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The unwritten rules of working at a startup that no one likes to talk about

500 startups let it growBiz Carson/Business Insider

When it comes to working at a startup, there are a lot of truths that people rarely talk about.

Startup life has become shrouded in myth. People think it’s a shortcut to the American Dream, a get-rich-quick path.

But for a lot people, startup life is far harsher and more complicated.

What you've heard: You have to 'win' an insanely difficult interview process.

Shutterstock

What's really true: yes most startups will want you to prove competence for any technical job. But many hot startups do not put their interviews through the wringer.

For instance, startups like Spotify, 23andme, even Snapchat are known to have interview processes that rate as 'average' rather than 'hard.'

What you've heard: To get a job at a cool startup, you have to be a 'culture fit.'

What's really true: Yes, startups often want their employees to view their companies and their cultures with an almost patriotic sensibility.

It's de rigueur these days for startup CEOs to wax poetically about the company's culture and even print it in big letters on the wall. Human resources managers will often extend offers or not based on the ideal 'cultural fit' candidate.

In reality, the culture that most startups ascribe to are attributes that every thoughtful human being will have: inclusive, dedicated, customer centric, helpful ... and the like.

In practice this often means that a company is more likely to hire similar types of people like those who are fresh from college, or are former colleagues of a previous company at another under the banner of 'culture fit.'

What you've heard: you'll work long hours but it won't feel like work because you'll love the job so much.

What's really true: yes, long hours are expected.

aneration via statigram

For many startups, employers expect employees to work 50 hours a week. At some places, 60 hours is the expectation, according to a string on Quora.

Chances are, you'll enjoy the job a lot of the time. If you're succeeding, your company will be growing, and it will be exciting.

But even so work is work and work is hard. There will be good days filled with success. And bad days filled with setbacks.

Long hours are fun if everyone is pulling together to make a deadline ... and then people pause and take a break.

But long hours with no milestone or break in sight leads to burnout.

Not surprisingly, startups generally have higher attrition rates than established companies: as high as 25% compared to less than 10%.

What you've heard startups care about their employees more than big corporations do.

What's really true: startups can make you feel important ... or lost.

The younger the startup, the more of your coworkers you will know, which can lead to a warm, cosy family feeling at the job.

But some startups try to grow as big as they can as fast as they can, hiring dozens to hundreds of employees per year.

In all but the most well-managed startups, such fast hiring can feel chaotic. And in the most poorly run startups, it can lead to disaster, where employees feel stressed out and that their companies have set them up for failure, not success.

What you've heard: the long hours are worth it because a startup is a shortcut to getting rich fast.

Getty Images/Justin Sullivan

What's really true: most startups fail.

Flickr User rabble

The chances are greater that your startup will leave you needing a new job rather than financial secure for life.

By some measures, 90% of startups fail. By other measures, the rate is closer to 60%.

The top reason a tech startup fails is an obvious one: no one really needs the product they are trying to sell, according to CB Insights.

What's really true: Even if your startup succeeds and is acquired or goes public, chances are, it won't make you rich.

If you joined the startup early enough, stayed long enough, and your startup does sell big or have a big IPO, you could definitely wind up wealthy.

Or if you joined the startup later, you could wind up with a payout that ranges from a down payment to a house to a nice vacation.

Your cut will depend on they type of stock option you were offered, the terms offered to investors (they tend to get preferential treatment for acquisition), and things like dilution, or how many shares the company distributed to all of its investors/employees.

There have even been instances where employees lost money when a troubled startup sold itself, even when the executives and investors walked with millions.

What you've heard: Working at a startup is not about the money but about changing the world.

What's really true: It may be about the money, but it's not polite to say so.

Startup founders and CEOs spend a lot of time raising money. And they also often ask their employees to take less money in lieu of equity.

The promise is there will be that big payoff later.

But the founder wants to know that the employee really wants to help the business grow, and isn't in it just for the money.

So the unwritten rule is, it's in poor taste for an employee or prospective employee to focus too much on an acquisition or IPO.

What's really true: founders are often completely inexperienced and prone to mistakes.

Skye Gould/Business Insider

Just because a founder spent a few weeks to a few months building an app or tech product that people love doesn't mean the founder knows how to run a company.

The founder may not know how to manage people or projects, how to hire a salesforce, how to offer proper incentives, how to handle money, and a whole bunch of others things necessary to turning an idea into a real business.

In Dan Lyons' book 'Disrupted' about startup life, there's a line by a guy who got wealthy from his previous startup:

'You know what the big secret of all these startups is? The big secret is that nobody knows what they're doing. When it comes to management, it's amateur hour. They just make it up as they go along.'

What you've heard: startups offer employees the best perks.

What's really true: perks can be great, but can also vanish quickly.

Business Insider/Julie Bort

Free food. Free beer. Ping pong table. Parties in the break room on Friday night. An annual trip to an exotic location where the team can bond.

Startups that land healthy rounds from investors are known to offer all of these things to their employees or more.

But as a startup grows or if it falters, these perks tend to vanish, as they're unsustainably expensive for a growing roster of employees.

On the other hand, they tend to be replaced by things like better health benefits, which become more affordable with more employees.

What you've heard: working at a startup is more fun than working for a big company.

What's really true: startup life is fast-paced and stressful, which is more fun for certain types of people.

Startups are places where employees can roll up their sleeves and do whatever they see needs to be done, rather than being restricted to a single role or task.

They are great for people who don't mind a lot of change, even if it's coupled with disorganization.

They are places where your hard work can be seen and where fast advancement is possible, since you may personally know the CEO.

At the same time, they are often pressure cookers, where everyone is working under do-or-die circumstances. If your idea fails and no one wants your product/feature/service, the company itself might fail.

Being so needed and important can be exciting and fun for a lot of people. But it's not for everyone.

What you've heard: working at a startup is more rewarding than working at a big company.

IBM employees

What's really true: for many people, the startup life is the best.

Madeline Stone / Business Insider

Startups are almost always less bureaucratic than big companies. And that means that employees can enjoy more autonomy, which is a more satisfying way to work for most people.

It's not unusual for someone to start as an intern and work her way up to vice president at a startup. That's pretty much impossible at most big established companies.

Despite the risks of working at a startup, the long hours, the potential for failure, many people prefer the startup environment.

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