Many engineers are lured by the growth potential of joining a startup. Not only will you get exciting and innovative projects to work on but you can also have the opportunity to create a trail-blazing product with high impact.
Working for a great startup can give you tremendous satisfaction and accelerate your career but joining a bad one can lead to burnout, frustration, and disenchantment.
Over the course of your career as an engineer, you’d likely work for just 7 to 10 companies. Even if all of them are startups, you only have limited opportunities to pick a winner that will make a mark.
However, given that as many as 90% of new startups fail, picking one that’s a good fit and have the potential to succeed is often quite challenging.
As a software engineer, how can you figure out the legitimacy of the tech company you are interviewing at? What signs of success should you look out for? How can you tell the “real deal” from the smoke and mirrors?
Here are some signals you should look out for:
The Leadership and the Culture
- The startup should be founded on a vision and mission that are aligned with your values and interests. You’ll put in the hours and take on more risks so make sure the company is building something that you believe in and are excited about.
- Consider the caliber and experience of the CEO, CTO, and VP of Engineering. Tenure, credibility, and past exits go a very very long way to a successful venture.
- Most startups depend on VC investments to stay afloat and expand. The CEO should have the ability and track record of raising capital, help VCs see the company’s vision, and sell the product to the first customers.
- The CEO of a startup has a substantial impact on the success of the company, so pay attention to whether he/she has the traits needed to take the startup off the ground. E.g., a CEO that’s dismissive of challenges is often a red flag.
- Evaluate the caliber of everyone working at the company, not just the engineer department. Have they worked at other VC backed startups? Did those startups have good engineering and culture? You should even be appraising the sales team and/or customer acquisition strategy. If a company wants to solely use craigslist to find talent – that’s a bit of a red flag.
- The VC firms or investors funding a startup are good indicators of its potential. Of course, VCs can be wrong but they have done a lot of research on the founders, the technologies, and the market before whipping out their checkbooks.
- Consider the names and history of the partners on a VC firm’s board to see if they have a good track record in picking startups that succeed. VCs are typically well connected and have either raised capital or sold companies, so they often have unique insights from their experiences and networks.
- Look for a startup that gets repeated investment from reputable VC firms. For example, if a top-tier VC (e.g., Sequoia, Benchmark, or A16) invested in seed and then series A, then you could take that as a promising sign.
- Ignore vanity signs that look good on paper but bring nothing substantial to the table. For example, “fancy advisors” that aren’t involved in the day-to-day operation or “big clients” who simply tested a free auxiliary product. If their corp site seems kind of fluffy, red flag.
Company Size and the Team
- For a small startup (e.g., 10 employees), you’d likely be working directly with the leadership team instead of middle managers. Find out how the CEO views management to get a gauge on how the company is likely to evolve.
- When evaluating a 100-person company, you’d probably be talking to a couple of managers during the interview process. Make sure to find out about the company’s approach to management and its priorities.
- Observe the workplace environment and talk to those “in the trenches” – how employees act and interact in the workplace often tell you more about the company than management would in an interview. For example, do people seem cagey, sincere, controlling, result-oriented, narcissistic, driven, etc.?
- Find out what “growth” looks like for the leadership team and if they’re approaching the company’s expansion thoughtfully. For instance, how’s the company handling mentorship and onboarding? What’s the growth projection for the team? Are they hiring in a well-orchestrated manner with a reasonable junior to senior employee ratio?
The Market, the Product, and the Path to Profits
- Ultimately, a product needs buyers in order to be successful. Research the competitive dynamics of the market and the position of the company within the market to see if the product is likely to succeed.
- Consider the current profitability of the company or if there are a clear path and timeline to becoming profitable.
- Ask open-ended “big picture” questions at the strategic level, such as:
- The source of funding and eventual exit strategy, if any.
- The overall product or service direction.
- The startup’s primary customers and competitors.
- Short-term and long-term challenges to growth and survival.
- Where you fit into their big picture (e.g., how they see you helping them succeed.)
The startup environment isn’t always easy to navigate but it offers exciting opportunities that are stimulating and potentially lucrative for engineers.
When evaluating a startup, consider both direct answers from the leadership and indirect answers (e.g., from your observation or informal conversations with other employees) to paint a picture of what you can expect life to be like at the company.
Since you’ll be working closely with everyone in the company, make sure to take your values and personalities into consideration so you can create an enriching experience for yourself while building a career.
Not everything is glossy and fun in a startup. In fact, if everything sounds too perfect, generic, polished, canned, or politically correct – that could be a red flag that you should dig deeper before getting onboard.
Cadre is a quality over quantity boutique recruiting shop specializing in all things software engineering, robotics, artificial intelligence, and autonomous vehicles. Cadre is building a talent network utilizing AI and Machine Learning to help solve the tech talent crisis across their portfolio of 85 startups throughout California, Seattle, and Austin.