For most people I know who join or start companies, the primary goal is not to get rich – it is to work on something they love, with people they respect, and to not be beholden to the vagaries of the market- in other words, to be independent. The reality is being independent often means having made money and/or being able to raise money from others.
A while back, I posted about how I recommend thinking about non-founder option grants. In the comments, Aaron Cohen made the point that given today’s “good” exit sizes and standard equity grants, most non-founders will not gain independence even in the (non-extreme) good cases:
Most startup employees need to realize they are on a journey and that in addition to making a few hundred thousand dollars on a good outcome they are learning how to become more senior at the next company. Real wealth creation will take founding, seniority, or staggeringly large exits.
As Aaron said, you shouldn’t think of joining a startup as just joining a company. You should think of it as joining the startup career path. This career path could mean starting a company as your first job. It could also mean working at a few startups and then starting a company. (In my view, if your goal is to start a company, it is mostly a waste of time to work anywhere but a startup – with the possible exception of a short stint in venture capital).
Maybe you will make some money working at a startup, but more importantly you will hopefully work for founders and managers who are smart and willing to mentor you and eventually fund or help you fund your startup.
The startup world is extremely small. If you’re smart, work really hard, and act with integrity, people will notice. Contrary to popular wisdom, you will actually have more job stability than working at a big company. And hopefully you’ll go on to start your own company, gain independence, and then help others do the same.