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9 Ways to Make Working at a Startup Pay for Future Entrepreneurs To truly learn the ins and outs of launching a business, some suggest working at a startup is all you need.

By Matthew Toren

Indiana University

Lots of universities offer courses and programs on entrepreneurship. Often courses are taught by entrepreneurs who have real-world experience to back up their info. But this second-hand insight, while potentially valuable, pales next to getting your hands on the real thing -- that is, joining a startup yourself.

You will learn the most by coming in fairly early in the process -- as one of the first dozen employees if possible. Here are some of the advantages and insights you can gain:

  • 1. You can learn and earn. While it might not be generous, you will be getting paid while getting experience. Chances are that part of your pay will be in equity, which can be a really good thing if the business takes off.

  • 2. You're close to the top. With a small startup, you will be working directly with the founder and others who will become the top executives as the company grows. This will enable you to see how decisions affect the company’s success and the effort involved in moving it forward.

  • 3. Be a jack of all trades. With only a few employees, everyone will have more than one area of responsibility, and, if you’re capable, your opportunities will grow as the company does. This is a good chance to learn all sides of the business. After all, if you want to start your own company you need to understand every aspect of running it.

  • 4. Learn by example. Leadership is a critical skill for an entrepreneur. Watching the founder manage the company and the people in it will help you understand the skills needed to make a startup work.

  • 5. Learn from bad examples. It’s possible that the founder you end up working for will not be the good example you were hoping to emulate. If instead he or she has serious issues that affect the ability to lead people or accomplish things, the company may grow more slowly or even fail. But guess what? You’re still getting some amazing experience, such as insights into what not to do, and how to survive a company that’s going south.

  • 6. Recognizing good people. By working closely with a variety of people in a start-up environment, you can begin to discover those skills and personality traits that make up a successful start-up team. You may even find people that you would like to hire once you start your own company. At the least, you will have a better idea of what to look for and who to avoid when you start hiring for your own company.

  • 7. Reducing risk. By watching the actions of your employers, you will start to recognize how taking risks can be beneficial and watch the results of various choices. Look for signs of thoughtful planning rather than unthinking panic when things aren’t going right. Watch what works and take careful note of what doesn’t. The more you learn, the better your choices will be.

  • 8. Bone up on budgeting. If possible, pay attention to expenses and revenue. The more you understand the numbers side of a business, the better you will do with your own efforts. Expenses can be tricky and having a realistic assessment of what your business will cost will make success much likelier.

  • 9. Increasing your appeal to investors. As someone with start-up experience, your resume will make you more interesting to potential investors. Your business plan should also show a realistic understanding of what you need to do to succeed.

Once you get involved with a startup, you will discover other lessons that will come out of the experience. It’s a rich and interesting way to gain your entrepreneurial chops. Of course you need to be prepared for the final exam: your own startup. Here’s hoping you get an A+.

What are some benefits you've gleaned from working at a startup? Let us know in the comments section below.

Matthew Toren

Serial Entrepreneur, Mentor and co-founder of

Matthew Toren is a serial entrepreneur, mentor, investor and co-founder of He is co-author, with his brother Adam, of Kidpreneurs and Small Business, BIG Vision: Lessons on How to Dominate Your Market from Self-Made Entrepreneurs Who Did it Right (Wiley). He's based in Vancouver, B.C.

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