Tooling Up: The Start-Up Environment: Is It for You?


As you're sitting there at your desk contemplating how to get your first job, or if you're already working and you're thinking about your next career move, you may be considering a job at a start-up company. Start-ups come in all shapes, sizes, and industries. But life in a start-up isn't for everyone, and before you take the plunge there are some things you should know, such as the anatomy of a typical start-up and the characteristics of the typical start-up employee.

Anatomy of a Start-Up

Start-up companies range from a two-person team in a garage raising seed money to a well-financed company with over 200 employees. Typically the range is somewhere in the middle. One thing is true: They are always looking for more money. Depending on your background, you may be interested in working either for a biotechnology start-up or a high-technology start-up.

My experience is that biotech companies typically remain in the start-up mode for a longer period of time and take longer to get to market than do high-tech companies. Food and Drug Administration approval starting with an Investigational New Drug (IND) exemption and proceeding to a successful New Drug Application (NDA) is a 7- to 10-year process. These companies generally do not move forward and get a product into clinical trials without substantial financing. That does not mean that there is a guaranteed capital to get the product into commercialization, but at least there is money in the bank to hire key employees and move toward the first milestone. Following this effort, the company should know whether they were successful in reaching this goal and, if so, there will be a better chance of getting follow-on money and possibly a strategic alliance.

On the other hand, a high-tech company often starts in a garage atmosphere funded by founders, family, and friends. After the business plan has been written, there is a simultaneous process of moving the technology forward and raising money. Key employees are brought on for minimal cash but lots of equity and the sharing of the dream. Depending on the product, sales could begin that year because clinical trials are not a part of their process. In all probability, the company will start with venture capital backing and on a fast track to meet the first goal. The secondary financing is usually tied to meeting the first set of goals.

The major difference between these two types of companies is the time to get to market. The people who best fit these two types of atmospheres are people who are not adverse to risk. Generally, scientists who join biotechs are probably coming in with a better funding base than the high techs (unless she is the founder of the biotech).

Biotech and high-tech start-ups are also different in the employees who are hired after the funding is in place. Many biotechs do not need a marketing or sales component because that may be handled by a corporate partner, whereas this position is pivotal for a high-tech company. Start-up biotech companies usually use contract services such as clinical research organizations, contract manufacturers, and other consultants, and this is compatible with the outsourced high tech. Both types of companies may have several people providing services, but the services are on an "as needed basis."

But perhaps the part of a start-up that is most different is the way job performance is evaluated. Performance is often evaluated by reaching predetermined milestones above and beyond one's day-to-day activities. This applies to everyone and all are given monetary and stock incentives to reach these goals. This gives start-up employees an equity stake in the company, regardless of the size. It has been demonstrated over time that people who own a piece of the company are more likely to work harder, smarter, and longer if need be. Simply performing your job is usually a luxury, as there are phone calls to be answered, unexpected projects to be completed, and crises to be managed. In other words the attitude is to assist when needed and to wear many hats, not just the one you like the most. This takes us into the characteristics of the typical start-up employee.

The Start-Up Employee

Good start-up employees feel that their corporate technology or service is unique, has been tested, and can be the foundation of a company, BUT you must have a passion about the technology. There will be long hours, great expectations to surpass goals, hours of traveling, and disappointments, which are all manageable if you feel that the world cannot exist without this technology. As a scientist, this will be especially important in recruiting new scientists to join the team. Caring and believing in the science is the reason that scientists stay and work diligently to make sure the scientific milestones are met. There is significant pressure for the scientific team to meet the goals that were set out at the beginning of the year. Meeting these may take you out of your specialty to assist in other departments and this will provide an opportunity to learn and be part of a team.

Start-up employees also must have the ability to organize projects and be able to move freely from one project to the next. These skills are often referred to as project management skills and are key factors to succeeding in a start-up. Scientists in a start-up organization must not only perform lab work and conduct scientific research but also be available for corporate presentations, interviewing new members of the R&D team, contribute to the strategic planning, travel for scientific presentations, and publish journal articles. To enhance one's career track in the research field, multiple skills are required and valued.

Most start-up employees are results-oriented and don't punch a time clock. The are evaluated on reaching certain goals and not just doing their job. This means that the ability to prioritize, accomplishing the crucial items first, is a must. In a start-up there are generally too many items to complete and knowing which is the most important is essential.

A start-up member needs to put the company ahead of one's own personal goals. An example of this is the founder of the company who may want to be its CEO but is aware of her strengths and weaknesses, and, to put the company first, hires a CEO with a track record. The team-oriented person puts the company's needs first.

In a small company without layers of management and detailed instructions of day-to-day activities, the person who will thrive is a person who can move forward with little supervision and toward the goal for which they are striving. If there are problems, the individual is proactive to get the issue resolved, but otherwise keeps the supervisor informed often on a weekly basis. The self-starter, who can see the goal in sight, takes responsibility and moves toward that end will be successful.

Start-up employees also have what I would call a sense of urgency. Time is one of the most vital components of the start-up mind set. There is often a time restriction to develop or launch products and to be the first to market. If the project could be completed in 4 weeks, the mindset of the start-up company will be to do it in 2 weeks. If an employee can help to expedite this, they will be identified as a valuable and key member of the team.

Most people who work in start-ups are able to grasp new technologies and processes quickly. They can also think strategically and look ahead to opportunities and problems that may arise. These people can make tough decisions. If you find yourself described in this article, perhaps the next opportunity for you is in a start-up environment.

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