I got my first job offer! Now what?

Posted By on Jun 25, 2009

Congratulations!  You aced the phone screen, survived the (potentially grueling) interviews, and your offer letter is in the mail.  Awesome!

You should absolutely go out to celebrate, but before you mail in your acceptance, you may want to figure out what if any strings are attached to the offer.

I was too naive when I got my first job offer to think about things like employment agreements (or even to do a good job negotiating my salary!), but you shouldn’t be.  As part of the program we’re in for startups, we’re meeting with a bunch of lawyers and a bunch of entrepreneurs who left corporate America to start companies.  We’re learning as we go through the program that the employment agreement we signed after only halfway reading it could have caused a lot of trouble.

When my partner and I started at Big Semiconductor Company as part of our first-day schedule, we met with HR.  In addition to handing us a giant stack of documents about the 401K plan and health insurance benefits, they asked us to sign agreements that were incredibly restrictive and waived an awful lot of our rights.   At this point, having accepted their offer and stopped interviewing months before, we had no leverage.  We both needed the money, had no idea what those forms really said, and had no other job offers on the table.  We signed the forms.

I think that was a mistake; if we had started a company doing anything related to our previous work instead of something in a totally different industry, it would have been game over.  According to that employment agreement we signed, Big Semiconductor Company owned any ideas we came up with that related to their business while we were employed, regardless of whether or not we worked on them during work time or free time.

That’s not a big deal at a startup company, where the scope of what relates to the “business interests” is pretty much the product you’re working on – where the company HAS to own the IP you create.  But an agreement with a huge semiconductor company has a much broader scope – pretty much any circuit, big or small, relates in some way to some part of their business.  And if we’d worked at an absolute behemoth like IBM or Cisco, our startup options that don’t relate to their business would pretty much consist of biotech and opening a bar.

If I had it to do over again, I would have asked for all of the agreements up front.  I should have negotiated the terms in the employment agreement when I had the high hand, instead of when Big Semiconductor Company KNEW that they had me where they wanted me.

The moment I received my job offer was my moment of maximum leverage with the big company.  When a big company makes an offer, they’ve already spent all of the effort to screen, interview, and make an offer to someone.  They don’t want to have to spend that effort again.  I hadn’t yet stopped looking for work and interviewing, so my ability to walk away was still reasonably high.  Had I gotten a copy of the employment agreement and crossed out all the parts that were objectionable to me before I accepted their job offer, I wouldn’t have needed to worry.

I also should have done a much better job negotiating my salary.  According to a friend who worked in the hiring department of a big consulting company, it’s not much of a stretch for a new employee to negotiate a 20% increase in starting salary.

Negotiating the salary and the employment agreement will definitely be an awkward conversation, but I’ve never heard of a company that retracted a job offer for negotiating.  It can’t hurt to ask, and it might make things easier down the road.

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