I've never been an employee at a startup, but I wish I had. I spent four years of my life working for Accenture instead. Knowing what I know now, I would have tried much harder to find a role in a promising startup.
As a founder, particularly a technology founder, the picture has been very different. I've only had myself and the mentors I personally attracted to learn from. Back in Accenture, there was a whole hierarchy of managers and senior managers and partners and senior partners that could teach me the tricks of the trade. The startup world feels a lot more solitary.
For example, if I'm stuck on how to architect a certain service, there's no one I can pull in to help make the decision. More problematically, although everyone always has advice about how you should do your pricing, your sales, your marketing, and so on, ultimately they're all just opinions from people who have not spent anywhere near as long as you thinking about the problem. They may be insightful, and true even, but you can't know until you try it, and the decision to try or not try a certain idea rests entirely on your shoulders.
It's an unfortunate truth of the world of startups that the world expert on your startup is yourself.
So, in hindsight, I wish I'd gotten internships and jobs at startups before starting my own, so I could learn how someone else makes decisions about their own startups, see what they were doing wrong, and try to do better on my own.
James Yu, describing his time at Scribd, seems to agree that being an early startup employee is a great place to be:
It's hard to put in words the amount of experience an early employee gets at a fast moving technology startup. My time at Scribd wasn't just another job — it was a kaleidoscopic learning experience spanning all aspects of business and technology. For those of you weighing the benefits of an MBA program: join a startup instead. You'll not only learn about real world business problems, you'll also execute them in the real world with smart and passionate people.
One key insight before working at a startup, however, is to realise that you are an employee, not a cofounder. You need to be even more sure than founders that you will get something out of it even if the startup tanks. For example, don't work for a startup at a wage where you're losing money every month (though being paid less is ok). You need to be able to save for your own startup, right?
Even founders shouldn't sacrifice everything for a startup, as argued yesterday. For an employee, that should be completely out of the question.
It's one (bad) thing if your girlfriend dumps you because you work too hard on your startup. It's an order of magnitude worse if she dumps you because you're working too hard on someone else's startup!