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Hoping for some guidance with this.

I recently left the startup company where I was working as a senior backend Python engineer. The job had a lot of complications and the company suffered from a real lack of direction. Although things had gotten very dismal on an investment side of things, I did have the opportunity to learn a great deal of really new and interesting technologies and approaches to big data problems.

I entered the job search about two months ago and was successfully recruited at a Big Company (names changed to protect the innocent.) I was so stoked that this company was impressed by me, that I agreed to their first offer outright, even knowing that I may need to change some of the tools and approaches I worked with in the past to work with the large legacy codebase. (I realize this isn't exclusively an engineer's SE, so basically this entails adjusting back to older, generally weaker solutions)

At the time I had another very agile and exciting startup interested in me. I sent them a letter respectfully declining the position, but they were very persistent in trying to get me to change my mind. They wanted me to understand that they had worked with engineers who left Big Company very bitter for the very reasons I described, and that a position with them, "The Startup", would be much more beneficial to my learning.

Having just come from another startup that collapsed, its easy for me to gravitate towards Big Company, even though it means less money overall (the counteroffer was very competitive) and probably a bit of stagnation and adjustment at least at the beginning. The risks involved in a startup (my previous one routinely bounced checks towards the end) just seem too much to undergo once again. However, I am 25yrs old, reasonably early in my career, and feel that if there is a time for risk/reward it is now, before I have a family to feed etc.

Would it be respectful to request an NDA to sign, and then to ask see the balance sheet of this startup company? They have offered a very competitive salary, so at the outset I am inclined to believe them... I just cannot risk losing my livelihood out from under me again. What criteria, especially financial in nature, should an engineer with reasonable accounting sense use to determine whether a budding startup represents a better career opportunity over a stable, proved larger company (especially if the position at the larger company is already ensured)?

EDIT

Some great responses here! I am really grateful for the guidance from the community. Hopefully this question will be a valuable resource for others in the future, in my soul-searching the past few days I have found this situation to be more common than I expected.

For what its worth, I decided to honor my word and go with the Big Company.

I guess that's as much a matter as pricinple as anything else. I'm sure I would have had a lot more latitude in my decision had I not originally accepted.

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@HLGEM - I think you linked the wrong answer... –  Chad Feb 5 '13 at 17:58
    
@Chad I'm familiar with the format, and I don't necessarily see your contention. Whether or not requesting financial information under NDA is an acceptable request for a new hire to make from the perspective of a hiring startup is core of the question... as versed in the last paragraph. Giving a little background seemed appropriate for this SE, especially since life context can effect career choices. I don't see this as open-ended per se to the format but please feel free to suggest how this could be reapproached. –  DeaconDesperado Feb 5 '13 at 18:08
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@DeaconDesperado You are still young and have a lot of time to do the startup thing for years to come, but just keep in mind that if you back out now from the Big Company then you very likely could be burning a bridge there. If you live in a smaller city, there may be only a handful of big companies that you can burn through before you are forced to move for a job. It is something to consider. Think about the much longer term future when deciding if it is alright to burn a bridge. –  maple_shaft Feb 5 '13 at 18:37
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Ask to see their Startup Death Clock :) –  Briguy37 Feb 5 '13 at 21:58
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6 Answers

up vote 25 down vote accepted

When I was searching for a new position after the startup I was at failed, I was attracted to another startup. The technology sounded good, the people were great, but given where I was coming from, I was a little wary of that frying-pan/fire thing. At the end of the technical interview (during which I had repeatedly offered to sign an NDA, as I was asking deep-dive questions about their technology), I asked "what is your business model?". This ultimately led to a second interview with their head business guy, during which I was able to ask my questions about how they make money, what their strategic plan is, how they planned to address (industry trends), and so on. I think a large company wouldn't have given me the opportunity to ask those questions, or would have brushed them off, but this startup gave me serious answers and on the basis of that I was able to make a decision.

So yes, it's acceptable to ask about the finances (though I'm not sure about a balance sheet), and I think it's particularly acceptable to ask in a start-up (which is inherrently riskier).

