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Startups & The Myth Of Necessary Sacrifice (From Someone Who’s Worked For 4 Of Them)

Startup companies are a unique blend of masochism and endless hope. Unless they’re founded (and funded) by industry vets that can devote ample time and money to the cause, their best asset is your sweat equity – and they’ll get it with stock options instead of living wages because, frankly, they probably can’t afford you.

I’ve gone through the startup ringer 4 times, and yes. Some of the experiences I wouldn’t trade for the world. Some I wish I’d left much sooner.

There’s a kind of mythos that gets into your head when you join an early stage startup (read: one without money). If you’ve been through one before, this will sound familiar:

We’re all in this together.

We’re all pulling long hours.

We’re all sacrificing for the good of the team.

We have to be dedicated, putting the company’s needs above our own. If one person doesn’t, it will all fall apart. Do you want to be the cause of everyone else’s wasted time?

I’ve written before about my first startup, which offered a lot in terms of flexibility and space to build my skillset and get creative. It didn’t offer a lot in terms of, well, actual pay. For years I earned less than minimum wage, often working around the clock or being constantly on call.

And I wasn’t the only one! At the time it felt like I was doing the right thing for the team – I wanted to see them succeed, and I had to give them everything to make it happen.

It’s not just a recipe for burnout. It’s a dangerous mentality that allows companies to prey on you – especially if you’re joining early in your career.

And it’s not worth it. The reality is, even though it may seem like a dire all-hands-on-deck situation, we weren’t exactly curing cancer. We built software for retail and hospitality businesses, but it didn’t help the world. We deserved weekends, nights off, and time away. We also deserved living wages.

When I joined startup #1 here in Los Angeles, I earned a $1,000/mo stipend, $500 of which went straight to rent. I was taking investor queries and customer calls at 3 AM regularly, or working through weekends, and literally living in the “company house” to help make ends meet. If there was an outage or an issue, I’d pack up and go help, regardless of what else may have needed my attention. I stopped seeing family and friends outside of the company and certainly didn’t have time for outside interests. When you’re fresh from college, you have the energy to live like this – but what’s the point?

A company can spout the team-player hoo-rah they need to motivate employees to work long hours for little to no pay, but when it comes down to it, the business will always come first. A company may be comprised of people that like each other, but more often than not, the bottom line is the priority. That’s why I shouldn’t have been shocked when that startup that had pushed and guilted so many people into martyrdom suddenly laid off those same people without even an hour of warning. Which brings me to my point:

Your company does not deserve loyalty. It will offer none to you.

And it definitely does not deserve to take over your life.

Honestly, as much as I value the friends I’d made and experiences gained, I should have left that company much earlier than I had. In the end, I walked out with stock options I couldn’t afford to exercise, the same friends I’d walked in with, and marketable skills worth much more than I’d been led to believe.

The experience of staying hungry and scrappy may sound great to future employers, but three years of it? It wasn’t worth it. Not only did I lose out on savings and time, I lost out on deepened relationships with people I cared about. Passions, hobbies, interests, experiences all were on hold for three years. And in the end, I didn’t owe the founders more of my life. I should have left when I felt that I’d learned all I could.

If you choose to work with an early-stage startup, I encourage you to give it your best — but don’t give it your life.

Don’t let it infect your mind the way I had. People’s lives are not at stake. Enjoy the hustle, the flexibility, and the creativity that goes into starting something out of nothing, but make sure you’re still motivated and taking care of yourself.

If you’re not fairly compensated or valued, advocate for yourself and be prepared to walk away. With or without the stock options.

Tis is a 20-something recruiter, startup enthusiast, finance blogger, and proud feminist-slash-crazy cat lady. Find her on Twitter or check out the blog for lifehacks and musings on personal finance, professional growth, and enjoying the journey to early retirement.

Image via Unsplash

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