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Should You Join a Startup?

Is joining a startup the right choice for you? In this post, I go through my experience and thoughts as the first employee at Userled.

Martin Dimitrov
Founding Engineer

What's it like to work at a startup

10 months ago, I got introduced to Userled. At the time, Userled was nothing more than an idea shared with me by Yann and Tristan - the co-founders. Fast forward a few months and I became the first full-time employee as Founding Engineer.

Joining a startup, especially at such an early stage, can be daunting. There are little to no guarantees of success; you'd be working on tasks outside your comfort zone, there will be sleepless nights and a lot fewer resources/structures than at larger, more established companies. Such factors can be intimidating, but they can also provide an exciting opportunity for personal growth and development if you're willing to take them on!

For me, it was a no-brainer...  I find it a more exciting and rewarding way to work compared to the traditional corporate world: You'll get to work with a small team of passionate people on something that has the potential to make a big impact.

That said, I do acknowledge that start-ups are not for everyone. In this post, I'll go over some key aspects of what's it like to work in a startup. If you’re deciding on whether to make the leap of joining a startup yourself, hopefully, you’ll find this insightful.

Opportunity to grow

From my experience, startups are very dynamic. Almost every week, since I joined, has been different! I joined as an engineer, but yet I found myself doing graphic designs, product planning, outreach, content creation (hello), hiring, etc. Although such variety is most prominent in the very early stages of a startup, one thing is for certain: You must be ready to learn new skill sets and push out of your comfort zone in order to succeed.

From more of an engineering point of view, I found that bounding yourself to a single field, say Backend or Frontend, doesn’t really work. Yes, having specific expertise certainly helps, but you’d often need to dive into other areas. What’s a web app without a backend, or what procedures do you have when something goes wrong? You’d be building the product from end to end so you’ll have an amazing opportunity to learn the whole process: system design, backend, frontend, pipelines, observability, and the list goes on and on.

This ties into one of the main factors why I joined Userled. Namely the overall contribution of my work. The sense of appreciation is exacerbated as everything you do has a way higher impact than if you were in a larger company. Though that can be perceived as stressful, I find it a great motivation source that what I do matters.

The fast pace

I've always heard, "in startups, you need to move quickly". But what does that actually mean? Long hours, lots of coding and a pile of energy drinks next to your desk? No, not at all... That's how one burns out and loses sense of direction.

Moving fast is all about making smart decisions and staying agile. It means prioritising key tasks first and truly focusing on the product's goal. It means finding pain points and having quick feedback cycles. It means being agile so when things go south, you're able to refocus and readjust quickly. If you’re interested, we’ve dove quite deep into some of these topics on our blog: Building at speed: The importance of feedback loops and Demo Driven Development.

In the name of moving quickly (especially in the early stages), we also had to make a lot of assumptions and bets without having rigorously explored all of our options. This goes beyond the typical engineering tech debt piling. For instance, being ruthless about MVPs and occasionally making difficult decisions to stop working on a project and refocus elsewhere. These can be tough calls to make, so it’s important to pull together as a team and really identify why you’re making these decisions.

Team Environment

You might have noticed that start-ups tend to be pickier when it comes to the interview process. They often even require a whole-day interview in which you meet the whole team over coffee or lunch. Although that might be off-putting, you should ask yourself: What do you prefer? Working in a team where your colleagues are well… just your colleagues? - mainly talking to them during standup and the occasional small talk. Or a team in which everyone aligns and share the same drive for success and excitement? (check out our interview process on our blog!)

Working at a startup makes the few people you work with even more crucial. After all, you’d be talking to them on a daily basis, holding each other accountable and sharing all the highs and lows of the startup venture. They are not my colleagues, they are my friends. Getting our heads down building things and being totally obsessed with the product is great fun, and helped set the pace and quality of what we get out the door.

And I do think work should be fun! Albeit, there’s a fine balance threading work performance and enjoyment. I find that the ideal way to reach it is by finding people that you share a strong rapport and connection - who are not afraid of telling it like it is. It’s a one-way street to burnout if the relationship leans too far in either direction - being constantly stressed out without any bond or support, or having no honest criticism due to detachment. Work relationships should feel supportive yet frank for them to truly flourish!

Final Words

If you’re feeling pulled in the direction of startups but are afraid of diving in, don’t be. It’s normal to feel some apprehension when making such a big switch, especially if you’re used to working at more traditional organisations. But trust me when I say that it’s worth it. Not only will you have the opportunity to grow and develop yourself professionally, but you’ll also be part of a team who is passionate about their work and excited to come into the office every day. And startup life is anything but boring – things move quickly, and there’s always something new around the corner. So if you’re thinking about making the switch to a startup, go for it! You won’t regret it.