Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Offering a unique value proposition as an employee 17: startups and the drive to create new paths forward 2

Posted in career development, job search, job search and career development, startups by Timothy Platt on August 14, 2013

This is my seventeenth posting to a series on offering defining value as an employee, and on presenting yourself as the answer to problems faced while doing so (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 311-326 for Parts 1-16.)

I began discussing startups and early stage businesses as sources of career options in this in Part 16, and continue here where I left off at that end of that series installment.

I began Part 16 by drawing a distinction between participating in a startup or early stage business as a founder and owner, and working at one of these enterprises for its founders. I focused on the later approach, and in anticipation of discussion to come I continue that and then turn to consider the role and career choice of founding a business yourself after I have finished discussing working for one.

A great deal of Part 16 was devoted to putting my startups and early stage business portion of this series in perspective with the rest of this blog, offering links to relevant series and individual postings from the rest of it. With over 1450 postings up to now, I thought that might make it easier to find and review relevant reference materials that I have already written and posted that would serve as background to this. And much of the rest of that posting delved, at least in surface detail, on the various types of professional working relationships that an employee can pursue with a startup or early stage and its founder, depending on whether they work in-house or as an outside consultant, and full or part time.

I said at the end of Part 16 that I would delve more specifically into the issues of working with a founder and owner as a member of a small team, and when many and even most workplace and business details are still in flux. I will do that here and I will also discuss the sometimes very closely related issues of backing and investment in a newly forming enterprise. In anticipation of that, I note that founders and owners of these enterprises in the making can take a very different view as to the relationship between sweat equity and cash backing than anyone working for them would. And in that regard and as specific, relevant background reference I cite my earlier posting: Startups and a Word that Divides Them – investment.

• When you work with a startup or early stage business, you work as a part of a small team that collectively has to both do everything and anticipate what is going to be needed next to begin working on that too, and before problems arise.
• The unexpected and problems will arise, guaranteed. Startups may hold enough in common so that experience working with them can improve chances of success when working with a new such venture, and the same can be said of early stage businesses. But every startup or early stage business also faces, and every one at least occasionally creates new challenges and they face new and unanticipated opportunities as well. Startups and early stage businesses are always learning curve exercises and for everyone involved in them.
• So when you work with one of these ventures you have to wear a lot of professional hats and you have to take responsibility for a wide area of activities and functions. And you have to be comfortable enough working with uncertainty and in a mix of proactive development and reactive correction to succeed at that.
• It helps to have and keep a positive attitude, and that calls for a significant tolerance of and even comfort with uncertainty and recurring change.

And with that, I begin turning to consider commitment and investment. Startups in particular, but also early stage businesses tend to start out with minimal funding and minimal cash reserves. I have seen and worked with a few that were significantly bankrolled from the start, but that is the rare exception. An employee is brought in as a member of a founding team and they take on a wide range of responsibilities – with that including both a wide and complex set of task responsibilities and a willingness to work long hours in dealing with change and the unexpected. And as noted in my above cited reference, they see their sweat equity as holding value and I add value that translates into monetary terms. They are in most cases working in hopes of future compensation as back pay due and for most if not all of what they would be due for this early work performed. And the founder wants them to make a cash investment in this venture too, and particularly if they are coming in taking on a functional area C level responsibility.

• Know what you are getting into for this,
• And be willing to openly discuss these issues and what you can do and what you can commit to do,
• And what you can bring to the table besides just your sweat equity if you are to help provide financial backing to some level.
• Know what the founders and owners expect and assume, and work with them to reconcile the differences that emerge between your thinking and theirs.
• Discuss all of this with the founders and owners who you work for – the people who make the primary up-front financial commitment to launch this venture and who do and will own it as a matter of record, so everyone is on the same page in understanding who is going to do what and who will participate at what level to help make this work – and what everyone would receive in return.

Note that I did not end that bullet point with wording such as “… and on what timeline.” The basic issues that would dictate adding something like that to that bullet point are, however, important, so I add more points to that list to include this.

• Expectations of return on employee investment made through early participation can take a lot of forms. Any list of such expectations would often include considerations such as securing a measure of owner equity, opportunity to secure a position on a newly forming table of organization at at least some specific minimal management level for your primary functional area, back pay as direct monetary compensation for time worked and effort made, and a voice at the table when making operational and strategic decisions, and certainly for your area of direct participation.
• If you want to avoid disagreements and confusion and disappointment, you need to discuss in detail what you would like and what the founders can and will offer, so that you can reach mutual agreement with them on this type of detail – and early. And this brings me specifically to that phrase: “… and on what timeline.”
• Realistically, timelines have to be flexible. You cannot in general, map out a startup’s or early stage business’ growth and development in advance on a calendar and simply dictate that by this date you will have done and achieved this, and by that date your new venture will be at that stage of growth and performance achieved.
• Performance benchmarks and knowing what you are shooting for, and even if you do not know precisely how long it will take to reach them can be more realistic.
• Still, the commitment point of setting goals on the calendar can be essential too, to keep this business moving. So negotiating a combination of performance benchmarks as to what has to be done, and timeline marks as to when that will be done is essential.
• This translates directly into your performance reviews and evaluations of how you are contributing through your work to making this business succeed. And at the same time this represents a basis for performance reviewing the business venture and its founders that as an employee, you have made a commitment to work with and help. These evaluations cut both ways and particularly for startups and early stage businesses where success is not certain and where uncertainty at times, can seem to rule.

I am going to continue discussing the issues of working for a startup or early stage business in my next installment and will then turn to consider these same business ventures from the owner and founder perspective, as a career option. And as a part of this next installment I will discuss business stage-specific expertise as a career route. In anticipation of that, I note that the fundamental nature of essentially all of the possible C level management positions that a business might require, change and fundamentally change as that business comes together and begins to grow and expand. Old primary skills and experience requirements needed at one stage move to holding lower priority or fall away and new ones arise. What starts out as a short and even minimal list of C level executives with many if not all of them counted as founders, expands out as functional areas are split off as distinct lines on the table of organization. And this same basic process can and usually does proceed down that table of organization, with at least some proliferation of middle managers and others as work at those levels becomes more defined and responsibilities are split into separate jobs and job descriptions. I will be discussing issues related to this next. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2 and at my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development. You can also find this and related postings at Startups and Early Stage Businesses.

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