Are You Cut Out to Work at a Startup?

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Co-founder and Advisor of NerdWallet
4 min read
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Startups are the engine that creates new jobs for the American .  They “account for only 3 percent of but almost 20 percent of gross job creation,” a 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study shows.

As a result, small but fast-growing companies like NerdWallet spend a lot of time sifting through resumes. We analyze more than 100 resumes for every successful hire in our 120-employee company. Many of the applicants come from large, well-established firms. Can these applicants from Corporate really work in a fast-growth atmosphere with often ill-defined roles and constantly moving targets? That’s a key question for us.

It’s definitely not for some. Many people who are great employees at established firms quickly flounder and fail in a startup atmosphere.

Related: The Most Important Career Choice You'll Ever Make

Here are the key traits that determine whether employees can successfully make the switch to the startup world.

Are comfortable with uncertainty. 

One thing I always look for when considering candidates who don’t come from a startup background is how comfortable are they with ambiguity? Priorities can change at the drop of a hat when you’re building a new . You may walk in on a Monday and find you need to drop a project you’ve dedicated months of effort to in favor of something more promising. Can you pivot on a dime?

Can embrace . 

I want people who have demonstrated in the past they are comfortable taking risks. Working for a startup is an inherently risky move. “All start-up firms operate in a volatile `up or out’ environment. After five years, many of these young companies are ‘out’,” writes NBER researcher Laurent Belsie. The risks are high but so are the rewards.

Willing to build a brand from the ground floor. 

You’re going to face flak from peers and loved ones when you turn your back on a brand-name company to work for an unknown one. I know I did when I left & Co. to help start NerdWallet. “What the hell are you doing?” was a common refrain. It’s a question of perception. People place strong psychological value on a career tied to a trusted brand. But Google, and Amazon were unknown players before they became household names. Are you bold enough to think you could help create the next marquee company?

Related: 9 Reasons to Quit Your Job As Soon As You Can

Forget job titles. 

If you like to be told what to do, you’ll fail at a startup. If you think, “Hey, that’s not my job,” you’ll fail at a start-up. The well-defined job titles and duties that are the hallmark of large corporations are erased here. You have to be able to prosper in a situation where there is no hand-holding and often not a lot of direction given.

Everyone at a startup is an entrepreneur. Most of what NerdWallet does is create new businesses from nothing. When employees have ideas that appears promising, we’re unafraid to let them steer that project -- even if it’s far removed from the job they were hired to do. In short, if you’re not a self-starter, forget about working for startups.

Leave your arrogance behind. 

To survive in a startup environment defined by constant change and learning, you need to admit your weaknesses. You need to ask for help when you’re stuck.  This can be really hard to do for many high-performing, driven people. It requires humility and a desire to create healthy relationships. That can be hard for star players emerging from a corporate world where office politics often reign supreme. But at a startup, teamwork isn’t just a cliché; it will be your daily reality.  If you don’t play nicely with others, the startup scene isn’t for you.

Related: 4 Signs Your Employer Knows You're Looking to Leave

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