Thursday, September 1, 2016

Three critical questions to ask a startup before you agree to work for it

So you want to work for a startup!

You've been talking to one that you think is going somewhere and will give you the experience you want, you like the people and the title, job and salary sounds right for you. They make you an offer. Great!

But now is the point where you need to ask three critical sets of questions to determine if this is actually a good company to work for or not. Remember each job you take influences your future career. What you learn, who you get to know, what opportunities you get as a result. Many people peak in their forties (career wise, and for a myriad of professional and personal reasons) and so the job choices you make in your twenties and thirties will affect how you peak.

After 30 years in Silicon Valley, 20 of them as a high tech CEO, and now talking almost every day to people who want company and career advice, I've seen too many bad company structures to take any offer at face value. I recommend you (respectfully) ask questions to explore these three areas - the health of the business, the capital structure and the organization - and if a company won't answer then that in itself tells you this is a not a great situation for you.

1. Understand the health of the business

Health is all about rate of growth. What is the revenue, how is it growing and what other metrics are critical health indicators for the business? so ask:

- What was the revenue for the last 2 years, what is the forecast for this year and next year? You're listening for consistent, sustainable growth and a management team that is making its plans. There is no right answer here because it depends on the stage of the company, but you're listening for b.s. or inconsistency.

- What percentage of the revenue this year is recurring (ie. it renews every year)? Do you expect this percentage to improve? You're listening for the quality of the revenue. Recurring is higher quality than one-time revenue and drives a higher valuation. If a high percentage is recurring then you want to understand how many of the customers renew - i.e. what is the customer retention rate? How much do they churn.

- Are you profitable? If so for how long? If not when do you plan to be profitable? If not, when do you need to raise your next round of investment? Note, if your hiring manager says "we're not profitable and we don't want to be" don't buy the b.s. The ONLY time you don't want to be profitable is when you have easy access to lots of cash and you're truly investing for growth but most good companies would like to be profitable, while still growing, so they stop burning cash. They should be able to talk about how much time and cash it is going to take to get profitable if everything goes to plan.

- What are the other important metrics you track for your business? For example customer acquisition rate and costs, customer retention rates etc? Be sure to listen for real metrics that are about the true health and growth of the business, not just marketing metrics (clicks, downloads etc) but which are not metrics leading to revenue growth.

2. Understand the capital structure and cash

Startups run on cash from investors, not cash from operations and so it's important you know what the terms are and how they might affect the future of the company, so ask:

- What is the capital structure? How many preferred shares are outstanding, how many common and what is the total number of shares including the unallocated options in the employee pool? You want to know the total number of shares so you know what your options may be worth in the future.

For example
The company has raised $5M selling 5 million shares at $1 per share to preferred sharesholders
The founders have 5 million shares
The option pool has 1 million shares priced at 10 cents per share
=> there are 11 million shares and the post-money valuation is $11M

The company is sold for $49M. 

$5M is returned to the preferred shareholders so now there is $44M to share
This means $4 per share - you make a gain of $3.90 per option you have vested at that time

- What are the basic terms of the preferred shareholders? Are they participating? - this means they take their money back first as in the example above and then what's left is divided across the total number of shares.

- Do the preferred shareholders have any control on the sale of the company? For example, can they veto a sale below a certain valuation, or veto a capital raise below a certain threshold valuation? You want to know this because if they can, and you think it's unreasonable then you should discount the potential value of your shares. These kind of terms are not typical with high class VCs, but you do see them with PE firms and newer VCs who don't have a lot of experience on the downside effects. And I know of too many founders who lost their companies because of these types of terms. If you are unsure, ask around or check out The Funded to get a measure of the quality of the investors.

- Do any of the executives have 100% vesting on change of control? Some VCs say no to this for everyone, some say only the CEO, some say only the CEO, CFO and VP Sales and so on but most executives want it. This tells you a lot about whether the executives are looking to ramp quickly and sell vs. build a long term company.

- And if they suggest you buy your common stock don't. Look at what happened to the employees at Good Technology, and there are thousands of examples like this where the common holders lost their money because they were behind the VCs. Be patient and pay a little more tax when you make money.

3. Understand the org chart and politics

- Figure out where you fit in the organization. How many layers are between you and the CEO? What is the span of control of your VP? You're looking for a relatively flat organization where you are in a strong part of the organization - i.e. your exec has power.

- Does the organization make sense to you? Do you see what looks like politics between founders (odd titles, responsibilities in places they should not be)? Do you see one CEO by name, but two CEOs by organization? Does the balance between R&D and sales make sense to you? Again, does it pass the sniff test for you?

Remember, you want to work for someone who is really good at their job, a great manager, and who will invest in you and your skills. And someone who you will work for for a decent period of time - like a year. You don't want a weak manager, a revolving door of managers, or ill defined responsibilities between you and other people/teams. The chaos being reported at WrkRiot is certainly unusual, but there are many aspects of this story I have seen and heard when founders don't know what they are doing and don't have good advisors - so be selfish and do your homework.

Most good companies will help you understand these three areas because they will respect that you are making an important decision for your career. The most precious thing you have is your time and the best thing you can get is experience. Not money, or options, or a title but experience. Training, education and opportunity. So measure your startup against those metrics too before you fall in love.

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