The five biggest misconceptions about working for a start-up

It's not all about free beer and billion-dollar valuations for many entrepreneurs.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

Stereotypes can have a grain of truth to them, but more often than not they’re just lazy assumptions. Think of a start-up. Many people will immediately conjure images of Silicon Valley garages or 'start-ups' that aren’t actually all that small these days (say Facebook and Google).

And while much of the perception is positive – no need for dress-down Fridays since you can always wear what you like – it can be misleading, as businesses aren’t homogenous. Here are some of the persisting misconceptions about start-up life:

1. It’s all free beer, ping-pong tables and other perks

Everyone knows Google offers perks like yoga classes and sleep pods, but new job-seekers might have the impression they'll find such things at any start-up they approach. But not all new businesses can afford expensive perks, which can make managing expectations a tricky part of recruitment. 

Besides, it can be a costly mistake to assume copying a company’s perks will mean you can instantly replicate its culture.

2. It’s fleeting

Simon Douglas, founder of digital marketing agency Curated Digital, says many people think a start-up is a cool idea, ‘but something that’s essentially a fleeting bit of your life where you lounge around on beanbags while learning loads and gaining intense experience you wouldn’t in a "normal" company’.

It’s a risk to romanticise such firms in this way and could encourage high turnover of staff, who view your company as a stepping stone or the business equivalent of a gap year.

3. The bigger, the better

Lucy George’s start-up Wordville is now eight-years-old. From the beginning she’s been ‘inundated with people asking me how quickly I’m growing, how many people I employ and how many regions I now service’.

It can be easy to assume all business owners want to grow their company and quickly, but the reality is, not all firms are going to be high-growth unicorns and not all entrepreneurs want their businesses to be.

‘The misconception is that I want to grow my business to an international powerhouse,’ George says. ‘Having worked at one or two, it was really what I was trying to get away from. If I lose a client I’ll replace it, but I don’t want to stack up one new win after another – it’s not how I measure success.’

4. It’s all about Shoreditch and Silicon Valley

A dangerous assumption for both job-seekers and potential founders to make. There are of course challenges to being based away from the obvious picks, but there can be advantages too – as well as being cheaper, you may well find it easier to hang onto talent.

Michael Gould’s unicorn Anaplan has offices across the globe, but he started it in York. ‘One of the challenges of San Francisco is there’s a huge talent pool, but there’s also a huge amount of competition,’ he says.

5. You’ll be free of the rules and responsibilities of corporate life

How often do you hear entrepreneurs say theytheir decision to start their own business was influenced by the desire to set their own hours? And how often do you hear those fed up of the long slog of a corporate job, wistfully dreaming of the freedom working in a start-up?

Many find the reality – particularly in the early days – is that they don’t so much set their own hours as work non-stop. And while a big plus of joining a start-up is greater responsibility and the chance to make what you want of your job, there’s still going to be stress, long hours and moments you’d rather be elsewhere.

The rewards to starting a business and joining a start-up can be plentiful, but there can be a danger of viewing them with rose-tinted glasses. It’s important not to group all start-ups under one umbrella and assume their ambitions, cultures or prospects will be the same.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

What radio can teach leaders about the metaverse

"TV didn't kill radio. The Metaverse won't replace reality," says the CEO of ad agency...

Managers who are honest about failure make better leaders

Podcaster and author Elizabeth Day urges organisations to be more open about mistakes

“You are not going to get better by accident”

5 minutes with… Rachel Cook, managing director at digital design agency Thompson, who rose through...

More women on boards is key to improving employee satisfaction

Want to boost employee satisfaction within your organisation? Get more women onto the board of...

WTF is a WFH uniform?

Opinion: Dictating what your workers wear is a great way to tell them not to...

Activist investors: helping or harming?

Engineer turned activist investor Mark van Baal argues activist investors can help major oil and...