It takes a certain type of person to work at a startup

Startup life requires a unique sort of endurance.
Startup life requires a unique sort of endurance.
Image: Business Today
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Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford University commencement speech has become one of Silicon Valley’s best recruiting tools. It was then that he shared his story about taking calligraphy at Reed College, which later informed the typography of the Mac; and how getting fired from Apple, the company he founded, was the best thing that ever happened to him. Both are tales of how following your bliss and enduring pain and heartache pay enormous dividends over a lifetime.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward,” he told the graduates. “So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Sequoia Capital partner Bryan Schreier knows the power of Jobs’ commencement speech and shared those words before a crowd of 250 East Coast college students at a recruiting event in New York (“Start @ a Startup“) earlier this month. There Sequoia Capital investors and founders from the firm’s portfolio of companies made a strong case for joining a startup right out of college.

There are plenty of reasons not to join a startup: the high volatility, financial instability, and uncertainty. When asked about the logic behind taking on that sort of risk instead of first gaining experience in a more stable environment and then taking it to a startup, Schreier responded that the corporate route goes more against human nature. ”How would you deal with an overly-structured environment where the scope of your work was incredibly limited by a very large company?” said Schreier, who himself took an analyst position at Morgan Stanley right out of college. “There’s surely a challenge day-to-day when it comes what to work on, but it’s better training for life and your career than going to a very narrow in scope position at an investment bank.”

The event’s keynote guests all emphasized the “crazy growth curve” that you experience by joining a startup right away, personally and professionally.

“Startups are a unique environment where you’re forced to grow,” said Raylene Yung, an engineer at payments platform Stripe. “They can be the best way to be very successful in a short amount of time. Your success as an individual becomes tied to how successful the company is, and if you’re at a really great startup, that growth curve, that success curve, is extremely steep. Your part of that success can be significant.”

Marco Zappacosta, co-founder of service marketplace Thumbtack, added: “Optimize for going to the place where you’re going to learn the most for the next three to four years.”

Prioritizing growth early in your career is sound logic. So is taking a lower-paying job while you’re young and single with few other commitments.

PayPal co-founder Max Levchin said that getting comfortable in a more stable career first and then diving into a startup “is a fundamentally flawed idea.” He explained that you become accustomed to a certain lifestyle and you rarely save as much money as planned: “Everybody goes out on Friday night and buys bottle service and you say, ‘No, no, no: I’m saving up for that time when I can continue living like a monk in pursuit of a bigger dream.’”

But startup life is not for everyone. Consistently engaging with high levels of ambiguity has a dark side. Weathering volatility requires psychological and emotional anchoring.

“If you have somebody who’s smart and really tenacious versus someone who is exceptionally smart but very fragile,” Levchin told Quartz, “I would argue that you should take the former because those people actually work through problems. Startups are rarely made by extreme intelligence-requiring events. … People with extreme perseverance ability will not quit, and that’s what you want.”

Of course, a chaotic environment is a great way to build emotional and psychological endurance, which can pay dividends for a lifetime—at a price. The media doesn’t do a great job of relaying the realities of startup life (something Ben Horowitz captured in his 2014 book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things); rapid growth always involves some pain.

“Going to a place that stretches you, that asks more of you, that offers more to you because it’s under-resourced is advantageous,” said Zappacosta, who was rejected by VCs 42 times before his team landed their Series A round of funding. “Because that develops a set of competencies and skills early on that you can carry with you.”

Embracing a growth mindset, as former Facebook executive and Sequoia partner Mike Vernal put it, is a way to work through the ambiguity. “The very best people for a startup are those that are impatient and want to jump into the thick of things, want to jump into a mess and keep going,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a binary thing. I think it’s a spectrum.”