Career Growth at Startups

Career Growth at Startups

For B. Ravi, 35, joining Bengaluru-based Srishti Software, a technology solutions provider, five years back as a finance manager has proved to be a learning experience. He has been exposed to diverse roles and responsibilities in his climb towards the top. Currently, the vice-president of finance and legal department, he feels his career growth has been in tandem with the organisational growth.

However, there are several myths that surround careers and long term growth in startups or small and mid sized (SME) companies. While it is important that the founders of a startup have the entrepreneurial instincts, Ravi G. Narayan, a mentor with Mentorsquare, a global community of management and business professionals, says that it is important to nurture the entrepreneurial instincts in the team members as well. “I believe if an employee has these instincts, a startup is the place to hone it,” he says. Even though it is difficult to predict a career path at a startup, it is the learning experience that is hard to get elsewhere.

Clearly, whether it is a large company, an SME or a startup, motivated and capable people can accelerate the organisation’s ability to deliver superior customer experience. And enhancing employee capabilities and career management is possible when the work culture and people practices are integrated to the overall business strategy. This article tries to demystify and provide frameworks to accelerate business growth primarily through people progress.

Be a self-starter

“Freedom to perform, lack of hierarchy and rewards based on individual capability and not on rigid roles are a few incentives of working in a startup or SME environment,” says Dr S.S. Sundarrajan, a mentor with Mentor square. But, the flip side is that nothing is offered on a platter and it is up to the employee to take the initiative.

A self-starter can surely make great waves in this environment. Narayan highlights, “Typically, employees in this environment get thrown into responsibility, authority and accountability that employees in larger corporates can only dream of.” This not only helps them learn the hard skills, but, also in picking up life skills such as bulding confidence and handling pressure; qualities required for growth in one’s career.

Take the case of Dhruva Interactive (Dhruva), a gaming software company. The company only hires people who want to work in the gaming field. And this has helped it maintain a fairly low rate of attrition. Over 50 per cent of the employees have remained in the company for more than five years. The reason for this, according to Rajesh Rao, chief-executive officer of Dhruva is the challenging projects they offer and a talented peer group.

Success at a startup

Any one whose primary driver is security and stability may not be able to adjust successfully to this environment. The start up or an SME environment constantly challenges its employee to be comfortable with ambiguity and lack of structure. This may be disagreeable for many individuals who perform best when the climate is directive.

The biggest mistake any one can make is trying to force fit. So, one must conduct necessary research and understand for themselves what they are getting into before making such a career decision. “It is often the level headed, interested in building a long term career who will be most successful at a start up/SME,” feels Mohan Shantigrama, chief-executive officer, Maini group, a design and manufacturing company.

He also adds that to induct the right fit, the founder/CEOs need to invest time and dialogue with the employee during hiring. Also, to keep the employee engaged it is important to communicate the organisational vision, market landscape and growth plans on a continuous basis.

The takeaways for the employee in this environment is the promise of cutting edge work, cross functional exposure and being part of an exciting growth story. If the employee does not value these for their career, they may not be suitable.

Grow the employee

Most often CEOs’ tend to focus on current situations rather than investing their time on strategic moves like career growth. Breaking out of this situation is an urgent priority. Career development initiatives can make an impact to the employee by balancing extrinsic motivators like compensation and designation. Rao rightly adds, “It is the organisation’s responsibility to provide opportunities for overall employee development”.

For Dhruva, lack of adequate investment on career planning in the beginning haunted its growth. There were middle-management roles opening up and the company found its workforce struggling to cope as they were not prepared for the job. “We have learnt our lesson. We have started diligently setting expectations and sharing road maps for growth with our employees. In addition, we have created job descriptions for key roles which support our endeavor of setting high performance standards.” says Rao.

Simple steps such as formal talent assessment processes can be replaced by an audit of employee skills, competencies and abilities to help distinguish talent. The top performers can be nurtured for new roles and exciting opportunities as the business grows. Business leaders have to keep in mind the strengths of the top talent in the organisation on their finger tips.

As a principle, a work culture that encourages employees to grow with the organisation helps “breed” the best talent. Cross functional responsibilities, role enrichment, employee training, higher education are mechanisms that can be tailored to achieve success through employees. There is no right time to begin, growing people needs constant attention. And this attention is sure to translate to success for both the individual and the organisation.


Anu Sharma, founder and chief-executive officer, The HR practice who works closely with start ups / SMEs suggest these simple steps:

  • Establishing an internal job posting process can ensure that opportunities are provided to all for career growth. This will establish that all open positions are transparent across the organization and eligible employee can apply.
  • Constantly reviewing key roles to ensure that they are content-rich and meaningful
  • Developing the next rung of leadership has to be every manager’s objective. Managers in turn have to ensure that their direct reports are mentored, learn the ropes of future roles and are provided continuous feedback on their development areas.
  • Defining growth path in the organisation can help de-mystify the pyramid. Leaders have to communicate what it will take to grow in the organisation to engage employees