Building a career in start-ups

Working in a start-up, as trending as it is, isn’t for everyone. It need not be either. It is only one way of work-life. It can be terribly unsettling to some while absolutely thrilling to some others. I belong to the latter.

When I was first seeking employment a decade ago, I hadn’t even heard the term. In fact I was blissfully unaware of many things about work-life (and life altogether) at the time.

However,  I consider myself extremely lucky to have earned my first job in a start-up only 5 months into its inception. While my peers were looking at completing degrees and seeking opportunities at reputed establishments, there I was, straight out of school and a stranger in Colombo, taking a crowded bus on a 2 1/2 hour journey to my first workplace on Jawatta Road. This very bus ride was to soon change my life and propel my career, but I will leave that story for another time. This particular piece is about the start-up life.

Start-ups are like cultured petri dishes prepped for micro-organisms to breed and evolve. And you have to be much like a bacteria or fungi, if you were to make maximum use of the perimeters of your petri dish.

Here’s the deal, people usually get hired to do a particular task based on a particular skill / talent you claim to have or are known to have. But in a start-up, if you are opportunistic you would do best not to stick to it. Yes that’s right, sticking to a job role is something that does not happen in a start-up and that is exactly what defines those who fit in with the start-up culture and those who don’t. In a start-up you can easily expect the CEO and lunch-boy to be the same person. If you aren’t a “fluid” – ready to flow, spill and take any shape based on the vessel you’re in; then the lack of definition, order, hierarchy and process will drive you crazy. Like I said, unless you’re a bacteria, you may not like the petri dish.

This is why start-ups are an ideal entry for school leavers. Tabula rasa, fluid, inquisitive, eager to learn, eager to prove etc.  TIP: If you’re someone who just left school and have no idea what your selling skill/talent is or which career path you need to take up, just take up ANY job at a start-up

That’s the up side. If you’re willing to get busy making yourself useful to the business in every way possible, you will get noticed pretty soon. Rewards (esp monetary) may or may not come, but the ability to learn and evolve really fast would serve to be quite valuable. Again, this is why being able to afford fluidity is important. And why I say “afford” is because fluidity isn’t necessarily a virtue, it is more a circumstantial privilege one can be lucky to possess.

But then there is the down-side. A business is only a start-up for a short time. If the business is good and grows rapidly, this time is even shorter. Once the company starts growing and the culture change becomes inevitable (from open to corporate, from unstructured to structured, from no-processes to strict-processes) the bacteria will find themselves unable to grow further. There will be a point where there is no more room to grow.  it would appear that you’ve hit the walls of the petri dish. This is when you, the bacteria, will need to make a crucial decision if to move to a new petri dish or learn to accept that you’ve evolved enough and what you are at that point is what you would like to remain as, at least for a while…


I would say in my experience, your start-up employment at any one place will ideally total 3 years & include 2-3 promotional designation changes if you make the right moves.


P.S. If you’re a bacteria in a petri dish, I would love to hear your experiences and thoughts on the same.

And if you are hoping to join or start a ‘start-up’ I am available for questions anytime.  🙂

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