Part 1 The Anxiety:
If you have or if you are working currently in a big tech company you probably only worry about your work, your deliverables, your upcoming performance review, or that big promotion. I did too. Then, I joined a startup. To give you a sense of the scale, the company where I previously worked, had 600+ QA’s on the floor above me, the startup had one. From day one of the startup job a new metric gets added to your anxiety equation: ‘Will the start-up survive?’. Now, not only do you worry about your prospects but also that of the company. While founder depression is still talked about (not enough!), but employee anxiety is hardly on anybody’s radar. This added daily uncertainty takes a toll on many and often people look for safer shores (I had a colleague who gave an interview every 2 weeks just for practice).
Transparency from founders is double-edged, knowing the months of runway and daily/monthly revenue is a red/blue pill choice. Would you rather want to be painfully aware or happily ignorant of your company’s financials is something I often wonder. One of our start-ups had an hourly app-store purchase information mailer send to everyone. You could guess the numbers by the mood in the room. Contrast this, to getting the company’s finances in an email from a distant superstar CEO. The financial numbers of big tech are so stable that they are probably irrelevant to you. In a startup, employees might be reading non-verbal cues from a CEO, who just returned from an investor meeting, the pitch for which you might have helped create last night. Even so, I would say, the more honest and frequent the founders are about the company’s financials, the more invested the workforce is.
Spiderman has spider-sense, employees have imposter syndrome. People with imposter syndrome believe that one day the curtain will be lifted and everyone will ‘see’, how the imposter doesn’t fit in, followed by some version of Cersei‘s walk of atonement. In startups, there is no curtain to hide behind, you are ‘seen’ in full glory the moment you push that first line of code, or your first sales meeting, or your first client call. But trust me there is no walk of shame. Good founders, like the optimistic gamblers they are, bet on your potential. Just like startups, startup jobs too, are not just about, what you bring to the table. They are about what all can you add to the table in the next coming months.
Part 2 The Love:
A growing start-up has ownership baked in. If you work at a startup, you inevitably end up owning a piece of functionality, a feature, a process. Not only do you own a feature, but you will also nurture it, iterate over it, till it is in its best form. Pygmalion created a statue so beautiful that he fell in love with it. We all have a little pygmalion in ourselves. Startup employees end up falling in love with their company.
Most mellow people speak up in a startup, making sure they are heard. You will pitch ten ideas, nine of which might not see the light of the day. But the one that makes it through gives an immense sense of pride. Also, the nine ideas that don’t make it, add value just by being voiced. You will see start-up employees championing products, features and if some new direction is not to their liking, they will passionately refute it. Evaluating who considers himself a stakeholder in the company and who doesn’t is a very good performance indicator. It is also an indicator of the culture of the startup. More people who think they have a role to play in the success of the company, the better the culture startup will have.
This is not Stockholm Syndrome, it is the Startup Syndrome.
Part 3: The Team:
They say, if you are the smartest man in the room, you are in the wrong room. If you want to be in better rooms, join a startup. I have seen people solving complex problems with amazing ‘right in front of you’ simple solutions. I have seen problems that are even difficult to pen down being solved by complex algorithms. E.g. In a dating app startup, the problem ‘How compatible two people are?’ was solved by creating a composite score of many scores. It had inputs like popularity score, to things like if both of them are postgraduates, and the likelihood of them responding to or initiating messages. Nothing grounds you more than seeing these solutions being pitched and implemented.
If a current startup employee is tomorrow’s startup founder, every team-mate of yours is a potential founder. If there was a difficult-to-work dude in the initial team of Paypal, he sure missed out. Your current organization is a co-founder supermarket for your startup. Even if your teammate is not going to become a founder himself/herself, there is a high likelihood, that this risk-taking, talented person will have a steeper growth trajectory compared to someone in a cushier job. The current startup I work at is founded by a teammate at a previous startup. The point is, that instead of being in a short-term tussle of scoring brownie points over each other, play the long game and make valuable connections throughout the company.
Part 4: The Journey:
In the last 6 years, I started as an automation tester writing API and mobile automation test suites, then worked on managing AWS infra, setting up CI/CD cycles, to managing databases and finally now I write react code for web apps. I even ended up selling no-cost EMI loans in a big hospital for three months. In any organization of scale, this sort of lateral movement, if possible at all, would involve a lot of approvals and releases. In startups, not only do you get to work across the stack, you can move from one department to another without as much as an email sent across.
In hindsight, would I want things to play out any different? Not really, I have a serious case of startup syndrome.