Startup or Not?

03.01.2013 | Candidates, Startups | Marketing

By Dustin Colter 

How do you know if you should join a startup or not? How do you sift through all the calls, the emails, the LinkedIn invites, the recruiters and the sheer amount of data thrown at you each and every day, to read between the lines of all the noise and say, “Yes, I really like this technology or team behind the façade of foosball tables, free food and beer, and radical stock options?”

To the thousands of Startups, if you truly are an awesome new startup, sell the steak not the sizzle. Everyone is trying to sell how cool or hip their office is while the benefits are the same dirty dozen fringe benefits that are par for the course. That’s because most of them are cheap to the employer. And yes, you will attract the young startup type candidate you are looking for but you miss out on a lot of talent that could care less about the frosting on the cake and really just want to see what the cake is made of. Your technology, the why and how people will use it, is the way to differentiate yourself from the mob. Not another me-too startup. Show me. Paint me a picture that makes me say, “Wow, this is a no-brainer.”

Okay, so now you’re asking yourself, “What do I care if this recruiter likes my office, or my job description or all the fringe benefits we offer.” My answer is simple; if I’m not interested, it’s going to be really hard to get good engineers interested. “Oh, and why is that?” you ask. Simple again; you have my undivided attention. I am not distracted with every other Facebook wannabe out there beating down my door. I have a vested interest to say, “Yes, I want to learn about your widget”. I then have to creatively think about your product and all the other products out there to position YOU in a way that will land the most talented engineers in the field so that I, ultimately, can make a living.

Hopefully, that will clear up some of the noise for the engineers and other candidates. Now I can get back to the question, Startup or Not? Well not quite…

To the candidates, mainly engineers, who get hammered with calls, emails, inmails and every other tactic out there, don’t even reply to the Recruiters who are wasting your time. The Recruiters that only have small details, no meat for you to sink your teeth into at and evaluate, those are the Recruiters wasting your time. Recruiters often get a bad rap, but the ones who do it right and have the connections to back it up are invaluable. So, be leery but don’t blow them all off. There are some really talented ecosystem managers (my new fancy name for good recruiters) out there who have REAL connections with REAL Venture Capitalist Partners and have REAL heavy-hitting startups in their pockets.

Don’t even bother posting your resume on a public job board. If you want to hone in on the good startups and avoid all the noise, please do yourself a favor and do not post. If you are a sought-after Engineer (any CS Engineer in the major hubs:  SF, NY working with trending technologies), we will find you. The good startups will find you.

Okay, still with me? Now that we have most of the noise narrowed down, there should be a handful of companies that you may or may not have heard of. It’s likely you have heard of a few, but the good startups that you want to target, ideally, you have not heard of. How do you tell if they are worthy of your time?

These companies (and this is important) should have a few things.

First, their role.  Do they have an opening (and all startups do)? If you’re not growing, you’re dying. And if you’re good, they will make a role especially tailored to you.

Second, their management. This one is easy. Who is their management team? Have they done anything even remotely cool? Are they driven, yet easy to work with? Could you work with them? Could you work for them? If they were the only ones in the office with you, would you be excited about going into work side-by-side with them on a holiday? If yes, great, you’re on the right track.

Third, their technology. One of the most important questions, are you excited about their product and is it a novel idea? Could it work? Can you sink your teeth into it? Can you “GEEK OUT” on the tech? I don’t care about how much they are paying you, if you’re not happy with the people and the technology, it really doesn’t matter. If you can’t go home at night and tell your significant other how happy you are, don’t join.

Fourth, their investors. Have you heard of them?

Fifth, their hours. I think this one is kind of a myth anymore, along with the “stability” of a startup. One of the first objectives I get is, “how many hours do I have to work?” The answer for a startup is pretty standard these days – get the work done and I don’t care. Now, if we have a release or something, we expect you to be there and be vested but reality is that most people do it because they believe in what they are building and have a vested interest (stock options) to build the best dang widget they can.  Stability is a myth in the Valley. Startups are stable. They have people much smarter than I am evaluating the net worth of an idea and the return of their investments, people like Vinod Khosla, Reid Hoffman and Ron Conway. Truth is nine out of ten layoffs come from the public companies. Last to hire, first to fire.

Sixth, your freedom. I’m talking about your ability to be free, creative and grow. This is one of my favorite things about a startup, they don’t slow your growth neither professionally or personally. You have the opportunity to confront and be confronted. You have the ability to free your mind from the ties of conventionalism conglomerate America, no line you can’t cross, no red tape you better not break, no sluggish-like bureaucracy. Startups want your mind open so you can create something that’s never been created before. It’s an opportunity for you to take off the golden handcuffs and allow yourself to create something from scratch.


Now you can ask yourself, Startup or Not? And the answer should be pretty clear. If not, at the end of the day, it’s really about your career. Where do you want to take it? Where will you be most happy? You spend more time with these people than with your own family. Is it a place you can see yourself going to work? I don’t mean for a couple years but longer, if not, a 4 year vesting period will be your worst enemy. It’s not just about your income, ten thousand here or there is pretty much a wash after paying Uncle Sam. The old rule of supply and demand will work in your favor and get you to where you need to be. It’s about seeing through the smoke screens and finding your dream job. It’s out there and it’s probably right above your local coffee shop!

Many of the startups I have worked with over the years are still around. I have used this same criteria to pick my clients. I want the ones who are going to be around just as much as you do. I can’t sell dreams if the dreams are closing their doors. I need longevity and stability in the startup just as much as you do. In the end, it’s a calculated risk. The Yahoos, Googles, Ciscos, Oracles, Microsofts will be there tomorrow. My advice is to take a chance, take a well thought out risk to better your life, your career, and potentially the world.






Dustin Colter is the Vice President and Operations Manager at Quest Groups. He custom made his newborn son’s Octopus Halloween costume last year and his wife, Kristen, gave the best speech at the company Christmas party. Follow Dustin on twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.