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A Guide to Working at a Startup as your First Job

6 MIN READ | 2022-01-18

A Guide to Working at a Startup as your First Job

Working at a startup as your first job is quite popular among college graduates. However, you can join the startup world at any stage of your life even if you don't have any work experience or a degree.

This guide is dedicated to those who are interested in joining the startup world for the first time.

The Fundamentals

Working at a startup in the Netherlands is not the same as working at any other corporate company. The startup world has its own set of rules and expectations. The job isn't for everyone, and only certain people can work well in this environment. However, if you're independent and competitive by nature, then working at a startup might be worth considering.

Now, If working at a startup is your first job, there are some key things you should know about the startup culture to prepare for the conditions of the work environment.

Ownership

One of the most important things to understand about working for a startup is ownership. Since startups are small businesses by definition, it means that there will be fewer people and resources available to help you with your work. In addition, the company's flat structure means that the employees usually have to wear multiple hats and take on more responsibility than they'd ever normally would at a large corporation.

Ownership tackles three key components:

  1. Accountability: You are responsible for the success and failure of your work.
  2. Initiative: You are expected to take action without being told to do so for the purpose of achieving the completion of a project.
  3. Escalation: Doing what it takes to complete a project does not mean dealing with issues all by yourself. Seek help from superiors who can provide you with the resources you need to achieve your goal.


The Dutch work culture is knowledge-based. Hence, if you are not used to taking ownership of your work, it would be best to get yourself acquainted with this vital aspect to excel in your new career.

Startup Stages

There are different types of roles you can take on when joining a startup. The one you should opt in for depends on where you are currently in life. For example, suppose you're a university student or graduate. In that case, you are more likely to be searching for internship opportunities, whereas if you are an experienced professional, you would probably fit better into a more senior role.

The following are the most common startup roles you can get into:

Internships or Traineeships

These are entry-level startup roles that usually do not require prior work experience. Internships and traineeships are perfect for students and recent graduates looking to gain relevant industry exposure and develop their skills under the mentorship of experienced professionals. You should also be willing to work extra hard and demonstrate a strong will to succeed in such programmes if you wish to gain experience at a startup early in your career. 

The company’s needs usually determine the level of your contribution. However, if you've done extensive research on the project and the company, it would be best to present your findings to prove that you are serious about getting involved.

Don't expect to make a lot of money from your internship! Not all startups have the budget for paid internships, so many interns volunteer their time and effort in exchange for some work experience.

Paid Part-Time Jobs

Working at a startup part-time is very much like working there full-time, except you work fewer hours. The expectations are the same, so if you excel in your work, there is a strong chance that they will offer you full-time employment at a later stage. Shorter working hours means more time for school or other personal matters, so it's highly recommended that college students apply for part-time jobs at startups.

Junior-level & Entry-level Jobs

Working as a junior at a startup is usually for those who want to gain experience in their field of interest. It can be very challenging since you will be expected to know the basics, but it's an opportunity to learn new skills and knowledge that can help you leap into entry-level jobs at other companies. 

Entry-level jobs at a startup are usually reserved for recent graduates. Having this type of role is an excellent opportunity to get your foot in the door and make some money while honing important skills such as communication, teamwork, technical expertise & time management.

 

You usually won't be promoted to a managerial role within the first year at a startup, so this position is perfect for people looking to learn about companies. It's also the best way to understand what it takes to manage people and projects.

Senior-level Jobs

Before taking this position, it would be best to have prior work experience with big companies. If not, they may need to go back to school and get further education in their field of interest. Startups need independent individuals who can work together with others and follow their procedures. More importantly, they need people who can talk and negotiate with clients and other partners. This person should be confident in his abilities and willing to hold a conversation about them.

Management Jobs

Managers must know how to motivate and inspire others, as well as communicate efficiently on their behalf. As startups grow larger in size, they may require more managers on staff at some point. Generally, managers should be able to handle people who are older than them and supervise their work. They will oversee the operations of an entire department or division.

Common Mistakes

Working at a startup as your first job can result in making a few mistakes. To avoid the most common errors, you need to know what they are and try your best to prevent them.

