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As a freelancer, I get the chance to work with startup companies that are still too new or too small to have a lot of in-house staff. Because of this, I’ve become familiar with the common characteristics that many startups share. As I come to expect these characteristics with new clients, I become more efficient at avoiding problems and maximizing opportunities.
But first, a definition: What exactly is a startup? Although the term “startup” is usually associated with tech companies, it’s not necessarily that specific. As long as the business is young, usually still in development, then it can be considered a startup.
The first common trait that most startups have is their tight or unpredictable income. Usually they are bootstrapping (working without external funding) which leads them to minimize their expenses. Even if they have the benefit of external funding, startup founders still tend to keep a close eye at their cashflow. Some of them might be looking for low freelancer rates, or perhaps some prep work to justify your cost. You shouldn’t be selling your services as an added expense: talk about your fees as an investment.
To minimize any negative effects a startup client may have on my own finances, I tend to bill early and send reminders before the due date indicated on the invoice. This sometimes isn’t necessary, but it can be useful, especially if the people in charge of paying you are wearing too many hats or paying attention to several other aspects of the business — a common situation in startups.
Also, if you’re working with a startup, you’ll be dealing with their growing pains firsthand. This means you’ll be part of an exciting and interesting stage in the development of their business. While this stage is typically filled with new ideas and innovation, there will also be a lot of mistakes, which will often affect your work. They might even be a bit disorganized, since they don’t have standard processes in place.
There might even be major changes when the founders get a better (or simply different) idea of what they want to do. One of my earliest freelancing jobs was writing web site copy for a tech startup. When they hired me they were developing a simple chat application. By the time I left them six months later, they had plans to turn their app into a full-featured social networking tool. Because of possible changes like this, it’s important to keep communication lines open so that you’re updated with the latest developments. Startups are flexible organizations, and you should also be equally flexible as you work for them — as long as you are treated and paid fairly.
There may be some exceptions, but I usually find that working with a startup is also like working with a small, close-knit family. They often don’t have a large staff since they’re just starting out. With few, if any, bureaucratic hoops and hierarchies to deal with, getting feedback and disseminating information is usually faster. In fact, you may be working directly with the founders.
Although working closely with the big bosses has its advantages, there are a few challenges you should expect. Sometimes, founders can be micromanagers. They tend to think of their startup as a baby whose every tiny step they should monitor and approve. While I appreciate this devotion to one’s business, too much of it can prevent growth through other people’s ideas, experience and perspective.
Working with a startup certainly has its own opportunities and disadvantages. We need to be expect both these things if we want the working relationship to go as smoothly as possible.
Have you ever worked with startups? What was your experience like?