may want to work at a startup in the first place.

Why would you want to work at a startup?

Klein said she’s never learned as much in any other kind of work environment as she has when she’s worked at startups (and she’s worked for a few). You learn a ton, she said. You’re exposed to so many things, you’ll have your hands in a variety of different projects and teams, even where you may not have expertise—and in doing so, you begin to develop that expertise just by doing.

What I’ve noticed personally about working at a startup is that you get to jump right in. If you like teaching yourself how to do things on your own, if you don’t need a lot of guidance or hand-holding (or you don’t like a lot of guidance or hand-holding), you’ll get that at a startup.

Startups are known as relaxed, fun places to work. Think of all the rumors (all true, by the way) you’ve heard about the amazing perks at Google, or that scene on HBO’s Girls when we see inside the office of the company Charlie’s running for his mobile app. You probably won’t be taking breaks to play ping pong at a corporate job, but hey, maybe that’s not your thing.

One of the most exciting things about working at a startup, said Klein, is the plethora of opportunities for upward mobility. Companies that grow exponentially have a lot more room to hire for more positions—and probably for more senior positions, too. On that same vein, startups tend to be smaller companies, which means that the upper management is right at your fingertips; the hierarchical structure is less rigid in terms of the protocol for entry-level hires presenting ideas to their superiors.

How do you find a startup to work for?

You’re ready to take on the startup world! But how do you find the startup that’s right for you? Klein warned not to choose a startup for the equity, the stock options, or any of the other benefits; those aren’t all that common. It’s great when it happens, but it can’t be why you take the job. What’s most important, in order to excel, is that you need to be excited to be there. You have to want to do the work and really believe in the mission. Look for a product you love, Klein said, because when you’re working the long hours that typically come with the startup territory, you’ll want to be passionate about what you’re working on.

Still, you do want to keep the benefits in mind. Startups, especially newer startups, are a lot like non-profits in that they depend on grants, investors, or sponsors to operate. You might get offered a lower salary in the beginning in exchange for really great benefits, but keep in mind that the tradeoff is much more about the incredible potential of the work environment

Klein pointed out that when you’re looking to work at a startup, there’s no magic formula to pick a winning company. Just make sure that you’re surrounded by smart people—people you want to work with. They need to be people you want to eat lunch with, people that inspire you. If you feel like you’re the average one in the group, then you’ve probably picked the right group to work with (Warren Buffett himself has said that you want to work with people who are better than you are).

What do you do when you get there?

A startup is a very volatile environment. Things are constantly changing and adapting to the marketplace, to users or customers, or to investors. When working at a startup, try to be open to change and to overcome adversity, said Klein. Personally, I’m a creature of habit. Working at a startup has been a huge change for me in that systems and processes can change at any moment. The way we do things one week may not be the way we decide to do it the next week, but that can be exciting. It leaves huge room for growth, and huge room for improvement.

Speaking of growth and improvement, you need to keep an open mind to growing and improving as an employee of the startup you work for. Be open to feedback and criticism, because at a startup (as at any company), there’s always room for improvement.

When you work at a startup, you can throw the idea of sticking to one task out the window. Not only is it crucial to be able to multitask when you work for a startup, said Klein, but you should be willing to help wherever needed. Startups are all hands on deck, all the time. The more flexible you are in what you’re willing to do to get the job done, the better you’ll do within the company. And, as a further benefit to you, you’ll end up learning a lot more in areas you may not have considered to be strengths of yours in the first place!

One piece of advice that Klein received about working at a startup is to “act like an owner.” Don’t ask, just do, said Klein. In order to establish yourself at a startup, you need to get comfortable with taking risks, and sometimes that means to just go for it. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “ask for forgiveness, not permission.” It’s all about that. But if you’re bold and you’re daring and you act for the good of the company, it’s likely that your risks are well-calculated.

For more tips on the #startuplife, watch Lizzy Klein’s Office Hours below:

Thanks to Lizzy Klein, if you use the code LEVO on your Seamless order today, you can receive 10% off. Thank you, Lizzy!

It’s not too late to ask Lizzy Klein a question! Visit her Levo League profile and ask her a question today!

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