Australian founders reveal the unwritten rules of working in a startup

Photo: Stone & Chalk/ Facebook.

The lure of the startup is strong.

It’s the promise of riches, a cool office, the admiration of peers and an exciting way of life.

Others see through the mists of upside to a starker reality. More than 90% of them fail, leaving those who worked day and night for little pay in a tough spot.

We asked Australian founders to reveal the unwritten rules of working on a startup, about the road to riches, daily life creating a new business and how to get a gig.

They agree that the work will be long and hard. And that anyone contemplating working on a startup should be prepared to take on multi roles. Be adaptable.

Peta Ellis, CEO of River City Labs, Brisbane’s technology hub for startups‬, says the work should be the kind of “hard” you enjoy.

“Your job description (if you are lucky enough to get one) will most likely outline a role that will change regularly throughout your contract,” she says.

The startups we spoke to didn’t talk up the money side. That will come. But in the meantime, you’ll probably go backwards before coming out the other side with money in the pocket.

Everyone hopes to get rich, says Ellis. “If not, you will most definitely learn a bucketload.”

“If you are not investing your time as sweat equity, you are getting paid a wage with perhaps some shares. If you are lucky enough to be paid a decent wage in a startup it means the business has actual customers to fund its growth which is a very positive sign.”

And the best way to get a role on a startup is to start hanging around startups, immerse yourself in the startup community and talk to founders.

“If you are keen on a certain sector or really want to get involved in something in particular, make yourself known,” says Ellis.

“Startup founders will hire a forward-thinking go-getter who approached them before putting out a job ad. You are also only as good as your last project, so document what you do, share links to things you have done and made or gotten results.”

These startups share insight into the unwritten rules:

Xplor

Mark Woodland created Melbourne-based start-up Xplor, raising $6 million from Australian venture capital firm Airtree Ventures.

The platform allows families to connect in real-time with their child’s learning through a live feed of photos, videos and activities during the day. It also offers both software and hardware without charge to schools and childcare centres both locally and internationally.

Woodland’s recommendation is: “Work like mad, every second counts. Put in 80-100 hours every week. Keep the bigger picture in mind.”

He says it’s not about “doing it for the money” but about taking the fears away from money and success. Money is a number, a score card. It is about building the business first and the money will follow.

“You have to be a team player, dive right in, roll up your sleeves and get amongst it,” he says. “Job descriptions and titles are not relevant.

He describes startups as pressure cookers.

“We may not have a dress code and our offices are cool, but don’t let that fool you,” he says. “Startups are not glamorous, it’s hard and they are demanding; but it will be the best work you ever do.”

OnMarket BookBuilds

Simon Cheatham, project manager at OnMarket BookBuilds, says: “Be flexible … or fail. Startups begin small and continue that way till maybe they begin gaining traction and there is a need for expansion — and they make some money.”

Until then, the job description has no limitations even if you are the CEO.

“One minute you’ll be doing a stationary run to Officeworks, the next you’ll be talking to a major potential investor or client, making his cup of tea and washing the cup up afterwards,” says Cheatham.

“Then you could be talking to your development team about the next major enhancement for your website or app, the cost and how to market it. Then you’ll be paying the phone bill, rent or doing the tax or dealing with other admin tasks.

“If you want a job where you have a written rules job description, a startup is not for you.”

Expect to work anytime, anywhere, any day.

“Though the hours don’t necessarily need to be long, you need to work smart if you want a good balance between business and downtime or family commitments,” says Cheatham. “If you want work 9am – 5pm, go work for a government body.”

On money, says Cheatham, there are no guarantees in life and certainly none in a startup.

You need to believe in what you are doing to succeed. Have a passion.

“Clichéd but true,” he says. “In our case we are giving investors access to capital raisings on the same terms as the big end of town which has budgets and resources far larger then what we have.”

DSYNC

Simon Church, founder of DSYNC, recommends sharing.

“Help other startups with knowledge you may have discovered on your journey,” he says.

“You may have discovered a good legal firm or advice on government grants or a contact that may be able to assist them. In many cases the favor will be remembered and returned.”

