Pre-millenium, I never really heard the term ‘start up’ used much.  Maybe in some movies about finance, you would hear a broker pitching a small start up company to potential investors, but that was about it.  What everyone calls a ‘start up’ today, used to be just a new company, a small company, an underfunded company.

Since the first dot com boom around the year 2000, and even more so since Facebook, Google, and the latest round of insanely valuated unicorn companies, it seems every single tech business is using the term “start up” to describe themselves.  The word features heavily in company bios and websites, and most nefariously, bandied about during interviews.

Remember that old Jeff Foxworthy comedy bit… you might be a redneck if?  Well here’s one for startups.

You might be a “startup” if…

  • You have a ping pong table in the office.
  • You provide free snacks to your employees
  • Your office is in a cool converted brick and beam warehouse
  • The person sitting closest to the door acts as receptionist when mail gets delivered
  • Your last company outing was to axe-throwing
  • There is a beer fridge in the break room full of fun IPA’s!
  • It’s been “crunch time” for the last year and a half


I posit that there is a huge gap between what people think a start up is, and the actual reality.   The media is full of depictions of crazy startups, going from nothing, to billion dollar companies virtually overnight, making everyone rich beyond their wildest dreams!  Existing in some seemingly alternate reality where everyone sits in beanbag chairs in the Think-a-Torium getting richer and richer by the second.

These companies do exist.  And there is a reason they are referred to as unicorns.  They are magical, mystical things, thought to exist only in folklore!  Nobody actually works for one, but everyone has heard the stories!  The chances of landing a dream gig at one of those kind of companies is like making it into the NBA,  getting hit by lightning twice in a lifetime,  winning the lottery.

When a company describes themselves as a start up…
…here is what to really expect.

You are going to be underpaid.  I mean, just for now.  Since they are a startup, they can’t afford what you’re actually worth… but once that funding comes through…  Don’t worry though, you’re getting in on the ground floor… you’ll be able to grow with the company! The 0.000005% of common share stock options they’re offering, vested over 5 years, will totally make up the 50% hit to your asking salary.  Our last round of funding fell through as well, so payroll this week is going to be a few days late… did I say a few days?  Well yeah, that transfer from the bank didn’t come through, so we can’t do payroll until Monday.  The bosses aren’t getting paid either though, so it’s fair!   Start up!

They are going to over work you.  Since they are a small start up, they can’t afford all the staff they actually need… so they are expecting you to put in a huge amount of unpaid hours picking up the slack!  They may mention start up hours… how they don’t do a nine to five around here.  That’s not their culture.  If you’re looking for that, maybe this isn’t the job for you.  Staff comes in whenever in the morning, leaves whenever at night.  If you finish your work up early, leave!  Sometimes if the work requires you to stay late, we put in a few extra hours and get the job done.  That’s the start up culture!   Translation:  you need to be in at nine every day, and not leave until you finish everything we pile on, even if it’s completely unreasonable!  I mean, start up!  You need to be available evenings and weekends, especially holidays, just in case something comes up.. and believe me, it will!  The boss really wants to stay late with you, but he can’t program, so he won’t be much help.  Plus he has that thing with his kid.

You’re going to have to lie.   Not to your bosses, gosh no.  If you did that, they’d fire you immediately!  At first, it’ll be to yourself… convincing yourself that all your hard work now is really going to pay off down the road.  Drinking deep of the company kool-aid.  Soon after that, it may be to coworkers.  Since the employee turnover is so high, (do these people not like kool-aid??) you’ll quickly find yourself hiring and training replacements.  It’s important they believe in the grand vision here too, otherwise this may not be the job for them, right?   Maybe worst of all, you’ll be put in a position where you have to lie about your own technology.  Sure, that awesome feature we dreamed up last week isn’t ready yet… and is very likely beyond the scope of anything actually doable!  But we’re going to try to get it in there soon… so if anyone asks, it’s coming soon.  And can we rig up a quick little demo for the investors?

You will be sidelined, isolated, ignored, micromanaged, and blamed for everything that goes wrong.  You’ll grow weary and depressed.  The boss will have to intervene, having a one on one chat with you about your attitude, how it’s contagious.  It’ll be explained how you’re creating a toxic work environment for everyone else, and asked if you really want to still be around.  You’ll be let go without cause.  And if you’re really lucky… you will find yourself a defendant in a lawsuit vs. the company for some trumped up accusation, or maybe have your reputation ruined in the industry.

But hey, free snacks, right?

I’ve painted an extremely bleak picture here, cobbled together from bits of my own experiences, things I’ve heard from friends, and horror stories I read on the internet.  You might not experience anything remotely like this with your own “start up” company.  I sincerely hope that is the case.   However, chances are at least a few people reading this either work at a company like this, or are have so in the past!

Be wary of the “start up” term, especially when used by the company to describe itself.