The truth behind 6 myths of working at a startup

Colin Morris

There are certain images of life at startups that have ingrained themselves in pop culture. In many people’s view, working at a startup is a geeky, glamorous world full of branded hoodies, office perks, and ever-fattening bank accounts.

On the flip side, some people envision startups as just the opposite — a stress-inducing job opportunity barren of work/life balance, proper pay, and job security.

There may be a grain of truth to every stereotype, but these anecdotes don’t tell the whole story. In order to find out more, we sat down with some of Austin’s top tech companies to learn which myths they’re debunking — and how.

Myth: Startups are all fun and games.

Reality: “Sure, it can look that way from the outside,” said TrendKite CEO Erik Huddleston. And sure enough, TrendKite has a lot of the usual perks: Ping-Pong tables, Nerf guns, catered lunches and fun parties. “But if you walk around our office, you’ll realize that the fun is the reward for the very hard work we put in to build a great company. You’ll see developers working late to get a new features out on an aggressive timeline, sales reps putting in long hours to close deals or cover international prospects, and a customer success team answering inbound chats on weekend and holidays. That hard work leads to winning the market — and winning is what we celebrate.”

Which leads us to the next myth.

Myth: Startups employers slave away 24/7.

Reality: “Winning is more about precision than brute force,” Huddleston said. “Our culture reinforces working only on the most important things. There is infinite work that could be worked on in a startup. But if you step back and analyze what is actually impactful, you can radically reduce the teams’ workload.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” said Datical CEO Derek Hutson. “Startups are not easy and they are not 9 to 5 jobs. If you want to do 'just enough,' don’t head to a startup and definitely not Datical.”

If that sounds harsh, it’s because like Huddleston, Hutson sees the hustle as a trade-off.

“However, one of the benefits of a well-run start-up is that you can keep all your energy focused on a few key priorities. No time for anything else.”

Some companies work hard to avoid a constant grind whenever possible. Patient IO CEO Jason Bornhorst told us he was waiting for a flight recently when he stumbled across a listicle in Flipboard called “10 Things Successful People Never Do.” High on the list: Eating lunch at your desk.

“Truth be told, there are days when our entire team eats lunch at our desks,” Bornhorst said. “When it’s crunch time, leisurely business lunches just aren’t possible.” But when employees can, they make up for it with some fun, and they’re surrounded by options downtown. “Our office is obsessed with Uber Eats,” Bornhorst said. “Sometimes we take turns ordering and paying for everyone in a round-robin type way.”

Bornhorst added the company’s focus on healthcare results in a lot of walking meetings downtown and along the river trail.

 

Myth: Startups are disorganized.

Reality: Favor CEO Jag Bath conceded his company does keep things a little loose, but that doesn’t mean sloppy.

“Sure, Favor is not as structured as a Fortune 500 company, but that means that each employee wears multiple hats, and has a big impact on our business,” Bath said. “We’ve created a workplace structure that allows our teams to still be agile but have the support they need to get things done.”

To that end, the on-demand delivery service has hired three executives and more than 25 managers this year to support hundreds of staff members in its 23 North American markets.

TrendKite’s Huddleston said disorganization just wouldn’t work at his company.

“If you watch ‘Silicon Valley’ or listen to war stories from startups that didn’t make it, you might think startups are disorganized,” he said. “We are so metrics-driven that we have monitors throughout the office giving an up-to-the-minute view of how the organization is performing. We take fast action on those metrics when we see something that needs to be addressed.”

Every Friday, the company holds a standup meeting to compare performance to goals and review the progress of each department on strategic initiatives. “That level of transparency helps us react instantly in a very organized way,” Huddleston said. “Someone who’s used to a slow-moving large company could feel a little overwhelmed at first. But we act very purposefully and coordinate as a team.”

 

Myth: Working at a startup is a huge risk.

Reality: It can be. Any investor will tell you there’s risk involved with potential reward. That’s kind of the whole point of investing. But Huddleston advised candidates for startup jobs to take the same approach.

“Just as an investor is careful about the stocks they pick, you should be careful about which startup you join,” he said. “If it’s not growing fast, or if it’s disorganized, or if you can’t understand how they make money, it’s probably not a good bet to join.”

Besides, Patient IO’s Bornhorst (pictured left) pointed out that any assumptions about corporate jobs don’t really hold up under scrutiny.

“In the 1950’s, the key to success was getting a job at a corporate megalith like Ford or GE,” he said. “People rarely changed jobs, and there was less pressure to keep your skills up to date than there is today. Over the last few years, we have seen companies we thought were too big to fail, like the Lehman Brothers, go out of business.”

Myth: Compensation at startups is lower than average

Reality: What’s average, anyway? (We’ve put together a few of our own reports on this).

But TrendKite’s Huddleston’s view is that successful startups can’t afford to hire anything but A players — whatever it takes.

“It’s great to be thrifty in some areas, but skimping on talent will get you a team of B-players instead of the team of A-players you need. So we work hard to be competitive,” he said. "It’s possible at times that a big company can throw more money at a star player to try to retain them. In another company, we were recruiting a star developer away from a large corporation, which doubled his salary to try to keep him. But he ultimately joined us anyway, because for him it was about more than the money.

“So we’re competitive, we’re fair, but we also seek the people that are truly signing up for the mission.”

Myth: Work/life balance sucks.

Reality: Datical’s Hutson said that can be a challenge. But the flip side is you don’t have to fight red tape and years of tradition to make things more efficient.

“We can focus all our efforts on a few vital tasks, which makes us more efficient,” Hutson said. “The right culture is so important — a culture where you and your team know what needs to be done. You get it done better than anyone else and don’t waste time.”

That’s how Datical makes time for balancing work and life. At Patient IO, Bornhorst focuses on flexibility to make up for the demands of startup life.

“Happy, healthy team members are productive team members,” he said. “Team members can choose the schedule that works best for their lifestyle, and helps them avoid the Austin traffic. Some people come in at 7 a.m. and leave at 3 or 4 p.m., while others come in at 10 a.m. and work until 6 p.m.”

Have a news tip for us or know of a company that deserves coverage? Tell us or tweet @BuiltInAustin.

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