The truth behind 6 myths of working at a startup

Sam Dewey

There are certain images of life at startups that have ingrained themselves in pop culture. In many people’s view, working at a startup is a geeky, glamorous world full of branded hoodies, office perks, and ever-fattening bank accounts.

On the flip side, some people envision startups as just the opposite — a stress-inducing job opportunity barren of work/life balance, proper pay, and job security. 

So, where's the middle ground? 

Those myths have spread their roots, but at the end of the day, they don’t offer an accurate depiction of the lives of startup workers. In order to deracinate those unproductive stereotypes, we sat down with some of Chicago’s top, up-and-coming tech companies to learn the startup myths they’re itching to debunk.

Myth: Startups are all fun and games.

Reality: “The myth is that every startup office culture is all about free lunches, razor scooters and nerf guns,” said Akouba Credit founder and CEO Chris Rentner. “At Akouba, we are an enterprise software company selling into a highly regulated, traditional and conservative industry (banks and bankers) which doesn't understand that mentality. While we have a great team, culture and tons of fun while at the office, no one is rolling around on razor scooters.”

Retner added that the glitz and glam of startup life so often portrayed in Hollywood isn’t far from the truth of working at a small tech company.

“Startups aren't always exactly like they are portrayed in movies and TV shows, where every company has hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, everything is glamorous, and it was that way from the moment the company was started. At Akouba, we are a team of passionate people building a very difficult product with the hopes that eventually we will effect enough change in an industry where a new ‘normal’ can be defined. If along the way we raise capital, and are glamorous, that will be the icing on top of the small business success cake.”

Myth: Startups employers slave away 24/7.

Reality: “Another common myth is that people at startups work 24/7/365,” Retner said. “In reality, the entire Akouba team works quality hours over quantity. This doesn't mean you won't find people at our office at 6:30 a.m. or after midnight at times. However, the team is encouraged to take off all traditional banking holidays (and then some, given our unlimited PTO policy) so we can recover as a team when our customers are taking time off as well."

Myth: Startups are disorganized.

Reality: "One myth commonly associated with startups is that they're disorganized,” said Allison Whalen, Managed by Q’s Chicago general manager. “At Q, our whole business is designed around process — both internally and externally. For a company of our stage (our two-year anniversary is this April!), we have a surprising number of systems and processes to keep our teams organized. Because we're in four cities nationally, documenting everything from training to operations is critical to ensuring the ship sails smoothly. Being young and nimble also has given our team the ability to create processes and innovate, while balancing freedom with control.”

“That's not to say nothing is disorganized,” she added. “But all things considered, we've been process-oriented early on. We've been pretty deliberate about it to help us scale."

Myth: Working at a startup is a huge risk.

Reality: “The idea that working for a startup puts you at risk in terms of job security, long term benefits, etc. is simply not true,” said LiveWatch's Tommy Carroll. “At LiveWatch we obviously expect a lot from our team, so we make sure to give a lot back. We’re totally invested in the happiness and retention of our people, who we call our 'internal customers.' We’ve spent a lot of time and energy developing training and retraining programs to make it easier for everyone to adapt to our ever-changing environment, and we have a strong focus on internal promotion to leadership roles, so choosing to work at our startup is really a good career move. Plus, we have a benefits package that might even make some corporate folks jealous. Our growth rate has been off the charts this past year and is on pace to continue; there’s a lot of security in joining a company that doubles its sales each year.”

Myth: Compensation at startups is lower than average

Reality: “Often it is assumed that the pay in startups is lower than average because the reward is tied to equity and risk compensation,” said Sara Schroeder, Signal’s VP of Human Resources. “At Signal, we offer competitive and even above-market compensation because we compete for really strong talent, while also offering equity and risk compensation so employees have a stake in the company’s success.”

Myth: Work/life balance sucks.

Reality: “At Signal, we believe that work/life balance means more than just having in-office perks like a ping pong table and snacks. Those are great elements that improve the office environment, but work/life balance means giving employees time away from the office, too. Signal provides benefits to help promote this balance, including unlimited vacation so employees can rest, recharge, and pursue personal interests. The company also offers other perks to promote balance, such as a Signal Supper Club, game nights, and non-profit activities so employees have an opportunity to give back to the community."

But at Signal, it's not just about spending time outside of the office, Schroeder said. 

“Another important element of work/life balance that’s often overlooked is not just taking time away from the office, but helping family and friends understand what you do when you’re at the office,” she added. “This is why Signal is celebrating things like ‘Take Your Children to Work Day’ in April and ‘Take Your Parents to Work Day’ later in the year.”

Have a tip for us or know of a company that deserves coverage? Shoot us an email or follow us on Twitter @BuiltInChicago.

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