In continuing what is turning out to be my “list of sevens” series (see also: Seven Reasons To Become a Founding Entrepreneur and Seven Founding Sins), I wanted to list seven questions which prospective employees that should ask before joining a startup. While most of the material I’ve written in this blog about startups has been related to founders/entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, most people involved in startup endeavors fall under neither of those categories. They’re employees.
There are many benefits associated with joining a startup as an employee at any level (energized work atmosphere, little bureaucracy, upside), but there are many significant risks coupled with them as well. Of course, a prospective employee should ask numerous questions of both his/her role and the company before joining any firm, but there is a set of questions specific to joining a startup that people should pose. I’ve tried to outline what I think are some of the most important questions below. Keep in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive list, merely a suggested seven to get a discussion going. I encourage everyone to suggest additional questions in the comments section below.
If you are receiving employee options, what is the number of fully-diluted outstanding shares? Typically, option grants are a key component of compensation in a start-up and are often promoted as such. But the details surrounding stock options are often complex and confusing for non financially-oriented individuals. It is best for employees to understand as much as possible about their option grants (this subject could be the topic for an entire series), but the first place to start is to ask how many outstanding shares there are. From that point, one can calculate the percentage of the company an employee will own and a better gauge of the magnitude of this compensation component. It surprises me how many startup employees I know who are excited to have received a grant of x number of options, but never bothered to ask what relative percentage of the company that translates into.
Has there ever been a down round, a flat round, or a CEO change? Any of these three events are an indicator that the startup has faced some difficulties in the past and may not be on track moving forward. If one of them has occurred, prospective employees should seek out as much information as they can the context of the situation. After all, there are exceptions to blind the assumption that these are a black mark (e.g. a founding CEO stepping aside to make room for professional management could be an indicator of successful growth). However, if any of these issues have arisen, it is a signal to dig deeper into the health of the business.
What is the burn rate and how much cash is in the bank now? Even if a start-up is successfully executing, it could still face a cash crunch if it is not yet profitable. Employees should ask to find out how much longer the company will ride without the infusion of another round capital. While the actual answer to this question won’t necessarily provide a definitive answer about the ability for the company to access both cash and capital, it will open up a discussion about it.
What is the plan for exit strategy and its timeframe? The answer to this question is a soft one with many factors, and can always change depending on circumstances. However, it is best to find out management’s view of a possible exit strategy. Is the company pieced together for a quick flip, building for multi-year significant value creation, or plan on holding for the long term as an eventual cash cow (for founder/investors)? These expectations will affect not only how long employees may be working for the company as it exists today, but more importantly, the resulting surrounding corporate culture.
Could you meet the CEO, the founder(s), and those on the management team? Start-ups are all about the people involved. And there are a small number of people who are largely going to affect the organization. Even if an entry-level employee is going to work in engineering, I think it makes sense for him/her to meet the VP Sales; likewise, a marketing manager should meet the CTO. Yet it might not happen unless the prospective employee requests it. The handful at the top are going to have a profound affect on the future of the company as a whole and the position (regardless of function), and therefore it is best to meet as many people possible in the company possible before joining.
Are there plans in the next six months to hire anyone along the chain-in-command between your position and the CEO? Start-ups often have key vacant positions open as the companies expand and grow quickly. I recommend explicitly asking if there is an anticipated change in the reporting structure in the foreseeable future, as any modifications or additions (even those a few rungs up in the ladder) could significantly affect employees’ roles and responsibilities.
How many employees did/does/will the company have six month ago, now, six months from now, a year from now? Employee count is a strong (but not a perfect) proxy for management’s and investors’ outlook on the business. Start-ups hire ahead of growth (or at least predicted growth), which translate into a viable company, a healthy work environment, and future internal opportunities. Financial figures and projections are helpful indicators, certainly, but are often a distortion of the full picture (especially early on in a company’s cycle). The growth in employee count (or lack thereof) directly signals how much work needs to be accomplished how rosy the expectations are.