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I'm really grateful for your response. This has been very difficult for me - it has been a long time since I last had to search. –  DeaconDesperado Feb 5 '13 at 16:46
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+1 I like this answer because of the example. Ask them what their business plan is, how much commitment from investors, any revenue, exciting leads, etc.. If your paying attention and are a self aware person then you should get a good feel for if the startup has a solid shot or if they are biding their time hoping to get bought out. –  maple_shaft Feb 5 '13 at 18:24
    
@maple_shaft, in my case once I asked the broad opening questions the business person volunteered most of the details without me having to prod. Others might not get so lucky. :-) –  Monica Cellio Feb 5 '13 at 18:27
    
@MonicaCellio I think thats a good sign when their business minds are enthusiastic enough about their business plan to discuss it with people when they are curious. –  maple_shaft Feb 5 '13 at 18:31
    
Yeah, I accepted their offer. –  Monica Cellio Feb 5 '13 at 18:32
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There's always going to be the tradeoff you are dancing around:

  • A big company is (generally) more stable, it has risk averse processes that protect it's basic interests and a strong footing in a market place. That comes with an organizational cost - in particular being less flexible, with a bit more specialization of labor, and a reliance on proven (less new, less risky) technologies and practices. Change comes slower and a high level of independance and individuality can be difficult when it conflicts too greatly with "the norm".

  • By it's nature a small startup is the opposite - more risk, but more opportunity. Fewer "norms" and more options for bucking convention and introducing change. To get ahead the company must take risks, which gives more opportunity for trying new things, and sometimes failing. There's also the trade that more things are do it yourself - for better or worse.

I have noticed that how these pictures come together, however, is perhaps half of what makes one or another better to work on. As a financially conservative "big company person", I disagree that big company teams are never innovative, but they certainly do have more organizational overhead to deal with and that will limit some elements of the innovation.

Particularly with startups, it's quite OK to pry. Thoughts on things to ask about:

  • I'm only just getting into accounting, but my impression is the cornerstones are - balance sheet, income statement, and statement of cash flows. They tell you different information and each one is a different "lens" - only ask if you have the knowledge to make sense of these statements. Big dollar values are rarely the whole story, knowing how and why they are raising and investing money is a huge part of the picture, so if you know accounting, you also want to sit down with a finance guy from the company and get the whole story.

  • Quite honestly, I don't know many engineers who know enough to be good at interpreting accounting statements. If you're not one of the unique few, you're better off sticking to your expertise - the product and the technology used to build it. They should be ready and able to disclose (under NDA) some parts of the work they are doing - I think the biggest test is the sanity check - can you see a reason to buy this product or service? Would you? Does it have a hope of coming together? How long could it take? If you can't rationally believe that it will work, don't work there.

  • Team communications - the other element is do these people work together in a way that will get great things done? Just about any startup is up against some formidable odds. I believe groups of smart people can do really great things -- but only if they are a functional team. When you interview, ask lots of repeated questions - variance in answers will tell you as much about the team as any individual judgements you make about individuals - in fact, I'd ask many of the tech questions above to many different people and be aware when management answers differently than the individual contributors - if these folks disagree, there's some serious team communication problems to be aware of.

  • Lightweight finance - instead of reading balance sheets it is also viable to ask about plans for funding and profitability. A company with a product in the field may already be profitable. Where are they with venture capital? What stake in the decision making do the investors have? What are the goals relating to IPO and future product/service sales? Can they be explained clearly and intelligently? Is there a lot of handwaving or does the technical story line up with the business one?

  • History of the owners/founders - you're interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. Have they been through the process a few times? Is this a first startup? What was the rep of the last startup? How did it end? Past profitability may not preduct future success, but if they ended the last company by shortchanging their people, that will tell you something.

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Thank you for this very detailed response. I have been trying to weigh mostly what kind of criteria in the financial department I could use to determine if this represents a better opportunity than the one I had at least committed myself to. These are great criteria. –  DeaconDesperado Feb 5 '13 at 18:10
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@DeaconDesperado in my experience exec's previous track record is more important. Consider: if the execs have already built and sold 3-5 companies each, they a) know what they're doing and will avoid amateur mistakes b) wouldn't be hanging around wasting their time if the company didn't have a good shot at success. People like that have other options. –  MrFox Feb 5 '13 at 18:41
    
I would also add that the financial situation of a start-up is a moving target and can change very quickly. In other words a snapshot of the current finances means very little. It is not at all unusual to have a financial "burn-rate" which extrapolates to zero in a matter of months. –  Angelo Feb 5 '13 at 19:27
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I wouldn't ask to see the balance sheet - even if you saw it, would you actually understand what it necessarily meant?

