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It’s become depressingly trendy to be a startup. Even the United States Federal Government is out stumping the benefits of the startup economy. Just like being an investment banker in 2006, co-founding (or hell, just working at) the next Instagram is bound to get you bottle service and phone numbers.

Ashton Kutcher is still cool ‘cuz he makes startup investments.

Everybody wants to be the cool kids. Which means it probably works pretty well when Fortune 500 recruiters start spinning lines like “Just think of us as the world’s best funded startup.”

Even I know this kind of pitch is riddled with inaccuracies. I’ve heard this phrase, or similar, proudly issued from the lips of no fewer than three employees at three different large public companies. I wonder who they’ve snookered so far, and if they’ve imbibed too much kool-aid to even know they’re snookering.

A startup is definitely a squishy concept. It could be funded or bootstrapped, it could be one person or many more, it could be six years old or six days old, it could have employees or contractors, it could even be birthed from a larger organization, and still be a startup. But if you want to sell your division or product as “like a startup” to anyone remotely attached to an actual startup, there are a few startup staples you’d better be prepared to demonstrate:

Stock Options

Jason Preston

Like it or not, startups offer different styles of compensation than most major companies. Specifically, startups attract a lot of really talented people by offering them a small chance to earn a very large pile of money through some kind of equity ownership (commonly stock options). And just to be clear: a stock grant plan as part of a compensation package is not the same thing.

If you want to be like a startup, you should be prepared to offer your new hires an option on some real lottery-style winnings. If your stock is not a growth stock, that makes it tricky. Maybe you could do some kind of revenue-sharing with your employees. Sound daunting? Do you even have the authority to do it if you wanted to? Stop pretending you’re a startup.

Your Boss Is The Boss

In a startup, decisions get made by the guy sitting in the office with you. There is no weeks-long process of preparing presentations for successively higher bosses until you find someone who can actually write checks.

If you have to go outside your department for authority on anything — especially anything major — then you’re not a startup. Sure, you could call it a trivial difference. If you’re a mostly autonomous part of a big company, then it’s inevitable that some decisions will require a visit upstairs, but to a lot of folks who want to work at a startup that’s a difference that actually matters.

I know plenty of people who are frustrated by the distance between themselves and the ultimate decision maker. Working at a startup can go a long way towards curing that.

Structure

There’d better not be much. Do you do scheduled and formulaic performance reviews and use level numbers to put employees in a defined hierarchy?

Yeah.

Bosses Work

Yeah, I know. Management is work, and often management is actually very difficult work, and it’s very important work. And there’s some management involved in running a start up, but by and large, when you join a startup you expect the executive team to be contributing directly to the product (or service, or whatever).

It’s hard to explain to people who don’t have this kind of experience in their past, but easy to understand for those who do: a critical piece of the startup magic is the enviable bond you share with your fellow adventurers. This kind of bond gets created when everyone feels like they’re part of a group that all contributes to the same vision.

But There Really Are Advantages!

Yes, you’re right. There really are advantages to working at a well-funded and highly autonomous project at a large publicly funded company. But those advantages are not the same advantages that you find at a startup.

Stop trying to recruit people like they’re the same: you’re not going to get startup talent, you’re going to get the people who think they’re joining a startup when they’re not. And are those really the people you want to hire?

Jason Preston (@jasonp) is a Seattle entrepreneur and co-founder of the upcoming project Dent. Read more of his writing at http://blog.dentthefuture.com, like this post on How To Manufacture Creative Success.

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