Should I Join This Company: Assessing Financial Health

startups, interviews, career

Table of Contents

This is the first in a 5-part series on how to choose your next company. One of the most common questions from software engineers is: given the abundance of opportunities, how do I know which will enhance my career the most?

There are a multitude of factors that play into it, including financial health, company size, engineering standards, your team and culture, and your manager. Over the next five days, we'll explore ways to evaluate the potential of a company as an employer and your probability of success there.

Today's focus is on arguably the most important indicator of whether you should join a company: is it making enough money to support your cost of living, run the rest of its operations, and still have cash to go around? In other words, profitability, or at least the path towards profitability.

The Offer

As software engineers, you'll likely be looking at an offer that's comprised of some combination of salary, company stock, bonuses, and benefits. All of these are linked to the business performance of the firm, which we'll get into it a bit.

First, determine if the offer is worth taking by evaluating the offer in aggregate. Determine ahead of time your risk tolerance-- that is, how much personal risk you're willing to take for increased gain. Ideally the base salary is competitive for your location, but startups may be lighter on cash and heavier on stock-- a plus if you see things going well. Some questions to ask:

  • Is this offer cash heavy or stock/bonus heavy? Which do I prefer?
  • For stock: what's the vesting schedule? What's the strike price? What's the total number of outstanding shares?
  • How are the health benefits? What's my monthly premium?
  • How many days off do I get? Is this enough for my lifestyle?

What Do I Need?

You'll definitely want to have a sense of the minimum total compensation you'd be willing to accept. How much do you truly need for rent, food, and bills? Make sure you absolutely don't go below that number.

Above that, it's discretionary money and it's easy to just take the offer with the highest total sum-- but one of the perks of being a developer is that you can do a little forecasting. In 2005, Yahoo might have given the largest total compensation package, but what if you had an offer from Google?

If you're happy that the numbers proposed will be enough to cover the basics, then the next step is to do research into the company's current financial performance.

Public Companies

If they're a public company, it's easy: all of that information is freely available via quarterly SEC filings. Look at it like an investor-- no, seriously, for any company, pretend you are a venture capitalist who is looking to put money down on this company. You're putting in something that is even more valuable, which is your time. You can always make more money but you can't get more time. So, learn to read a balance sheet, and ask yourself:

  1. Is revenue growing year over year? How fast is it growing?
  2. Are operating costs trending down year over year?
  3. How much debt do they have? Is this growing?
  4. How much do they have in assets versus liabilities? Are the assets appreciating over time or depreciating?
  5. Who owns most the company's stock? Institutions or management?
  6. How much are they investing in R&D? Do I believe in their future products?

If they're public, the stock price could also be a good indicator. If the stock's been trending downwards for the last few years, you might want to stay away-- it means investors are losing faith in the company. Note, however, that there are other conditions to consider: almost every company was down during the 2008 financial crisis.

Private Companies

What if they're private? It becomes much harder, but there are still ways to get a picture:

  • Check out their website to see if customer logos/count has risen.
  • Look for press/media articles that might give insight into financial numbers.
  • Check out interviews done with the founders or senior executives.
  • Identify past funding: how many rounds have they done? How much each time?
  • Has employee count gone up? If so, how fast?

Sometimes companies can be extremely private, and not have any of the above information publicly accessible. In that case, the advice is to look for the subtle things during your visit-- are there free foods/drinks? Do they have 401k matching? Do people at the office look motivated and content? These clues might be helpful in painting the full picture.

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