Chart your course: Understanding Tech Startup Career Paths

April 7, 2023

The tech startup world is ever changing and there are new companies being started all the time. The opportunities can seem endless and there are tech startups out there that are solving some of the world's most interesting and pressing issues. 

It’s an exciting industry, but as a newcomer, it can be daunting to find a starting point for a job search. So If you’re considering breaking into the startup industry, whether you’re a college grad or have been in the workforce for some time already - we’ll walk you through where to look and what to expect as you navigate your career path at tech startups.

Where to start? 

Start here: Narrow down your personal interests.

Your motives for wanting to work at a tech startup can be a bit different than working for a big name company. For a company with an established brand reputation, you might consider working there more to gain experience by getting your foot in the door to leverage that on your resume down the line and less about the product or company itself. But at a startup, you’re on the ground floor team of building something that will eventually have brand recognition. 

So it’s important to start by understanding what motivates you - because you’ll want to be bought into the company, and the building process itself. This starting point should really help inform what types of companies you’re interested in, because there is a tech startup out there for just about any problem you can solve with technology these days!

Once you narrow down what type of company floats your boat, there are a few other factors you should consider about the company itself.

Some questions to ask yourself as you research companies: 

  • What funding stage are they at?
  • Who are the investors & what’s the current valuation and path to profitability?
  • Is the company fast growing? 
  • What’s their mission & what problem are they solving in the market?
  • What’s the current company size & future hiring plans for your team / department?
  • Your career path: are you a founding member or joining as a part of a team? Who will you report to?

In addition to researching the startups you’re interested in, the biggest question to ask yourself before you start interviewing is what can you bring to the table?

As a candidate, what is your unique skill set that makes you stand out? At a large company you may be 1 of 1000s of employees, but at a startup you could be 1 of 5 and your role becomes that much more important!

Startup Career Paths 

Working at a tech startup as a ‘founding team member’ can sometimes mean that you start out as a department of one. But before you worry about what it’s like not working with a team, or on with a very small team with limited resources, you should understand both the growth opportunities and career path that leaves open for you as well as the greater requirements to be flexible and work through a lot of ambiguity. 

At many startups, this can mean that your career path can be created and is not confined to traditional methods of promotion. It can also mean you'll have much more empowerment to contribute in meaningful ways than at a bigger company that has more management layers and everyone owns a smaller piece of the puzzle. 

As we see it, there are three broad career path types for those who are looking to join a tech startup:

1) People managers, aspiring tech executives and future founders:

For aspiring leaders and people managers, a tech startup is a great way to get exposed to the kind of growth and decision-making that will stretch your skills. Since there are minimal to no layers of management at a startup, those who are seeking leadership opportunities will be able to prove themselves more quickly. 

Some of the leadership skills you can expect to hone on this career path? The ability to scale your skills, networking to recruit and retain top talent, big picture thinking for company-wide systems and processes and developing your reputation as an expert in the industry. (built-in)

This path can also mean you might have less support as you pave your own way, and that’s something you should feel comfortable with!

2) Individual Contributor Techies who want to build cool things & work closely to complex problems:

In tech these days, you don’t have to be a people manager to be successful! 

You can choose a meaningful path as an IC where you can be really hands-on with things like; roadmapping strategy, architecture and infrastructure, building, scaling and maintaining products and systems, own a technology stack, dictate core features, work directly with customers & more.

With this career track, you should feel comfortable making decisions, learning new technical skills, tools and platforms with little support from teammates or upper management and being the go-to when things break.

3) People who want career flexibility: 

The Jack / Jane of all trades is welcome at tech startups!

There is a lot of opportunity to learn new skills and take on projects you wouldn’t normally get exposure to. If you love a good career pivot, this also means you might have more future flexibility to take on different roles and transfer internally. 

On the flip side, embracing a role as a jack / jane of all trades can also make it harder to master specifics, so you should be clear on what skills you want to hone as you continue to grow in your career and plan for future positions and promotions.

Breaking In. 

Another difference between a job search for a traditional company versus a tech startup, you might not find your dream job at a startup on a career board or being marketed on LinkedIn with thousands of applications. 

With that said, here’s our best advice to help you land your next role: 

  • Attend start-up events & network with startup employees
  • Make a list of startups you’d like to work for in your area or remotely
  • Use specific sites that list start-up jobs (the muse, venturefizz, ycombinator)
  • Connect with start-up recruiters & staffing firms and tap into their networks 

Our closing thoughts 

Startups can be an exciting place to work and grow your career, but there are definitely differences to consider if you’re coming from a larger company.  We recommend you consider a few key personal and professional preferences and answer them honestly before you make the jump to a startup..

Are you willing and able to take the risk of leaving a big company and all the perks that come with that? Can you afford to be paid largely in equity and wait for a future event to crystallize that equity?

For many, the reward and the experience outweighs any perceived risk, so if the answer is yes to these questions, a startup could be a great option for you! 

Are you looking for a role at a tech startup? We have some great startups clients who are hiring right now - check out some of our open roles!

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