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Working at a start-up vs. scale-up: what’s right for you?

At The Nudge Group, one of the most common questions our recruiters get asked by candidates is: “what’s it like working at a start-up”?

by hao-nguyen on September 30, 2021

At The Nudge Group, one of the most common questions we get asked by candidates is: “what’s it like working at a start-up”? Then there’s usually a follow-up question: “how do I know working at a start-up is the right choice for me”? 

These questions are usually asked by candidates working at a large corporation, who have an idea of start-up culture, but they don’t truly know what it’d be like to work for a business that’s on an accelerated growth path. No doubt, they’ve seen the ping pong tables, beer on tap (or kombucha on tap, depending on the founder’s choice), free lunches, branded t-shirts, and their curiosity has been piqued.

What they don’t know, and what we spend a lot of time educating them on, is that there are different types of start-ups, and they generally fall under two categories: start-ups and scale-ups. Let’s take a look at each one.

Start-up

American entrepreneur Steve Blank defined a start-up as being “a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.” This means that a start-up is usually still looking for product-market fit and trying to figure out its business model so that it can grow exponentially, often with venture capital funding. A start-up can’t remain a start-up forever, it will most likely: fail, get acquired, or figure out a business model and start scaling. 

Here are a few examples of start-ups:

  • CarClarity 
  • Good Pair Days  
  • Credshare 
  • Hudled 
  • SuiteFiles 

Scale-up

In the simplest terms, a scale-up is a start-up that has found product-market fit, achieved a viable business model and is looking to expand rapidly. To give you an idea of the metrics, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines a scale-up as a company that “has an average annualised return of at least 20% in the past 3 years, with at least 10 employees in the beginning of the period.” 

​​Here are a few examples of scale-ups:

  • ReadyTech 
  • Fluent Commerce 
  • Employment Hero 
  • ParcelPoint  
  • OnDeck 

Working at a start-up and scale-up vs. corporation 

Before we get into what the difference is between working at a start-up vs. scale-up. Let’s talk about the similarities, and how they’re different vs. working at a large corporation.  

Impact

One of the key things about working at a start-up or scale-up is the level of impact that an individual employee can have, which far outweighs the impact they can have at a corporation. It doesn’t matter whether you have 20 years of experience, or 2 years, working at a start-up means you’ll have the opportunity to work on projects that will have a significant impact on the company’s future. 

Pace

Unlike many corporations, which are often bogged down with endless meetings with people from every department and too much bureaucracy, working at a start-up and scale-up is always fast-paced. There will be lots of moving parts, you might not always have a direct manager who will tell you what to do, and everything will feel urgent. This culture is not for everyone, but for those people who love working in a high-paced environment, start-ups and scale-ups are perfect for them.

Growth 

The best thing about working at a company that’s quickly growing, is that you’ll often grow through the same growth spurts on a personal level. Compared to a corporation where your role will already be defined in a nice and neat box, a start-up, there will be a lot more variables that require you to adapt quickly. Not only will you need to juggle many different projects, you’ll be constantly exposed to new experiences, and forced to learn on the job. This means that you’ll be learning new skills and gaining new experiences, as you continue to level up in your role. 

The differences between working at a start-up vs. scale-up 

As we’ve established above, a scale-up is a start-up that has found its product-market fit, refined its business model and is now looking to scale rapidly. 

The biggest result of this is that businesses will start looking at hiring specialists, rather than generalists. While a start-up might be looking for people who can work across many different areas and can achieve a lot with a little, at a scale-up, there will be roles that will become more specialised as the company gets bigger. At a start-up, having a “jack-of-all-trades” is crucial to getting the business off the ground with limited resources, but at a scale-up, the priority switches over to having the very best people leading different areas of the business. 

Another big difference between start-ups and scale-ups is the level of processes and systems in place. At a start-up, the priority is on survival, everything is being figured out on the fly and there are no playbooks to follow. Processes are usually the last priority at start-ups. On the other hand, scale-ups are larger and have more team members, which means having established processes and robust systems becomes a priority to avoid wasting time and effort. 

The bottom line is: working at a start-up or scale-up is definitely not for everyone. It can be an uncomfortable, ambiguous working culture, for people who are used to always having structure and guidelines in place. To be successful at a start-up, you need to have grit, resilience, the ability to adapt quickly, and learn on the fly. You’ll be taking on new challenges every day and you’ll need to take the initiative because you won’t have someone telling you what to do. 

So, if you’re still interested in finding out more about working at a start-up or scale-up, book an appointment with our CEO, Steve Grace, and he’ll help you find the right role.

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