Going for a job at a start up
July 22, 2014 9:43 AM   Subscribe

I'm going through for a marketing gig at a startup - but my idea of a job is influenced by my family's idea of a job, which tends to be very working class hourly wage stuff. Please help me figure out fitting in and working well with what I've had presented to me.

The position appears to be really invested into a lot of the stuff involved with start up "fun" culture. For example they put 'Rockstar' into the job title and the role, while marketing oriented, has a much lower title than the responsibilities of the position.

From the looks of things, this was one of those marketing admin jobs that expanded as the company did. They are now looking to replace the person they started with, and there's the usual attempt to find someone who is an exact replacement for a ranged set of skills including being:

1) The customer support for the tech product and general PR relations
2) The secretary and ground control for the social and promotional calendar/meetings.
3) The copywriter/editor and email campaign manager.
4) The data analyst.
5) The online advertising person.
6) Basically anything else they feel like, whenever.

Thus far the interview process involved a phone interview (fine), and in person interview with three people (very informational), and now a skill test project (reasonable) and the promise that the top two candidate will go onto have coffee with the CEO as a final selection interview.

Things I've learned so far:

1) There are zero benefits (I'm Canadian, thus I have healthcare so not a disaster).
2) The job expects willingness to handle email after the 40 working hours.
3) There is a huge amount of stress on looking for someone to join the team who is as passionate about X field as them.
4) There was additional emphasis on how the CEO is a startup guru with other successful projects already and 'mentors' everyone.
5) They feel that there will be a lot of self directed "just look it up in the online tutorial video" style training.
6) No HR and so forth. It's a less than 25 people company with dreams of growing to being 200, but they still have weekly entire company meetings and everything is supposed to be fun, fun, fun of the fooseball table kind.
7) They really liked my response to "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?" as "If you are planning on expanding, I assume managing a large team of people."

Things I don't know

1) How much money is this supposed to pay? I gently brought the subject up at the phone stage and managed to avoid risking low balling myself by saying I expected the industry standard- but they didn't give me anything concrete. What's that?

2) What's the correct title for this to help me research it? It seems to basically a marketing and communications campaign manager.

3) How do you do a coffee with other candidate interview? This feels profoundly weird.

4) What are some tips for a decidedly working class scruffy weird girl who is not a programmer and is on the ASD spectrum to seem start up culture suited? I correctly guessed that putting on arty earrings with my dress and blazer combo was a good idea.

5) The vibe I got was almost more like they wanted someone to join a sorority. Assuming that I'm also using this interview like a learning process, can you give me some advice for a more 'chummy' dynamic?

6) Is there anything I should watch out for here?
posted by Phalene to Work & Money (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you get the job, I think you have to determine what your boundaries are, and then figure out tactful ways to enforce those boundaries.

With startup culture, younger workers are valued because there is the perception they can work their asses off. So you really have to regard this as a salaried - and not an hourly - position. How will you find time, then, to go to the gym or the library or do all the interesting things that make you you?

So be prepared to work hard, and be on call, and figure out how to not be on call. Turn your phone off after 9PM or 10PM. You "go to bed early." On weekends, you have family commitments.

Still, people who hope to climb the corporate ladder are often answering emails and planning their week on Sunday evenings. And issues may arise that require a prompt response.

I think you also have to decide on what you want to do with your career. Do you want to climb the corporate ladder? Do you want to become, by age 30 or so, "Director of Online Strategy"? If so, you need to work hard. This is a very competitive industry.

Or maybe you want to get good at one thing (and remain good at it) and inhabit a non-managerial niche (writer or content producer). Niche jobs don't pay as well, and there is less agency and autonomy, but there is the chance that you get a better work-life balance.

So I think *if* you get the job, you need to have an exit strategy. What do you really want to do? How will this job help you achieve that goal? And what is the strategy for moving on?

That's the most important part.

