Why work at a startup? Because everything you do matters

John “Moose” Turek
Chief Technology Officer, Aetion

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Several years ago, during a hiring interview for a software engineer position, the candidate asked me a question I get frequently: “What is it like to work at a startup?” But what he was really asking was, “Why shouldn’t I work at Google?” 

I gave the candidate my unvarnished truth: “You’ll get to work on some interesting problems here, but there will be days we just have to make it work and it feels a bit like scraping the sludge off the sides of the sewer.” 

I had slacked one of the technical leaders on the team to join us to meet the candidate. I looked up to see him standing there with a strange look on his face as he said, “I disagree with Moose.” What could be worse than scraping sludge? Starting to sweat a bit, I hoped that whatever he said next wouldn’t scare the candidate away. 

“What I love about working for a startup,” he said, “is that everything we do here matters.”

He was so right. At a startup, even the most mundane of projects take on new meaning.  Because when you engage in a startup’s mission, like my technical leader said, everything you do matters; every single person matters. You won’t find that sense of purpose working at a larger company like Google or Facebook.

Hard problems. Big upsides. 

After five years at Google, I resigned, leaving behind a reliable job, smart colleagues, and a hefty salary, to try a career in startups. Since then, I have led engineering teams at Jet.com, Oden Technologies and Aetion, where I am currently its Chief Technology Officer. Clearly, I am now biased toward startups, so take my advice with a grain of salt and always speak with members of the engineering team to get a better idea of what it will be like working there. But, honestly, working with startups completely changed the way I thought about my professional life. 

Engineers will work on both large and small projects, some more important than others. That’s a given. Yet, at a startup, even what may seem like routine work can end up altering the course of the company. And you’re not just a nameless engineer at a computer; you have the ear of leadership and every department shares in each other’s success.

For example, at Aetion, as we began to grow, we needed to scale our storage layer to be more powerful to handle the increasing size and complexity of the data sets we were dealing with. Basically, we had to rewrite a meaningful portion of our analytics engine on top of a new storage layer. I was proud that the team was able to significantly improve performance without major disruptions to the business. But the team’s proudest moment was presenting to the Board and the company’s founder, who nearly fell out of his chair when he saw the results. Can you imagine a small engineering team getting the chance to present directly to Mark Zuckerberg, let alone making him teeter off his chair in excitement? 

Google may give you a larger take-home salary, but you will matter more at a startup. The risk-reward equation is just completely different.

During my five years at Google, I was proud to be part of a well-known company. I liked seeing some of the innovative things that happened there. But I later realized the work wasn’t fulfilling. My role, ultimately, didn’t make a meaningful contribution to the direction of the company.

I can distinctly recall when mid-afternoon came around, I’d think to myself “do I really need to be here?” and sometimes head out to avoid the rush hour. I still worked at home, but I didn’t feel as vested as I wanted to be. I thrive when I am fully engaged, but that only happens when I am part of a team that is noticeably shaping the company. 

Some engineers index on take-home salary and don’t mind blending into the sprawling network of a large company. For them, I recommend Google or Facebook or a similarly large technology company. Engineering jobs in Big Tech are respectable and impressive. They hire excellent engineers. But for people like me, who are mission-oriented and want to have a direct impact on the trajectory of the company, I advise working at a startup. 

Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you will have to sacrifice your standard of living to work in startups. Actually, it can be the opposite. When you take stock options and the growth trajectory of a startup into consideration, the expected rewards will hopefully be similar to the difference in upfront salary compared to a larger technology company. If the startup has a successful exit – acquired or IPO — you may make much more in the long run than you would have at Google. You have to be comfortable with the risk-reward tradeoff.

I won’t sugar coat it, working at a startup is hard work and the take-home salary is less than at an established, major tech company. But the potential rewards, both financial and otherwise, will be magnitudes greater at a startup. While the work may at times feel tedious, it is hugely important. Not once have I woken up in the morning and asked the question: “Why am I here?” Rather, I ask myself: “What am I going to do today that will make this company succeed?”

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