Networking is key, surround yourself with like-minded entrepreneurs and have your 30-second elevator pitch ready.

Enter as many startup competitions as possible. Join an accelerator and take advantage of the corporate freebies including hosting, software and support services.

“Always be on the look out for good partner and alliance opportunities it is a great way to build trust within the ecosystem,” he says.

“Leverage every connection, do not miss an opportunity to build your LinkedIn database.

“Serial entrepreneurs work in their sleep, it never stops. Ever.”

Ordermentum

Andrew Low, co-founder and CEO of Ordermentum, says life in a startup is framed around passion, urgency and self belief.

“I challenge myself and the team daily to reflect on how they are doing, how the business is doing, what can we do differently and how we can we make a difference more quickly,” he says.

“Unlike ever before in my corporate career, the startup journey is confrontingly real and personal every single day and there are no rest stops. You feel every bump, every high and every low.”

His core pillars of entrepreneurial success: You have to believe that you are the right person to lead, that your product is the best and the team you have assembled is empowered to make a difference.

“In any employee I hire the lead indicator of their cultural fit and ultimate success within Ordermentum is a drive to learn, to challenge and ultimately to make a clear and defined improvement to the world as they see it,” says Low.

Capital Pitch

Co-founder Jeremy Liddle’s startup helps startups connect with venture capitalists.

His formula: Startup = organised chaos.

“Everyone must be willing to roll up their sleeves and do anything to help the team at any time,” he says.

“Work life balance is a myth as an entrepreneur. Work = Life and because I’m doing something I love, I love every minute of it.

“The pay off is always a lot longer and slower than you’d like. Every now and again it’s also a lot bigger then the entrepreneur may have hoped as well.”

RainCheck

Cameron Wall is CEO and co-founder of RainCheck, a shopping app that notifies you of items you like online when you enter physical stores.

He calculates that he works 4,000 minutes a week.

His main tip: “Always have faith in your gut feeling it is usually the right decision in the end.”

INAMO

Peter Colbert is founder and CEO of INAMO, a company building the next generation of wearable tech.

His unwritten rule: “Don’t complain. If you do then you shouldn’t be in a start-up.”

He says you never stop working when in a startup but that it’s all fun.

And getting rich shouldn’t be the reason for being in a start-up.

“If it is you will fail,” he says.

WordFlow (formerly SWIPE)

Caroline Trotman, CMO at WordFlow, recommends living the vision every day.

“Stay on strategy — it’s as much about what you don’t do as what you do,” she says.

Every hour of the day is work time. “But not just sitting at your desk,” she says. “Working is socialising, meeting prospects, participating in events, networking, meet ups, travel. You are pretty much always on. You need to accept this and enjoy it.”

On money, she says rich is doing something you are passionate about and love doing every day.

“Rich is running your own race,” Trotman says. “Not someone else’s. Rich is being surrounded by like minded people. Rich is suspending the fear of striking out on your own. Rich is creating something new that has never been done before. Rich is leaving a legacy.”

Startups are looking for passion, smarts and not the big corporate resume.

“Finding people who are willing to be agile and love the challenge,” she says. “It is the hardest part of making a start up work. And always start with an internship – try each other out before you commit.”

Cover Genius

Chris Bayley, CEO and founder of Cover Genius, a global distributor of insurance products for online businesses.

His unwritten rule of working in a startup: “Don’t say No.”

Bayley says he should have done startups earlier.

“It’s a long way from beer and skittles,” he says. “The hours are ridiculous and the money paltry. And you need a very accommodating partner. But the long run is tremendous. Should’ve done it in my 20s.”

He calculates he works about 70 hours a week

On money, he knows plenty of people that have done well.

“I don’t think many people are incentivised by the money, most are encouraged by the challenge and the journey.”

On getting a job, he recommends applying at startups that have Series A funding.

“It’s only at that point that there is proper validation of the business, and professional investors that have done their due diligence,” he says. “With stock options and a bit of luck, that can be a pretty remarkable life decision for a candidate.”

GO1

Andrew Barnes, CEO and co-founder of this edutech startup, says there are not many common unwritten rules to working in a startup environment because it varies greatly between businesses.