Not willing to adapt

Like any other position, working for a startup has ups and downs. If you've never worked for this kind of company before, adapting to their expectations and peculiarities can be challenging. So make sure that you're willing to put in time into learning about what differentiates them from big companies so that you don't find yourself out of your depth. 


One example that can help you achieve adapting is from the Dutch work culture: be willing to engage in after-work activities such as borrelen.

Undermining your skills due to lack of experience

You should be confident in your skills, even if you don't have previous experience. The perfect candidate has the proper knowledge and is willing to work hard to get the job done. If you can prove that you are this person, your experience won’t matter as much.

Moreover, there are different levels of expertise at a startup available to you: junior, entry-level and senior positions. Keep in mind that your level of expertise should match the salary range offered by the startup company you are applying to.

Overcoming Challenges

If you find yourself struggling to adjust to the startup culture, it is most likely because you're not too familiar with it. Working at a startup means getting experience quickly, but you also need to be prepared to take on other roles besides what your title describes. If you want to overcome the challenges of being an employee at a startup, follow the tips below.

It's a marathon, not a sprint

You may be working under the culture of urgency and rapid iteration, but don't forget to take breaks here and there when you're feeling overwhelmed. Not only will it keep your mind fresh, but it will also help prevent burnout.

Do what you can do the best today for tomorrow

Put in the hard work today to use the experience to your advantage in the future. This means keeping open communication with other employees to ensure that everyone is on track and ready for success.

Take a step back and reevaluate

If you get overwhelmed, take a day off to ensure you're not too burnt out. Then, try to tune in with those around you by talking to them about your concerns. You will then pinpoint where your weaknesses may lie and what steps you need to improve.

Take what you learn at a startup and apply it to your future work

Make sure that when looking for other jobs, your previous work experience will land you an interview so you can discuss with employers how important it is for them to hire you.

Your performance is based on merit, not seniority

If you're an intern or have just graduated college, your skills are more likely to be tested than those who have been at the company longer. However, if you work hard and deliver results, the respect and praise will be well-deserved.

Make sure that you adjust your mindset and way of living. It's not going to be easy, so don't expect it to be. Instead, look at the bright side of things and put yourself in a positive mindset. You will face challenges when working at a startup, but they won't last forever.

Achieving Success

Working at a startup or scaleup allows you to achieve personal growth and company success the more you involve yourself and try to learn. The reason stems from the fact that startups and scaleups will enable you to be more hands-on from the very start. So if you wonder how you can succeed in this type of job, the advice is simple - ​​go the extra mile, always. Be proactive, see where you can help and always ask when you're not sure. This makes you stand out from other candidates.

Be a sponge

Learn as much as possible from everyone around you. For example, if you're a junior-level employee, talk with more experienced employees about how they managed their time and grew with the company. If you're a senior-level employee, speak to your employees and management to see what they think about the company and what you can do to help them.

Be proactive

You should be proactive. If you are reporting to a manager, make sure you inform them about upcoming challenges instead of waiting for them to negatively impact your work & the company. This can help you stand out amongst your peers and hopefully get noticed for other responsibilities available within the company or department.

Think like an entrepreneur

Think of ways to help the company grow. Do you have any ideas that might help? What are your skills? How can you apply them to benefit the company? Think outside the box and be creative in helping the business improve.

Learn from your mistakes

No one is perfect, so embrace whatever flaws you have and use them to guide how best to improve yourself. Make a list of all the things you struggle with or want to work on and set a plan in place so that you can learn from your mistakes and take the necessary steps toward success.

Learn from the mistakes of others

No one likes to make a mistake. But, if you work at a startup or scaleup, you'll get an opportunity to see what works and what doesn't. In addition, you’ll have the chance to learn from other people's mistakes and hopefully not make them yourself. With this in mind, you must prepare yourself and your business for the best and worst-case scenarios.

Communication

Talk with the people around you to better understand their role. By doing this, you will have a better idea of what your manager expects from you and work much more efficiently as a result.

What you will Learn

What will you learn if you take upon this challenge?  First, you'll discover that failure happens. But, it's how you handle the obstacles in your path that will determine if you'll be successful or not. Second, you'll learn to take risks and not be afraid to try something new. Finally, working at a startup is all about team collaboration and good communication that helps all parties improve.

Do you have what it takes to work at a startup or scaleup? Check out Techleap's Job Board for vacancies.