So at one point I commented on the meaningless of the word “startup”. And I think that it might be worth it to look into the issue a tad more.
Now don’t get me wrong, I have no issue whatsoever with people coming together to create a new business. Business is a good thingTM. And if “startup” simply meant, “business which is just starting” then I would be behind it completely. Unfortunately it has nothing to do with that.
I think the most common idea that people try to convey when they say that “they are a startup” is that they have an idea which they think that no one has ever used before/done as well/involved so many pigmy gipsy-moths/&c. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there are few businesses which start which don’t believe they somehow meet that qualification. Heck, the gas station in my town is there because it believes that it is the best serving gas for its demographic (in this case, people who need gas and happen to be going somewhere that involves passing their particular corner). Being new definitely isn’t special and being best, honestly, isn’t even very special.
I think another thing that people try to imply when they say that they are a startup is that they happen to have a loose culture, a casual atmosphere, and an XBox in one of the meeting rooms. Well, that’s great, but that doesn’t really cary any particular meaning. If all that it takes to create a startup is a gaming system and casual atmosphere then I think my house should qualify and I should get an angel investor and/or some venture capital.
And I think that brings us to what is the practical definition of a startup. A startup is generally a business which has yet to reach the point of profitability and feels that its equity is justification for lower salary, longer hours, and/or worse working conditions.
Very often these companies will try to supplement bad conditions by giving people things which have little to no immediate cost. One of the more common options is equity. Well, I hate to break it to these people, but programmers can’t eat equity. And even if we could, there is little evidence to suggest that equity will pay out in the long run (and I have heard stories of venture capitalists coming in and making equity as useful as a back pocket on a shirt).
Startup, when it comes down to it, means unproven product which has insufficient assets to meet its overhead. It is almost always a company which is upside down, and chances are good that they will not survive much past the first year, let alone getting to the point where they have a reliable product on the market.
I can’t help but shake the feeling that it really is a bad idea to work for a place which asks for an investment without a tangible investment in return. Perhaps my standards are too high, and perhaps this will cost me work in the future, but I really do believe in just pay for a good day’s work. I’ve seen a lot of people burned by an over-willingness to allow companies to delay payment.