Working at a startup: You win some, you lose some . . .

Tech and Internet startups are some of the most unique businesses in the world, not just because of the innovative technology they create, but because of the highly unusual culture and work environment they tend to cultivate. More than any other type of startup, newly launched dotcoms have always been well-known for being places where people work long hours, enjoy an unusual amount of freedom, and have some great perks like hammock rooms and gourmet kitchens (if the company is well-funded, that is).

Most people that have gone down that road understand two things: there is a tradeoff, and there is an enormous risk. The tradeoff is that you put in long hours for little money, but in exchange, you get a creative environment, and the ability to get in on the ground floor of something potentially very big with an attractive payday down the road. The risk is that you'll put in those hours and then the company will go belly-up. But, nobody ever goes to work for a dotcom startup with the idea of putting in 30 years and retiring with a pension.

A recent Quora question has generated a lot of heat in the blogosphere lately, when they asked about how Zynga employees felt about the collapse of the stock price. The response to the question was overwhelming, and I haven't heard so much whining since my seventh-grade teacher gave us homework over Christmas break. Here's the deal: Joining an Internet startup is a little like going to Las Vegas. It's lots of fun, you stay up late, and you roll the dice. You win or lose, then it's done. Move on to the next one. The biggest winners I've met in Silicon Valley went through several failed startups before hitting the jackpot. Face it, there's no realistic way anyone should join an Internet startup and expect to work eight-hour days, receive competitive wages and benefits right away, and have any measure of job security. If that's what you're looking for, take a civil service exam and go to work at the post office.

TechCrunch published an emotional account of working at Zynga. Reports of excessive hours, cultural problems and "favorite player" status abound, and I have no doubt that these reports are true. They are true for most startups. The nature of a startup is that it takes time to find their true identity, and you have to expect some of those issues to come up. Again, that's the tradeoff. On the plus side, it's going to be a lot more feasible for you to have a hand in shaping that corporate culture than if you were employed at an established company.

A big point of contention in the anonymous Quora response was that management expected an IPO with strong share prices, and communicated that expectation to employees; yet the price now sits significantly below those expectations. Now we circle back to the fact that nobody in their right mind expects a startup to be a sure thing. Nobody can guarantee IPO prices, and nobody can guarantee that it won't fall flat. But, it's management's job to have a positive vision, and I don't think there's a startup that has ever existed where the founders didn't have at least some measure of unrealistic expectation. It's the nature of the game, and that optimism, even if it is a bit unrealistic, is what keeps the startup community going.

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