Working at a Startup: The complete guide

Working at a startup comes with different sets of challenges. There are many advantages of working at a startup. Some of them are discussed in this article.

So, here’s the deal. India has the third-largest startup ecosystem in the world. Currently, our country has more than 50 unicorns (startups with valuations of 1 billion USD). In addition, the Government of India has recognised more than 50,000 startups under its Startup India scheme.

According to reports, some 39,000 startups have created around 4,70,000 jobs. Also, startup founders are seen as demi-gods—almost usurping our illustrious cricketers from their throne—who’ve embraced uncertainty and emerged victorious. And several founders have done this not just once or twice, but multiple times. 

This is an environment that is ripe for the picking. The startup scene today is an attractive option for graduates and professionals who are raring to go. Once known to be high-risk employers, startups today are seen as hotspots of innovation, solving real problems despite the risks.

After all, disruption is not something that happens in the safe confines of normalcy. The implementation of technological tools and a large domestic market have provided the impetus for exponential growth in the Indian startup industry.

Having said all that, working in a startup is waaaaay different than traditional businesses. Did we say that it is different? Because it is. You require a different mindset, rigor, agility… to survive and thrive in a startup. The rules that apply in a traditional business, don’t in a startup.

Here are some high-level differences between working for startups versus traditional firms.

How a startup differs from a traditional company

  Startup Traditional Firm
Ownership Every employee has a high degree of ownership. Innovation and problem-solving are internalised and normalised. Culture and environment determine whether ownership exists at all levels of the organisation and whether innovation is welcomed
Independence With a sense of ownership comes the ability to function independently. A startup provides its employees with a free hand to experiment and achieve outcomes without a rigid set of rules and guidelines Functions better only when its employees follow established frameworks. Adherence is commended.
Structure Has loosely-defined processes and procedures. Flat hierarchies and small team sizes = flexibility without much structure Defined structures save the day. Large team sizes can get unwieldy without rules and regulations to keep them in check. Defined processes ensure greater predictability and quality delivery at scale
Speed Decision-making is much faster. Startups don’t have the luxury to experiment over long periods of time. Time is of the essence when market conditions, government regulations, and competition can become threats overnight. Decision-making is often drawn out over several months with multiple stakeholders having to weigh in before a decision is reached.

Revenue model 

Focused on generating revenue AND raising venture capital (VC) funding, with VC-funding being the most important source of income for early-stage startups. Very often, startups don’t necessarily base decisions on revenue generation. There are many factors at play here Established revenue generation from customers. Every decision ultimately boils down to whether the action will increase or reduce revenue.

A candidate also cares about how his performance will be measured. While there are multiple models, traditional companies typically adopt traditional metrics, that largely revolve around measuring time spent on various activities, billable hours and acknowledging ‘effort’, sometimes even rewarding it.

A startup uses models such as OKR, that typically talks about objectives, outcomes and alignment with organizational goals. This model acknowledges and rewards outcomes.

There are several other differences when it comes to working in a startup when compared to an established firm.

Now that we’ve established that working for a startup requires a different mindset and set of skills, does it make sense to ‘risk it all’ for a startup?

What are the benefits that an employee can expect when working with a startup?

Benefits of working in a startup in India

Many assume that the best thing about working in a startup is that you can get rich fast while working out of an uber-chic office with access to free food and drinks, and more, a la The Social Network. While this may be true of some startups, that’s not the whole story. The following are the key benefits of working at a startup: 

  1. Fast-tracked learning: Imagine five years of learning on the job compressed into a mere 12 months. That’s what it is like working with a startup. With working in a startup there’s no dearth of opportunities to learn and gain experience. In addition to technical and vocational skills, working in a startup helps employees think like a business owner. It catapults employees ahead of their peers in that regard. Mercedes Delgado, Associate Professor of Strategy and Innovation and Co-director of the Entrepreneurship Concentration at the Copenhagen MBA, describes it like this. “Working in a startup will help you think on your feet. You’re going to have to be playing different roles at a fast pace: you’re going to be thinking about the technology, the customer, and how to get funding, all at the same time,” she says. A skill that isn’t easily acquired but will hold an employee in good stead in the future. 
  1. Associating with accomplished do-ers and thinkers: An employee at a startup will have easy access to stalwarts in the industry. That kind of access is impossible when working in a larger company. This 1:1 relationship will enable employees to imbibe values, personal leadership styles, and share knowledge easily, as well as build a professional network with valuable connections. 
  1. Personal achievements: In a startup, you will end each day with a sense of immense satisfaction and having moved the needle on personal accomplishments. Of course, there will be tears and feelings of inadequacy. But such is the nature of a startup, that you will reach beyond your limitations and find ways to overcome them. You have no choice but to do so. 
  1. Mission-oriented: Startups exist to solve problems. There’s an immense sense of satisfaction in being part of something that delivers real value to real people. In a startup, you will have direct visibility on how your work impacts the business. Rather than having to be satisfied with just a paycheck at the end of the month, working in a startup ticks multiple boxes when it comes to job fulfilment. 
  2. Wealth-creation: Employees who work at startups, particularly early stage ones, are poised to earn a substantial amount through ESOPs when the startup gets a successful exit or goes public. That’s part of the attraction for several people who work at early stage startups.

