Recently some friends have asked me for advice. They want to join a startup. Their reasons varied, but what was clear was they were lacking a framework to think through this critical decision. Joining a startup is risky and like most things, there is an opportunity cost.
If you're thinking of joining a startup for the wrong reasons you'll end up 'working 80 hours to avoid working 40 hours' for the wrong reasons. And that is before counting the opportunity cost of earning possibly more in the immediate term as well as the risk of failure in the long term.
If you're thinking of joining a startup for the right reasons, and there are many, then this framework will help you write those reasons down. Often writing them down forces you to clarify what you really want.
First, some reading material. Don't make any decisions until you've read this post by Mark Suster: http://www.bothsidesofthetable.com/2009/11/04/is-it-time-for-you-to-earn-or-to-learn/.
Now that you've read that post, you might decide you prefer 'earn mode'. Best of luck. Nothing wrong with this mode.
If you want to join a startup to learn, ask yourself these fundamental questions:
1. Who are you learning from? A newbie founder or an expert at engineering, product development, sales, marketing, etc? If you are starting yourself, where will you get advice? (You will get advice or face a long lonely road).
2. What do you really want to learn? A specific skill? Or how to become a jack of all trades? You might go in for a skill but come out a jack of all trades. Depends on the stage and needs of the company and the skills of the people in it.
3. When do you want to learn? And what do you need to learn first? If you're staring the company yourself I suggest you learn what your customers want first or you're in trouble.
4. Where do you want to learn? In a specific industry you love or a specific city? To build a network you'll want to marry both location and industry to the extent possible.
5. Why do you want to learn? If the answer is anything other than to the virtue of learning, go back to earning mode. Do you want to start your own thing one day? What do successful founders say why they started or joined a startup? Anything resonate?
6. How much are you giving up? Really, do you know? You can calculate some possible compensation here https://www.wealthfront.com/tools/startup-salary-equity-compensation as well as here http://www.tejusparikh.com/projects/equity_calculator/index.html but these are just numbers. They don't tell the true cost. You have to count the personal wealth, savings, earning potential, etc costs.
For me, there is no better accelerated learning and experiencing path than a startup. And the dedication I can bring is only possible because I answer all the above questions with honesty. Do the same and you'll be fine. Good luck.