Agony Lance: Picking a winner

Agony Lance: Picking a winner
So you want to work for a startup. How do you find the good ones, though?

Q I’m frustrated at how slowly things move in my corporate world, and I think I want to work at a start-up. Should I, and how do I know which are the good ones to work for? – Need for Speed, Dunedin 

A Sheryl Sandberg, in her excellent book Lean In, states that then Google chief executive officer Eric Schmidt told her “only one criterion mattered when picking a job – fast growth. When companies grow quickly there are more things to do than people to do them”.

I agree, and see that the pace, wide range of responsibilities and sheer joy of working for a growing firm almost always outweighs the dollar benefits and so-called job security of working for a larger firm.

So look for growth, and also seek to understand its source – the product and the end users.

Of course you should test the product yourself, but why not also interview end users?

Is there evidence that the company truly understands end user needs? Do the end users themselves see the vision that the product is creating? And have you done a good – and I mean more than a three-minute Google search – scan and review of the company, competitors and market online?

Next, look for a great culture. As an investor, I like to see a leadership team and staff who are serious about what they do, but who also have an aligned and enjoyable culture.

Is everyone there enjoying working for the common, customer-oriented, cause? Is the customer cause really worth pursuing? Would you be proud to be a member of the team? Will you respect all, not just some, of the people around you, and will they respect you?

Finally, watch out for negative signs and potential red flags. Do you sense just a bit too much hype over substance from the leaders and staff? Does the culture show signs of being sexist or otherwise exclusionary? Is the focus on growing revenue from customers, and not just funders?

Is the company building a business, or seeking an exit? And finally, once again, do you really believe in the quality of the customer need and the product being offered?

We’ve seen two billion-dollar technology companies created in the past few years – Trade Me and Xero. They are no longer start-ups, although Xero in particular has a long growth path ahead. Take the plunge. Join them – or the next billion-dollar company.

Lance Wiggs is a business consultant and acts as agony aunt for distressed Idealog readers. Get inside his head at or ask him a question @lancewiggs.

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