So you’re in a dying startup… (How you can tell when your startup is toast and how to plan for your next career move)

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June 12, 2013 by michaelchanrubio

This is for the startup employee. This is for the startup employee who isn’t given equity options and the like. There’s nothing that differentiates the employee of the startup and the employee of the company here. Only that there is one: a startup isn’t a company.

A startup is a temporary organization that’s looking for a scalable business. A company is a registered, legal entity, that’s executing the business of profiting from a product or service offering.

However, many startups fail because they are acting like a business, because they may or may not have a business plan; because they may be registered as a business despite not really having either the fundamentals right, or simply not getting the product-to-market fit right.

And so the boat is sinking.

People in accounts management do less of caring for the customers and instead are driven hard to collect revenues… otherwise there is no payroll this week.

Customers are not invested in but rather squeezed for whatever revenue can be taken from them. It’s worse if customers are partner-stakeholders in the enterprise.

People are leaving…

…At first it was okay because only the “bad” employees leave (good riddance). But then the guys who are left look around them and feel like things have never been worse.

The directives flying around all amount to more complexity instead of simplicity. Everything seems to be a workaround of something.

People are tuning out. You are tuning out.

Are you going to get dragged down by this failure?

You shouldn’t have to. Startups have a very high failure rate. Established businesses have trouble treading water and they’re the ones who’ve already created market share, etc. Startups on the other hand, have next to no reputation, but a lot of ambition.

The problem is, how do you conduct your next job interview without throwing the failed startup (and your former boss and/or colleagues) under the bus?

Here are the questions, you can see them coming:

So why did you leave the company?

Oh, so the company is/has folding/folded? Tell me about the effort you made to make a difference?

The second question is a great opportunity. You can show off your work. You may probably have not made a difference — since the startup is sinking after all (or has already sunk). But be very careful of how you may end up blaming others, making others look bad, etc.

The key is to remain truthful, without having to be exactingly honest.

You do this by giving due credit to your team, your boss, and whatever things they did right.  Then you go tell how you contributed to them and the startup.

If your interviewer is a decent human being, she’ll get that you’re being honorable, and give you credit for it. If she’s a gossipy, terrible person, she’ll twist the knife and try to get you to give a tell-all.

Tell her that the analysis of that failed startup is content you’re developing for profit with other collaborators. It is not something you just share without their permission.

Earlier in my career I had the folly of attempting to demonstrate my analytic prowess and insight during interviews by taking apart my previous employer. I’m never really sure of how those influenced the results, but though I’ve had many engagements I’m sure I’ve failed more interviews than I’ve won. Thus, I can’t recommend this.

But here’s a problem I haven’t really solved yet:

Listing failed startups in your resume/portfolio leads to work quality and work experience that takes (a lot) more effort to verify; at times this can be downright impossible.


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