But I have to say that any success you will achieve in your career will not come from seniority and putting in the hours and moving up to that next pay grade. It will come from your reputation, and your reputation is built on the quality of your work and your competency (both are highly subjective by the way) and also your political and networking skills.

Having good political and networking skills does not mean you are a sociopath moving up the ladder. It is just recognizing what motivates people, and how you present. We all have to earn money to eat, and earning money means needing to collaborate well with others, so perception is key.

I wonder if this makes sense.

The job description, by the way, is a little jam-packed, so I would ask them to prioritize what's important in the role. I think advertising should be a lower priority. Unless we're talking about Mickey Mouse FB and LI campaigns, online advertising is an entire discipline itself (a very lucrative one if you can master it).
posted by KokuRyu at 10:20 AM on July 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I come from a working class background too, by the way (my father was a steamfitter and I did some pipefitting for a while during university). It hasn't really affected although my parents do not have the same professional networks that others do. But this is Canada for heaven's sake, us working class people can do anything.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:23 AM on July 22, 2014

Sounds like they will want you to work 60 hour weeks. A lot of those "fun" environments are to keep people in the building for WAY longer than the average work week.

Let them make an offer, then ask for more.

As for talking with the CEO, he's going to LOVE talking about himself. So ask him questions that will draw him out, it's less stressful for you, and the more he talks, the more he likes you. So start off with simple stuff like:

1. What fires you up about X company?

2. What kind of person fits into the culture?

3. Where do you see the company in five years?

Those ought to hold you, I don't know one of these guys who can't pontificate for at least an hour on the subject of their job.

Good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:24 AM on July 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would push for a good title. Titles are cheap and it sounds like they expect you to do a lot. The final interview is the top two candidates having coffee together with the CEO? Wow, I don't envy you if you get there.

Small organizations focus on culture a lot and whether you'll be a fit with the other employees - you're less likely to quit and more likely to work hard if you actually like your colleagues.

I think you need to come up with a number that you want re: salary. If you're currently employed, you want a small raise at least. If you have benefits at your current job that you wouldn't have at your new job, you want your new job salary to account for that as well.

As for how to seem start-up culture-suitable, I'd think about a few interesting things you can say about yourself - that might be helpful for future job interviews too but it may really help with this one. Stuff that people will remember about you in addition to the fact that you seem competent and qualified, because if you make it to the final round, chances are that the other candidate is also competent and qualified. For example, at a previous job, we had a great intern who, in addition to being really smart, had worked in college as the sports team mascot. One of my husband's companies new hires started a cupcake business as a kid (before cupcakes were trendy, she claims). You don't have to come up with something like that necessarily but a funny story that makes you look good, an interest that not everyone shares, will make you a little more memorable. Hell, my boss remembers about me that I like hockey and used to own a pet rabbit. Those are things that make me interesting even though they don't define me.

As for how to fit in, it takes all kinds of people to thrive in a sorority. You need girls who will go out and party, you also need someone to hold the girl's hair back when she comes home late, you need someone who will remember people's birthdays, etc. That's a stretch of a metaphor but I hope you get my point. The fact that you're not exactly like the people who already work there is one of your strengths, not a weakness. If you're introverted, show that you listen well and can remember details. If they're all shouting out ideas at a meeting, start taking notes so people will remember what was said later. Make yourself useful, work your way up to making yourself essential and ultimately, irreplaceable.
posted by kat518 at 10:38 AM on July 22, 2014

If this is a technology startup, it is probably mostly men. In which case, if you are female, you do not want to be stuck in the "mom" role. Being nerdy is good in this environment. Being friendly without being the person who takes notes in meetings, brings cupcakes, etc... is important. Girls get marginalized. Colleagues get respect.
posted by elmay at 10:46 AM on July 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

My take on what the OP is saying is not that she thinks she'll be held back by her working-class background, just that her parents are going to think she's being exploited if she's working more than 40 hours a week. Which... is not necessarily inaccurate.

