Career Paths are Tough for Early Stage Startups

Once a startup finds a repeatable business model and gets out of the seed stage, they then enter early stage (e.g. 20 – 50 employees) before (hopefully) moving on to growth stage (50+ employees). With five employees in a startup everyone wears multiple hats and things are so crazy the topic of career paths don’t often come up. As the startup matures into a business and the next 20 people are hired, more specialization sets in and the topic of career paths becomes a bit more common. By the growth stage, career paths are a normal part of the conversation.

Startups have an especially difficult time answering the career path question.

With all the uncertainty of a startup who knows if it will even be around in a year or two. High end strategy consulting firms like Bain and McKinsey have the motto “up or out” which basically means you’re promoted every two to three years or you’re fired, and that works for that world. For startups, no matter how hard you try, everyone on the team isn’t going to be so entrepreneurially-oriented that they love the feeling of not knowing what’s next.

Here’s how we approach the career path question in a growth stage startup:

  • Once or twice a year we sit down and talk with each person about career path options (we don’t do annual performance reviews but we do do quarterly check-ins that are simplified reviews)
  • We emphasize that with company growth comes new opportunities, teams, departments, etc but that we don’t have a firm timeline
  • As a philosophy, we want to promote from within whenever possible
  • Team members are encouraged to identify opportunities or challenges that excite them and we work on how to make them achievable

Career paths are tough for early stage startups. It’s best to tackle them head on and look for ways to be open and transparent with team members while also getting them excited about the potential opportunities and changes that lie ahead.

What else? What are some other ideas around career paths for startups?

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