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I have recently graduated from CS and got a job with a startup at a very early stage as a developer. My previous work (dev internship, full time IT) was with larger companies (6000+ people, telecom, regulated), and I wanted to try startup scene specifically while I am still young. The main motivation was to (1) try startup, (2) get more hands-on experience with various tech, (3) learn about building a startup (the tech stack is not exciting to me as much: I am coming from C systems jobs into web dev and JavaScript, but I wanted to learn the new stuff and go back to systems later).

However, the startup seems very erratic. There is no structure, very little management. I ended up being the only developer now because the other was an 1-year-intern and went back to school. They are actively seeking money and the founder has sold his previous startup for close to $300 mil, so he has good reputation. But he can't manage the company well, it's basically self-managed. Once they find the money (seems close to closing, but I don't know) they will hire the team of 3-4 devs. They also bought an existing piece of software without due diligence and it turned out to be pretty bad software. There are two sales guys that sell the old product to clients - it works ok, but not maintainable in the long run.

So my work day right now is: work alone at the office, no dev team. I try to stay on track with tasks, but it is a bit scattered. There is some guidance from a part-time experienced dev, but it's not the same as having a senior dev at the office. My tasks span from maintaining and enhancing an old purchased product (bad quality, no tests) and planning to build a replacement product almost from scratch with some guidance from that senior part-time dev.

So the question is: are startups always like that or should what I am experiencing be alarming to me? The pay is also slightly below average for new grads (Vancouver, BC, 45k/year), no benefits. Very bare bones.

Thanks for any advice, insight. Maybe that's just how startups are - if that's the case, I will stick around.

PS. Another thing is that if I were to leave now, I would screw them up because I effectively own the stack. I would feel like an a$$h0le if I left now too.

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    "the startup seems very erratic. There is no structure, very little management." - welcome to the world of startups! – WorkerDrone Sep 26 '16 at 16:37
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    Because they are small and have not had time to build a corporate personality, startup are very influenced by their founders' personalities. Yours sounds like a great place for someone who wants a lot of responsibility and freedom, not so good if you want structure. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 26 '16 at 23:44
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    "are startups always like that"? - Yep and people tend to like one or other, good to find out which type you are early. – The Wandering Dev Manager Sep 27 '16 at 13:55
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    You wanted to "try startup" and you are disappointed that it isn't like your earlier jobs? That's a bit like saying, "let me try watching a romantic comedy", and then complaining that it is nothing like the action movies that you have seen so far. – Masked Man Jan 11 '17 at 14:37
  • "sold his previous startup for close to $300 mil" ... "actively seeking money" ... " they will hire the team of 3-4 devs". Can't the owner just put his hand in his pocket? – Mawg Sep 4 '18 at 8:01

10 Answers 10

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In your career, always look after #1.

If the position isn't working for you, change the position or change the job.

90% of startups fail (Forbes). 75% of Venture Capital backed startups fail. And that 90% is calculated only from the startups that got going, not the ones where someone says "I have an idea..".

When you have $300M in the bank, you can gamble a bit. Until you do, you need to make sure that you're getting paid for your efforts in real money, not on promises and shares. Let the captain go down with his ship; make sure you're on one of the first lifeboats.

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I have to agree with @Pete, you have to look out for #1. If the founder's previous company sold for $300 million, that doesn't mean he has that much in the bank, and that certainly doesn't mean he is willing to spend it on this startup. One thing people forget is that the wealthy don't gamble with their own money, they gamble with other people's money. That's how they stay wealthy, and that's why they're looking for venture capital money. I've been where you were, with a founder who made a bucket of money off his first startup, private jet, etc., and the VC money was just around the corner. The new company was so disorganized and had the absolute wrong people trying to run it that it didn't last and collapsed one night owing everybody money. The founder went on to the next startup and the worker bees went away with nothing after a year of below average pay, benefits, & wasted nights & weekends. YMMV, however. If you're learning stuff (including how not to run a company) it might be worthwhile hanging around. If not, bail.

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    "The new company was so disorganized and had the absolute wrong people trying to run it that it didn't last and collapsed one night". I'm pretty sure I worked at that one also! :p – PeteCon Sep 26 '16 at 18:17
  • if his last startup sold for 300 he likely has at least 10 mm from that, more likely closer to 30mm. depends on how much funding he got. – bharal Sep 2 '18 at 15:43
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I would say not all startups, but definitely a lot of them are like that. I actually stopped working at early stage startups completely for this exact reason. I'd do what you can to not screw over the company, but start looking. It doesn't really sound like this is a good fit for you, and they really should be paying you more if they're giving you that much responsibility.

  • Given the OP's background, the startup environment is absolutely terrible for learning. If you want to learn that badly, go take a course at bootcamp. At least it'll have a direction and have quantifiable objectives. – Nelson Sep 28 '16 at 8:09
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Get what you can out of the place and job hunt at the same time.

The boss is playing with this startup, he's made a lot of money but he's not investing it in this, this is just a toy. He's waiting to see which way it goes, if it can generate some funding or actually take off he'll be more interested. But as it stands it's probably got other purposes, perhaps some sort of tax writeoff.

