Don’t Be Naïve: 7 Things to Know Before Taking a Biotech Startup Job

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an employee in salary. They usually work off a template based on confidential market surveys that tell them exactly what, say, a director of manufacturing is worth in their market. Employees rarely have access to this same kind of detailed human resources information. But this is where it’s important to use your network, and to know someone who works as a corporate attorney, an HR consultant, or a venture capitalist who has access to these kinds of proprietary compensation surveys. Oftentimes, these people are happy to help prospective candidates understand if they are being offered a fair deal. Finding the right person to help you gain knowledge is key. University career counseling offices sometimes have this kind of information, says Third Rock’s Greaves. If not, proprietary salary surveys may not be public information, but they “do have a way of widening through networks,” Greaves says.

Learn about the company culture: This is a tough one. Hiring managers tend to put on their best possible face during the hiring dance, and candidates do too. Often, there’s little time to evaluate a company’s true work habits, processes, relationships, quirks, and values. But every insider I spoke to said candidates need to carefully evaluate company culture.

Greaves, the recruiting partner with Third Rock, said he tries to find clues about a company’s culture when he visits their offices. Does the company work in a fancy high-rise, or a scruffy old warehouse? It might sound trivial to people trained to look for answers in data, but this is important stuff, even if it’s subjective. Greaves said he asks himself, “Am I excited about the person across the desk? Would I like to work with this individual? Is this person a good leader? Can they further the business in the way they describe? Has this person worked at companies in the past which are known for having strong cultures? Do they have some idea of how to build a vibrant one?”

Craig Greaves

Craig Greaves

As Le put it, “we spend a good portion of our lives working. It’s important to make sure the company culture, values and norms are aligned with yours.” If you have a sense of humor, and these people don’t, one could say you’re not aligned.

Folks coming from Big Pharma may have more adjusting to do than others. At a startup, people wear multiple hats. A lot of things need to be done that don’t fall in anyone’s specific job description. You have to be able to tolerate uncertainty about whether your company will be in business in 12 months. People often need to sublimate their own ego for the team objective, if the team is going to have any chance to win. Put another way, you have to be resourceful, and do the little things. As More put it, “inevitably you bring somebody into a startup from a big company, and they’re not used to a startup culture. They’ll say, ‘Oh, the copier’s broken, where’s the person who fixes that?’ Or, ‘Who’s handling my travel?’” In a startup, you might be the chief medical officer, and the chief copier fixer. If you’re the kind of resourceful sort who’s comfortable fixing the copier, after spending $0, then a startup culture might be OK for you.

OK, that’s a lot to absorb, but these are big decisions people make all the time. Like anything else, it’s best to go into a situation with your eyes wide open, and learn the things they don’t teach you in graduate school, or inside a big company. If you still believe leaving a big company for a startup is right for you, then by all means, go for it. I did it myself five years ago, and haven’t looked back.

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7 responses to “Don’t Be Naïve: 7 Things to Know Before Taking a Biotech Startup Job”

  1. Denise Clarke says:

    “Many supposedly groundbreaking studies in academia, that get published in top journals, are nothing but bunk that can’t be reproduced anywhere else”…a tad harsh, no?

  2. Truth Williams says:

    Publishing in top academic journals consists more of navigating another political process than exercising in good science.

    All the points in the article are valid (especially understanding senior management and what your stock options really mean in terms of fully diluted shares). The main problem is that it is basically impossible to acquire all this information unless you are being hired for a senior executive position and you have a lot of time to conduct this diligence. Even then, it is difficult to deduce misinformation and you can easily end up more confused than before. Most people do not want to give out their capitalization table or shed any light on the equity compensation. Of course, this is due to avoid the realization that if you are not a co-founder or senior executive, you are not going to get much in a liquidation event. In the end, the base salary is the most important.

  3. Argo says:

    Another thought is to find out how the existing team was formed. Are they accepting of outsiders? Or are they a small click of a former company? This will really effect how you fit into the culture and the politics.

  4. Tom Klopack says:

    I’ve done 5 startups and this is a good primer for anyone joining particularly from a large company. Would also suggest using social media like LinkedIn for contacts and background on teams. Another key dimension is understanding the financials. Many privates won’t reveal financial detail but it is easy to construct:
    How many people in the company? Multiply by $225K to get total expense $ per year. This works very well for wide range of companies.
    Are they break even? If no sales then burn is expenses. If break even in a timeframe how much sales must be made at 60% margin to cover expenses?
    Figure out the burn rate and you know how much money they need over time. Ask if they are raising money.
    By putting together some simple info like above you can triangulate on financial position. If there is 12 months or less of cash and they are not focused on money raise there is an issue.