• Women 2.0 HowTo Conference San Francisco, September 30 - October 1, 2014

Developers: Why Risk Your Career At An Early-Stage Startup?

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Michael Jackson’s lyrics decoded to the tune of entrepreneurship.

By Heather McGough (Founder, Urbanity Events)

I’ve recently interviewed developers from all over the Bay Area to ask them why they chose to take the leap and join risky, early-stage startup companies.

While each person had his/her own story to share, I heard common themes clear as melodies. Since many of us tend to have Michael Jackson in constant rotation, I decided to share what I’ve learned via the lyrics of the Moonwalk-ing King of Pop, and describe the virtues of choosing this Thriller-packed road of entrepreneurship.

You Know It’s Thriller, Thriller Night

Developers who choose to work for risky, early-stage startups seem addicted to experiencing everything firsthand, enjoy the rapid pace and the unknown that is constantly thrown their way. They are lured to these companies for their high stakes, the opportunity to push themselves, and potential for high rewards.

Paul Kist, the lead engineer at Traackr, says he likes the idea of a journey. “I’m really attracted to challenges, and as crazy as this sounds, knowing that if I do well (or mess up), the visibility of that is going to be pretty obvious. It’s a lot of stress and responsibility. You don’t have that cushion like working for a large company.”

People want to get out of their comfort zone, explains Christian Whitehouse, the lead developer for an Android app at Kullect. Certain people thrive on the possible chance that everything could collapse, or go amazingly well and turn into something big. At the end of the day it seems that with all of the pressure and uncertainty, it’s still worth it compared to the alternative – sitting in a cubicle.

I Said You Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’

Developers see joining a startup as an opportunity to get a crash course in business in case they want to lead their own company one day. Many agree that they learn more in one year at a startup than four years at a university. Christian Whitehouse, who may one day start something of his own, explains “The experience is unrivaled; there is nothing like seeing it all unfold firsthand.”

Kate Swanson, the sole female developer for Luminate, describes how she did internships with big established companies and got stuck doing things that weren’t super exciting and didn’t provide the opportunity to make a large impact. At Luminate, she sees all the cool projects from the beginning and says that being part of a startup is a good way to learn the ropes of building a company.

Colleen Ross, a web/software engineer for CollegeBrain would agree, “My boss sits a foot from me and mentors me everyday. It’s very easy to communicate with the whole company when the whole company is 400 square feet.” You may not be the founder, but you might feel like it.

I Wanna Rock With You

Ever want to work with people who are equally as stoked as you to be at the office? Then join a startup. “They blew me out of the water,” says Kate Swanson. “When they’re excited you’re excited and want to come in to work too.” Paul Kist shares, “One thing that keeps me going is the talented and smart people I work with – it’s a key reason for my being sustained through the ups and downs of early-startup life.”

Sasha Laundy, a former developer, and the founder of Women Who Code says, “There are a lot of ambitious people out there who want to take a stab at something that could change the world.” Sasha likes the fast pace, and has recently taken on a position at Codecademy in New York City. Startups provide the opportunity to work with a team that is as closely connected to the customers as it is to the CEO.

Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough

“I don’t want to get stuck in a cubicle solving bugs,” shares Kate Swanson. The developers I talked to aren’t satisfied doing just one thing. They want to bring parts of themselves to the startup and be allowed to navigate their role as the company grows.

Hate being pigeonholed at work? So do they. “There is a lot of freedom to create the role I want to play,” states Paul Kist. Not only is Paul an engineer, he serves as the resident photographer, and has done voiceovers and videography for Traackr. “It’s a different environment.

When something needs to be done, somebody needs to step up. There is no ownership of sections,” shares Sasha Laundy. At a startup you walk in and things change so rapidly that you need to want to keep up and seek this out.

Tell ‘Em That It’s Human Nature

It’s human nature that people want to feel heard, rewarded, and know that they’re contributing to the whole. They want to have impact at work. Sasha Laundy explains that she would have a lot of trouble working for a large company because she wants to directly influence the product and company culture without all the red tape. Smaller teams mean you are ensured more power, visibility and increased control over yourself and your product.

The Way You Make Me Feel

Across the board, developers I spoke with didn’t make their decision to work at a startup solely for the money. A huge part of their decision was due to the company’s killer vision, which they could personally get behind. “Being an entrepreneur is a romantic ideal, especially in the Bay Area. You’re always fighting for that ‘chance’ you’ll make it big,” shares Christian Whitehouse.

The money may come later, or it may not. Paul Kist says that for him, compensation hasn’t been a priority. “What got me out of bed every day was the ownership I have and that the energy I’m putting in is for something I care about – that’s just how I’m wired.”

Don’t get them wrong, there is potential for a nice payout even if you don’t start out making much. “Some accept taking a lower salary at an early stage with the hope of a payoff down the road,” says Sasha Laundy. The trade off is that you generally own a larger percentage of the company in equity.

Working at a startup does not always feel as satisfying as hanging out with a P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing). Some days it may feel Dangerous, and on others it may feel like you wanna sing Rock With You in a sparkly head-to-toe glitter jumpsuit (that’s a good thing).

But these developers would agree that those who get through the challenges will likely rise to the top, if they choose not to be defeated… and Beat It.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Heather McGough is Founder of Urbanity Events. She began her career working in the non-profit sector and continues to give time to local and global causes. Her business focuses on startup conferences, speaker series’ and other high-tech events including popular Bay Area conference FailCon and co-producing the startup series FailChats. In her free time, Heather enjoys travel, the outdoors, playing basketball and is writing a detective fiction book about organized crime.