What I would be interested in is sitting down with the team and just chatting to them, I find you can learn far more from a team in casual conveesation over lunch or a beer than you can by hours in an interview situation.

You're only 25, I'm assuming (and correct me if I'm wrong) but dependants and commitments will be fairly minimal so I'd personally take the risk because stagnating in a Big Company at 25 doesn't sound particularly thrilling.

Failing that, follow your gut instinct - it's the only advice anyone can really give you.

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Unless you have heavy responsibilities and no savings, go to the startup.

It's reasonable to ask the startup to show how they will pay you for the next twelve months. That's about as much certainty as you get in today's market.

If you are talented and mobile, you needn't worry much about future employment. If this startup fails, there will be another. Sure, there are some startups that prefer to hire younger. There are others that prefer to hire older.

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Speaking as someone who works in a big company, coming from a startup:

Fact of the matter is that a balance sheet is just that - a balance sheet, it's very likely positive if it's a backed startup, but what's interesting in a startup's finances isn't the positive balance, but the burn rate, a startup, by definition is a business with a yet to be established, repeating and scalable business model, they burn money to get to that stage.

A balance sheet won't tell you about their burn rate and how long they have until they reach the valley of death. However, knowing what is their C-level executives experience and connections is what's important to know if they'll thrive or not.

If they aren't in stealth mode - what is the media telling about them - did they receive coverage? if they're a B2C startup take hints on things like alexa ranking to see if they have traction - traction usually means big prospects. if they're a B2B startup, ask them about their clients, usually early stage B2B startups will have at least 1 or 2 large customers, who are those?

Technically speaking - will you be working there with the brightest people? do they understand and breath technology?

and most importantly - will you have fun there?

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I am going to answer the question from different perspective.

You're not an accountant. If the startup company lets you see their balance sheet, how do you know it's for real? Are you able to audit it? You just have to take its face value for it. For example, if the sheet says the current balance is positive 5 mil, do you ask to see their bank account statement? How do you know the current balance is not the result of a mortgage loan?

You know the technology better. Why not ask them the details of that?

Then you can make an informed decision.

I retired from a huge company. Age of 25 yr old is not too young to join a big company. It's about time. It would take 10 years or so to climb the ladders to become a senior engineer. Then you have choices. To stay in techy or to become a manager. If you stay in techy, it would take another 10 years to become a chief engineer if you're really good and lucky. If you want to be a manager, that's another story.

To work for another startup is risky. You already know that. You could become wealthy, though. But, if the second one fails again, the big companies would not want you anymore. You'll be too sophisticated. I worked with people from startups before. I don't remember I ever worked with anyone who had worked for two startups.

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than again, if you're a lead developer in a startup which gets acquired or get to an IPO, you'll probably get to chief engineer much quicker, as pulling your own weight in a startup demands much more. –  itaitay Feb 6 '13 at 11:47
    
@ItaiSagi You probably never work for a big company. After a big company acquired a small company for its technology, they usually continue the employement of tech people. Rarely they would promote them to be the chief engineer for a variety of reasons: culture mismatch, the senior employees from the big company would not agree, salary mismatch(e.g. stock option no longer available),etc. Every chief engineer I worked with worked for the company at least 15 years. –  scaaahu Feb 6 '13 at 12:25
    
@ItaiSagi I don't know my explanation above is clear to you. Let me give you this: if you're the chief engineer of a 30 engineer company, you'll still be the lead engineer of that group after your company is acquired by a big company. But, then your position is a lead engineer in the big company, not a chief engineer anymore. Usually a chief engineer in a big company leads a group of hundred of engineers. Hope this is clear enough for you. –  scaaahu Feb 6 '13 at 12:49
    
I never said you become the chief engineer of a company through that, but that your progress won't be as linear as someone who enters HP, microsoft or google nowadays and most definitely quicker. –  itaitay Feb 6 '13 at 13:07
    
@ItaiSagi Your theory is not impossible. I personally don't know any real example. Every chief engineer I personally know of worked very hard and very long for my former employer which has >100K employees and 50K of them are engineers. –  scaaahu Feb 6 '13 at 13:25
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