“But one thing that you need to be prepared for, especially when joining an early stage startup, is wearing multiple hats,” he says.

“You have to be willing to juggle or move between many roles in a startup. Having a team that can adapt to get the job done is critical to success.

“This environment isn’t for everyone, and for a lot of people this can be a challenge.”

With offices in Australia, the US, Vietnam and Malaysia, the hours can vary.

He remembers starting the day and working through until 4am to have full coverage with the team in Australia and Vietnam and then waking up again at 10am local time to repeat.

“There are no set office hours in most startups, and as long as the job is getting done, you can work the hours that fit your role,” he says.

“As a startup there are always things needing to be done, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of overworking and burning out.

“At GO1 we have a strong emphasis on work life balance to ensure our team stays healthy and on top of their game at all times. A startup may be a sprint, but it’s also a marathon.”

He points to a a high percentage of startups failing within the first year.

“If you focus on building a great product, then you can create your own luck, but nothing is ever guaranteed,” he says.

“As a startup you have the benefit of being nimble and agile, but you can also be wiped out by much larger competitors.”

The best way to get a startup job is to go to local meetups, head to co-working spaces and talk to people.

“Find out what people are working on and see if you can find something that works for you,” he says.

“Startups are a thing of passion, and if you are not passionate about the product, the people or the company you are working for then you are not going to enjoy your time. If you find something that ticks all of those boxes, jump on it because it will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your career.”

LoanDolphin

Ranin Mendis‬ is a co-founder of the online loan bidding platform‬‬.

“What you put in is what you get out,” Mendis‬ says.

“There are no shortcuts and no cheat sheets. Believe in what you are building, many people will have different opinions but ultimately you get to decide when to pull the plug and when to keep going. Your determination and strength will pave the way.”

Mendis‬ recommends not counting the number of hours you actually put in.

“A startup like LoanDolphin will take a considerable amount of your time no matter the time of day,” Mendis‬ says.

“You will have to build relationships, learn, pivot, foresee issues and be responsible for the whole operation.

“I remember both myself and Rod (Dutra) putting in 20 hour days at the start when we were trying to build the platform and map out customer journeys.”

On money, Mendis‬ says it’s like buying a lottery ticket.

“It’s better when you enjoy the journey than the destination I feel,” Mendis‬ says.

“It’s much more exciting when you see the difference LoanDolphin have and will make. I will trade my old job as a banker to this moment in my life as the co-founder of LoanDolphin any day.”

On how to get a role in a startup, Mendis‬ is currently looking to hire a digital marketer.

“For starters we don’t have a budget to advertise on the mainstream platforms like Seek,” he says.

“Secondly as a startup we are not looking for candidates who are looking for another job. The first few team members will be crucial since this will determine the culture of the company.

“The hiring ritual comes down to some very basic attributes I suppose. Does this person believe in what we are creating, would this person be 100% committed and go above and beyond? Will they adapt well?

“Can I and my current team work well with this person? Is he/she afraid to fail and take risks?”

Buzinga

Logan Merrick is co-founder and director of Buzinga App Development. Merrick and co-founder Graham McCorkill have led the company from a two-man startup to an award-winning business in just three years.

“I’m not fussed about what hours someone works or where they work, as long as it doesn’t impact the rest of their team,” he says.

“At Buzinga, our working hours are 10 am to 6 pm (starting later has been proven to increase productivity and happiness), but we’re very flexible to individual needs.”

He says you’re unlikely to get rich on a good idea alone.

“It takes several years to achieve product market fit and become profitable,” Merrick says.

“Another thing I’ve found from working with hundreds of startups, is that the people who are in it for a cash grab never succeed. Focus on your product and your vision: The money will come later.”

He says smart startups are aware how cultural fit is incredibly important for ensuring low turnover and happy team members.

“Aside from the good fit factor and skills alignment, which is fairly intuitive, I also look for people who have drive and a hunger for self improvement,” he says. “These types of people move fast and get stuff done, which is incredibly valuable for under-resourced startups especially.”

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