Negotiating for Yourself at a Startup

I've spent most of my career at tech startups. I love the challenge of the startup environment - it is often fast paced, agile, and alive with possibility. And I've had to learn how to negotiate for myself in these types of environments, which are a bit quirky, compared to established businesses. 

I'm giving a talk next week at Portland Startup Week here for women negotiating for themselves in startups. I thought I'd share some of reasons I think negotiating at startups is so important. Hope you can join me and share your perspective. Register here


Here are some of my observations about negotiating at startups

At startups you wear many hats

In well established companies, the roles are more narrowly defined. At startups, there may not even be a job description. This means many things, but most importantly is that there are opportunities for generalists more than specialists to thrive in this environment. 

From a negotiation perspective, that means that you are often asked to do a lot of jobs (all at once). And you probably thrive on that if you are at a startup, but there is a limit to how many you can and should take on at once. And the more you say "yes", the harder it is for you to put on the breaks or ask for something to change. You've trained everyone around you that you can juggle multiple jobs and they will resist when you want to stop.

Accelerated careers for high achievers

I have found that startups don't have clear career ladders. They tend to start out fairly non-hierarchical and you are all lending a hand to get stuff done. Then, as teams form and leaders emerge, you have opportunities to run things and be a leader sooner than you would at a more established company. You can skip levels of hierarchy and end up a Director or Vice President without that many years of experience. 

This is great. You learn on the job and you are smart, so you can do it. But, without clear expectations of the role and you in it, sometimes it is hard to maintain that title in tough times. Just because no one else is there to lead the team, doesn't mean you should take it on. Make sure it is in your career path and that you have the tools and resources to succeed. Ask for what you need and keep asking so that your success is more likely.

Limited support and resources

Startups are usually cash strapped for some part of their journey. Whether you have VC funding or are bootstrapping, those dollars need to be spent wisely. This means most teams are running lean. If you just got a promotion to Director, it may mean you run a team of one or two people. This can be hard, you are learning new tasks, managing new expectations and have little resources to hire more people or to get trained yourself. 

But, it is not good for anyone if you fail. You can always make a business case for resources to be applied, if you are adding value to the business. It is critical that you understand what value you (and your team bring) in a currency that matters. Working really hard or long hours, doesn't really have meaning to the bottom line, but results do. Use what you know about the business to make the case for you and your team. 

Limited policies and procedures

On day one at IBM or Intel you are going to get a handbook with all the rules and codes of the company. At your startup, you'll be lucky if they have your desk set up that morning. You may even have to build it yourself! This means, there may not be performance reviews, salary bands or even job descriptions. This allows for a lot of creativity and agility in startups, but it makes it harder if you are trying to negotiate with someone and there is no precedent. 

If you are looking for a flexible schedule, they may have no experience with that. Want a raise, they may not be in the habit of having those conversations yet. Obviously, as the startup matures, all of these issues need to be ironed out (and written down). Think of your negotiation as paving the way for the people that come after you. Connect what is good for you (paternity leave for example), with what is good for the company (better employee retention when there are family friendly policies). 

Emerging company culture 

Culture is an important part of any startup. Startups are tripping over each other to have the "best" company culture around as a way to attract and retain talent. As norms emerge you may need to make sure your own needs are met. This can be difficult if you are a woman or a person of color, as we are often the minority in startups (tech startups especially). 

If you think about your negotiation as something that can improve or expand the company culture to make more people more successful, you can really connect yourself to a larger purpose. This helps in making the ask. If you are asking for the company meeting to not be at happy hour, because you have to pick your kids from day care, for example, you are not the only one has the same need. Even though startups are young, they quickly get the entrenched "we've always done it that way" vibe. It is your job, as someone who works at a startup, to push back on the status quo if it isn't making for a great business where you can be successful. 


The goal of all startups is to mature into sustainable businesses. Much of these growing pains are ironed out over new policies and procedures, new hires, people leaving and people just like you negotiating for a change at work that makes good business sense. Don't be shy, the startups need people like you!

I'll cover more concrete steps to successfully negotiate at a startup on Wed February 8th. Hope you can join me. Register here