What should you expect while working for a startup in India?

Now that we’ve established that working in a startup enriches your life and sets you on the path of accelerated and explosive growth, what’s it really like working in a startup? What is the mindset you need to adopt to succeed in a startup environment? 

  1. Cross-functional teams: If you join a startup, you may have to carry out different types of tasks. Therefore, it is important to expect that you will be required to wear many hats.
  1. A need for discipline: Working in a startup involves a steady stream of work with multiple high priorities competing for your attention. Typically, there are not enough hours in the day to get it all done. Learning to balance it all will require discipline, fortitude, the ability to multitask and more. But more than anything, it requires the ability to sustain the momentum in a high-energy environment. 
  1. Vision: A startup usually solves a particular problem or fills a gap in the market. The team works towards fulfilling different needs. As a result, the team has a vision for the future.  
  1. Experience and skills: Working at a startup will provide you with much more experience and skills as compared to a traditional company. Due to the high growth opportunities, many millennials prefer working at startups to gain more experience in the initial years of their career.
  1. Customer-obsession: Startups are driven by solving real customer problems with real solutions. It is no wonder then that anyone who works at a startup places the customer firmly at the center of anything they do. 
  1. Problem-solving mindset: Startups exist to solve problems. Which means that the people working there approach every situation from multiple points of view and an intense need to find answers and not just highlight the problem. 

Is a startup the right fit for everyone? 

Working at a startup is not a piece of cake. You need to have a certain mindset to work for a startup. There are few factors that you should keep in mind that will help you get started:

  • A startup is driven by performance even while internal processes are still being set up
  • A startup is a high-ownership environment
  • You can be passionate about an idea but must be able to be agile and toss it out if it doesn’t work
  • You need to be ready to put in more time and effort
  • You should be ready to take risks
  • You will often face challenges and failures.
  • You need to be ready to take new responsibilities
  • You must experiment with different processes and find innovative solutions

How to evaluate a startup?

Now that we’ve convinced you that you should work in a startup, how do you evaluate them to find one that is right for you? In addition to the usual factors while evaluating a job, here are a few things to be mindful of when evaluating a startup:

Founder’s background:

It is important that you know who you are working for—the founder will have a direct impact on the culture and growth of the startup. Find out about their educational background, investments, industry skills and experience. A startup is driven by the personality of the founders. Therefore, it is important to evaluate the background and personality of the founders.


Try and find out who the rest of the team are, particularly the ones you will work with. Do they seem like they have depth and experience, technical expertise, the pick of any job yet they chose to work here? 


Does the startup have a clear vision that is grounded in reality? Has the startup done their homework to understand market conditions? Are there risks that are visible to you that seem to not be addressed by the team? 

Financial resources:

In an analogy where the product is the vehicle and the team is the driver,   funding is the fuel of a startup. While evaluating a startup, one metric that can be evaluated is the fund that has been raised by the company and the areas in which the company is expecting rapid growth. 


Early stage startups are known for providing stock options to their employees. The idea is to make the employees a part of the growth of the company. Will you be given equity in the company? What kind of equity is it? 


Is this a highly competitive space? What factors ensure that this startup will succeed over the competition? 

At the end of the day, you want to mitigate the personal risks involved in working for a startup. So be diligent in evaluating them. However, understand this. Working in a startup is a high-risk, high-value, high-rewards space. You will never be the same after working there. Right, so now that you are ready to join a startup, making yourself visible to them is the next daunting task. Every day, numerous startups are searching for employees. At Spottabl, we specialize in hiring for startups. Visit our website to find out which startups are hiring and what kind of candidates they want to hire. And if you find your job, why not apply?

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In her free time Vani loves storytelling and helping talent meet their aspirations. She has been a part of enterprise, growth stage startups & VC firms. She is driven to make stories and startups matter.

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