I see working for a startup like this as being high-risk in some ways - new businesses seem to be more likely to collapse and leave you jobless than larger, established ones (I don't actually know if that's true, now that I've said it), but low-risk in others - in the world of startups the stigma of job-hopping is somewhat less than it is in other types of work, so if you decide to leave after six months (or if you do get laid off), it's no big deal.

It's also potentially rewarding, and potentially draining. Even if they love you and think you're going to fit in, you may find that that Fun! Fun! Fun! workplace attitude is not what you want. I like my coworkers a lot, but I have zero desire to drink beer and play cornhole in the office on Friday evening (and I work for a small, young, tech company, though not maybe what most people think of as a startup). You get to feel like you're part of something, and you probably get a bunch of intense work friend relationships, but you can end up having no life outside of work and work friends.

I get the feeling that you're very early in your career (could be totally wrong) and I just want to say that while companies need you to fit into their organizational culture, you need to pay attention to whether the companies you're looking at have an organizational culture that you want to fit into. To follow up on kat518's comment, sure, the sorority needs someone to hold the other girls' hair back, but do you *want* to be the one who does that? It's OK if you don't. And it's OK to try it out for a while and leave if it doesn't work.

Finally: are you sure you're having coffee with the CEO at the same time as the other potential hire? Or is it just that the two of you are both coming in? Because going on a coffee date with the competition seems weird.
posted by mskyle at 10:56 AM on July 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: >just that her parents are going to think she's being exploited if she's working more than 40 hours a week. Which... is not necessarily inaccurate.

No, I meant I got told there was no use going to college because I'd just end up working at a call centre and job application expectations are somewhat difficult to manage- it's a sort of weird situation but I spent a large part of my childhood on some sort of government aid, in really poor scenarios. Things like salary negotiation is alien country - it's not that 40 hours a week is bad (hell, the reality is often multiple jobs), it's that I'm used to jobs with hourly wages that want to steal unpaid time and so forth.

I don't mean good union pipe fitters, I mean interchangeable service workers.

>Because going on a coffee date with the competition seems weird.

That's what they implied, a coffee thing at the end of the week depending on who gets picked. I think I have a very high chance of making the spot, not out of hubris, but because I know they didn't get many applicants through the nepotistic friend network that plopped the job ad in my lap in the first place.

/end thread sit
posted by Phalene at 11:36 AM on July 22, 2014

I found that reading Limbo helped me cross the socio economic cultural divide. It's perhaps a bit dated now, but it might be worth a look. It helped me understand the cultural divide between growing up working class and becoming an executive. I was working in software industry at the time, which is also it's own thing. I found it hard to believe the company was not out to get me and I was very suspicious of the working culture that encouraged me to have no life outside work...while paying me crap. Because I was working class, I didn't have the belief that, in five years, I'd be making double or more and it made things very stressful. The guys I worked with had that middle class confidence that they were just paying their dues.

In reality, within a couple of years, I was making double what I had and I wasn't working crazy hurs at a startup anymore. I can't promise that to you, but my younger self would have liked to know that.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:36 AM on July 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't mean good union pipe fitters, I mean interchangeable service workers.

Well, my father was only part of the union for the beginning of his career. My grandfather was a fitter in the shipyards and built corvettes during the war, and my great-grandfather worked on CP Rail as a refrigerator maintenance man around World War I. So that's working class (and not the service industry).

So coming from a working class background, I think the challenges that I had growing up were that my parents did not know enough about professional, white collar jobs to give me a clear sense of how to apply my knowledge and skills. But I did.

But there was also the idea that I should work at McDonald's because "it looks good on a resume." And of course McDonald's is a very tightly-regimented service industry.

The issues you are having (not know how to negotiate salary, or what a working week is like) are very common to twenty-somethings, from what I've noticed. Nobody is taught this stuff really, not even by their parents.

