Exploring the Realities of Startup Life

(Original article published on SFU Communique)

When you think of a startup, does the HBO series, Silicon Valley come to mind? Do you picture a group of nerdy men, parked at their desktops for 10+ hours at a time, rarely getting outside for a glimpse of the sun? While the computers, parked bottoms, and long hours don’t stray too far from my startup work experience, there are some misconceptions I would like to clear up about startup life.

1. Highly creative and efficient workers with extensive social networks.

Despite the ‘nerdy,’ ‘loner’ stereotype that tech startups glean, my colleagues are extremely outgoing individuals with large social networks. Having spent my first co-op work term at a startup that assists other startups with funding, I’ve learned that for early-stage companies, the people in your network (friends, family, industry connections) are vital resources when it comes to driving business growth.

2. You may be the co-op student, but everyone is doing coffee runs.

Going into my co-op work term, I anticipated doing the menial work that most employees dread – scheduling, office organization, etc. I adopted an optimistic attitude, accepting that I would willingly take on all sorts of responsibilities if it meant that I would learn something. However, I quickly noticed the absence of an organizational hierarchy within the company, and more of a team-oriented atmosphere. One day, I would be trekking to Staples to buy materials for an event, but the next day, the CEO would be taking out the trash.

3. The only rule is: there are no rules.

Even during the interview process, my soon-to-be employers emphasized that the startup environment is extremely unpredictable, transparent, and welcoming of new ideas. Early-stage companies are constantly experimenting and strategizing ways to avoid and/or overcome kinks in the corporate infrastructure, as well as how to fuel rapid business growth. From the get-go, I was encouraged by my employers to speak up, challenge established processes, and to know that my thoughts were valued and important.

4. It isn’t a 9 to 5 job.

When I signed my co-op contract, it explicitly stated that I would be working 30 hours a week, and so, for the first week of my work term, the innocent newcomer in me abided by these hours religiously. I soon learned, however, that given the size of the team and the heavy workload, there was no way that I was going to meet my deadlines within this weekly timeframe. Since then, my work hours have extended into the evenings, and occasionally, into my weekends.

To some, this may seem unfair and unreasonable. To me, it was necessary to put in those extra hours to learn and familiarize myself with the industry I was working in, and to produce my best work.

Co-op provides students with opportunities to explore various careers and environments, and to essentially find a best fit. You are encouraged to question, learn from, and absorb as much information from the professional environment you are exposed to, and because of the aforementioned realities (particularly number 3), this seems to be further emphasized at startups! Having long been interested in the entrepreneurial ecosystem and its perpetually evolving landscape, co-op fulfilled my curiosities by placing me right at the core of the action. After a 7-month (soon to be 8) placement, I have become more familiar with the inner workings of a startup, and as a result, have validated my affinity for the entrepreneurial environment.

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