Startups are often incoherent, and the vast majority of them fail chewing up techs as they do so. Unless it has a product with clear potential I would suggest you job hunt. Promises of future recompense or even shares in the startup cannot be counted on. So you need to calculate the risk against the possible rewards. I don't know enough about your product to be sure, but it doesn't look like a winner.

I have been involved with a few startups as a consultant. Unless they have technically competent bosses who personally understand the products and are personally committed to it's success I have always declined to be anything more than a consultant. Because experience at a failed startup isn't worth a lot in an interview, and it may be difficult to get a good reference since quite often the techs shoulder a lot of the blame while the boss starts up somewhere else with a new team.

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It has been a while and I don't know if you are still working at the same company.

Your situation reminds me my first job. I worked for this software company (only for 5 months). Our dev team was 3 people: the software manager who was very experienced, me as a backend developer and a front-end developer. We needed more developers to maintain the old product, give customer support and develop new products but CEO insisted on hiring more sales people to sell the old product. Long story short; the Software Manager left because he was working more than 10 hours everyday, then our company went out of business in only 1 week. We all lost our jobs. Even this process was managed so badly, I didn't hear anything until I came from vacation and walking into a completely empty office.

Yes, you will learn a lot in a startup, especially in your situation where you are the only developer. But, in a company which doesn't understand and value the software development practices, you will not grow fast or grow properly. It's likely that you will develop bad habits as a developer: Since you are the only developer, you won't have enough time to write tests, automate your builds, document your code and design decisions, do code reviews, find coding standards...You will not have opportunities to improve your soft skills. You won't need to justify the technical decisions that you make to any one who is technically at your level or above.Because doing all these takes a team and an environment which is safe to fail and communicate provided by the management.

Being a software engineer is not only about writing code. When you have a couple years of experience, assuming you've been doing your best to adopt the best practices, your decision making and communication skills will make the difference.

Focus on learning a couple things well while you are still there but look for other jobs. Build a network, go to meetups and talk to recruiters until you find not just a better place but a good place for you to grow.

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Yourself needs to be the highest priority, having money in the bank or promises do not put food on the table nor alleviate any job related stress as you are the only developer there.

I worked for a defense contractor startup that took 10 years to get into the green, we won $1B worth of business then over committed on projects and got put out of business due to improper business management, without a clear sense of direction, you are doomed to fail. Someone brought up failure statistics, that is very true, and going at it cowboy does not help out at all.

Not all startups are like that, but even in the Billion+ range, we still had some crazy cowboy style of management and projects, and all the money in the world doesn't fix a broken process.

Get the hell out of there, it is the business' fault they didn't bring on other devs or understand the full scope of the IT department.

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Yes a lot of startups are like this.

  • The founders are doing a million and one things and can seem very unfocused.
  • There are few if any processes in place
  • Bad decisions can be made due to the fast pace of thing
  • The company direction can change overnight.
  • Especially in the early days pay can be less than average, but you should have better stock options because of this.

But for you this can be a huge opportunity. You are just out of college with few commitments you can have a big impact into the success of this startup.

  • If tasks seem unorganized, get Trello or equivalent. Try and get others to use it but even if it is just you you are starting a process.
  • As you say you own the stack. You get to decide the technical direction, processes and standards that can be used. This almost never happens.
  • You get to help decide how to define the product. Perhaps a complete replacement is to ambitious to start with, but what could you build as a MVP

It sounds like you are a little overwhelmed. There are lots of stack exchange sites where you can get help. Just work through the issues as you find them.

Best case the startup does amazingly and you along with it. Worst case it crashes and burns. You have some great experience under your belt. I have never heard of anyone who thinks that working at a failed startup is a mark against them when looking for a new job. Just be ready for "So what do you learn from..."

  • Mr. French, I commend you on being a "glass half full" kind of guy! – Nolo Problemo Sep 27 '16 at 15:41
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Currently working in my 3rd tech start up.

What you are describing OP is normal. Many tech start ups are badly run, where employees are underpaid. If you are junior start ups can also not necessarily be the best place to stay long term if they lack structure. With that said, they are good places to gain initial commercial experience.

I would use this opportunity to gain as much experience as you can, then move on after a year or a year and a half.

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The best reason to join a start up is that it gives you the opportunity to own your position. No dev team and no structure means that this is your chance to do your best, most creative work. You get to make technical decisions. You get to build processes that work for you and the advancement of the business. You help determine if the business succeeds or fails. You should not be at a start-up to just passively absorb the experience. If you are unhappy about where the company is going, speak up. If there is a lack of leadership, try taking on some of the responsibility of leading within the company. If you are not allowed to do those things, you're at the wrong company. If you don't want to do those things, you don't belong in a start up.

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Find a new job with a more stable company and (preferably after finding a new job) give them one month's notice and document everything you have done. I have to do this now myself as the "startup" after two months is struggling to pay my second month's salary.

While some say you are young and have less commitments, I feel for one's long-term health the risk and stress may not be worth it.

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