But at least you have the self-awareness to want to learn.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:19 PM on July 22, 2014

I can't tell from context; have you been to college, or did you finish high school? I found that the career offices in college and even high school were really helpful for the "I'm a poor kid who's never seen that much money in one place, what do you mean negotiate for more?" stuff. Most college career offices are open to alumni, and I even had some high school teachers that gave me excellent advice well after I left. Where I'm going with this is that middle-class people have a middle-class social network that they can ask these questions of. Working class kids often have some kind of access to that network in a more indirect way, and really using that is one of those things that can get you upwardly mobile. Most people seem to consider it a compliment, as long as it's a pretty short question with a grateful followup.

Salary/title: I've had some good luck cross-referencing back and forth between Glassdoor.com and actual job descriptions, for jobs that are a little off-of-center. That may help you figure out a better title than "Rockstar".

CEO: I agree to ask them about themselves. I'd add that you should do some research on their professional history and the history of the company as well. You say this CEO has led some other companies to success? I bet you can find more info about that. I bet you can find out a few things about the trajectory of the company and their successes. This isn't a matter of knowing every little thing, but at minimum being really familiar with all the info on their website and the last month or so of social media stuff will probably be important.

I'll leave the fitting in bits to other folks.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:40 PM on July 22, 2014

There are some excellent responses concerning how to weigh the pros and cons of what you're considering.

For me, there are a couple of red flags, but it sounds like there is an equal amount of opportunity if you have a year or so to invest in this experience.

After one startup that began wonderfully and ended in wheels-off disaster (not paid for the last 6 months; lost my job, savings, home, health and partner), I have a new rule. If I accept a new venture, I make a list of non-negotiable conditions under which I must resign, even if I think it's a temporary rough patch. These include declining health or managerial misconduct. Your non-negotiables may be different.

I also draw up two different checklists: one for health (things like insomnia, stress, weight gain or loss, amount of exercise, any illnesses or flare-ups of recurrent conditions), and another for professional benchmarks (where am I in my objectives; are we all still getting along, has management followed through on any earlier promises and if not, why; are most milestones being met on time and on budget).

I go over the checklists at 1, 3, 6, 9 and then 12 months. If there are clear, downward trends that are affecting my health or morale, I'm out. I learned the hard way that it's not worth it.

Likewise, I try to get a feel for whether we as a company are moving toward our goals, and if there are other opportunities elsewhere. It's good to keep an eye out.

Why these intervals? Two reasons: one, it's really easy for a bad situation to creep up on you and take over your life before you know what's happening. This is especially true in a startup, where you're working long hours and not getting out a lot.

Two, I've found that these are reasonable lengths of time for you to get a feeling about what's really going on. During the first month, you'll collect information about what your company is like, what's going well, what's not, and what's different than you expected. It's an evaluation phase.

Also, if there is something about the company's culture that doesn't fit with your values and goals, you'll probably notice it during the first month. If this happens (and I'm not saying it will), resign. Don't try to explain it away. In my experience I noticed that things were off on the first day. I really wish that I had left then and chalked it up to a loss rather than stay on for another few years.

If you get through the first month okay, keep paying attention. If everything is okay at three months, check in again at 6 months, then 9. These are also magic numbers where I live because they correspond to the length of short-term contracts, which come in 3-month increments. For a recruiter, it would raise eyebrows if I quit at 5 months, for example, but not at 6.

After a year, you can start making some longer-term decisions about where you want to go and what you want to do. But you can quit at any time if your non-negotiables are breached.

A 3-month interval is also enough time to try to turn things around if you get word that your performance is below par, and plan an exit if you can't turn them around.

Good luck!
posted by Occam's Aftershave at 1:43 PM on July 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and you need to get mentors. When I went to my parents for career advice, they told me the company would tell me the pay schedule and just to ask for it. (That cost me a few jobs in the interview process.) and I thought holidays were based on seniority and a sign up sheet would be passed around. That cost me summer holidays one year. Stuff like that. You need a white collar mentor. I worked hard st this stuff and was lucky to find a couple of people who could talk to me like I was an immigrant to the culture.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 1:49 PM on July 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

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