[on ‘Why employees at startups are having to cope with unprecedented levels of anxiety’ as published in The Economic Times]
Morpheus: This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
Choosing to take up a job is no mean feat. You are choosing to work in a business that’s alive with risks and victories. Services and products are sold, money is made and a bunch of it is paid out as compensation to employees for their efforts – categorized as operating expenses.
The perception of stability
All big businesses were once smaller. They were more vulnerable because they had less cash to sit on, and this affected their capacity to digest risk. A failed experiment meant losing a lot of money, not something the young business could afford. As they grew, deal size went up, transaction volumes were staggering and the sheer quantity of people employed gave a business an impression of being a nation. This is when employees are offered a perception of ‘stability’ and healthy financial returns.
And some choose startups
When a business is still young, the chance to learn and take care of multiple responsibilities is high. You interact directly with the top management, and shape the soul of a rapidly growing business. Salaries are characteristically lower, but the financial returns are significant if the company grows up successfully – through generous increments and/or stock options.
“I learnt more at a startup in 6 months than I ever did at a popular real estate giant, where I spent 2 years.” – Navarun Roy
For those who seek learning above all, startups are flexible with opportunities, less conventional and willing to experiment. That’s because it helps being a co-driver of a small car, than being a passenger in a bus.
Choosing startups with eyes wide open
Baby turtles hurtle towards the ocean after they are born, and most of them die in the first few weeks. Similarly, young businesses are notorious for their short-lived glory, and any well read employee would know this. What attracts talent is the chance of a rewarding victory, brought about by team effort.
“I can see the direct impact of my hard work in a startup, and an opportunity to create. Something I never experienced at a popular IT giant.” – Gauri Oak
Respect founders, because they have had the courage to initiate an enterprise. They had the vision and storytelling prowess to inspire the explorer and the artist in you. They had the persistence to build what they had only imagined, with you, and align even more people to the shared goal. They always wanted this company to succeed, and they suffer the most when it does not. People lose jobs, and it’s sad. But when a ship goes down, there’s only so much a captain can do. And the captain goes down with it.
A-grade talent is always absorbed
Companies have failed around me, my friends built organizations which raised millions and had to scale down drastically, while on the verge of bankruptcy. Talent is scarce, and companies which are not sinking always offer a hand for good people on a sinking ship.
Everyone knows everyone in business circles, phone calls are made, email introductions lead to closed job offers. Top talent is always absorbed, mediocre talent always finds it difficult. But they would have had a difficult time retaining their jobs in any case.
The Joy of Participation
It is rich (and unfortunate) of the featured employees to bad mouth startups and founders in general, because sticking around for 4-5 years does not happen without confidence in the sector, and 6-8 months is a joke. Workplaces in young businesses are chaos asking to be structured – and it is not only the founders’ job to be responsible for setting one. You have an opportunity to contribute, and add a slice of your personality.
The Joy of Unhappiness
Startups run on priorities. Characteristically, they are high growth environments. When you run fast, you pay attention only to the important stuff, and even that is subjective. In this essay on Blitz Scaling by Reid Hoffman, he explains:
“Almost every blitz scaling org that I have seen up close has a lot of internal unhappiness. Fuzziness about roles and responsibilities, unhappiness about the lack of a clearly defined sandbox to operate in.
“Oh my God, it’s chaos, this place is a mess.” The thing that keeps these companies together—whether it’s PayPal, Google, eBay, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter—is the sense of excitement about what’s happening and the vision of a great future. Because I’m part of a team that’s doing something big, I’ll work through my local unhappiness.
Sure, I’d like a tidier sandbox, I’d like to be more efficient, I’d like the organization to be run more smoothly. But I’m willing to let it go because the pain will be worth it.”
And then follows the joy of structure
Quoting Reid again:
“Facebook famously shifted from a mantra of ‘Move fast and break things’ to ‘Move fast with stable infrastructure.’”
You build something which works, then you build something else which fails, and then you build again. That is how it is. The thing that is working and making money, is what you dig deep for, make it secure, hire people for holding fort as opposed to waging war.
Keep warriors for new experiments. There is enough literature out there for people to know what startups are like. It’s a life of adventure and fun, and if you do things right, money comes. In any case, your career is better off with a startup than it is without one.
But then, choose wisely and bail out on time
THIS forms the most crucial aspect but again, something that adults ought to know. Equity Trading is subject to market risks. You have to invest keeping this in mind. If market dips, do not blame yourself, do not blame the market, take what’s left of your money and leave. If you predict the market is going to dip, pack and leave immediately before losing any of your money.
Talent is scarce. Not all CEOs are as smart, not all managers can manage people, products and money well enough. The warning signs are evident – when customer acquisition costs are irrational, lack of clarity on product development, when market size is inflated on paper, when mediocre talent is awarded high salaries, inconsistent opinions on business priorities – you can always sense a certain level of immaturity right at the start.
On ‘illusions’ and ‘lofty promises’
Long work hours, stressful targets and changing requirements is normal for a disruptive workplace. It can be an Apple or a Google, or it can be a 6 month old technology company based in Hinjewadi.
- Long work hours can always be negotiated.
- Targets can always be realigned through conversations. If the targets are unrealistic, give your Directors a piece of your mind, and frank (constructive) feedback would always be appreciated.
- Changing requirements is either a sign of an indecisive management or a fast moving team. If the management is indecisive, check if they need help, see what you can do. If it’s a fast moving team, thank your stars, it’s rare.
- Unclear HR policies can be negotiated, clarified and be spoken about.
- Promoters can keep their promises only when the venture succeeds. You cannot expect fruits from a mango tree in one year. And if they have made false promises, then they are liars.
- Salary delays occur when money is mismanaged. Check with the founders to check if they need help with cash flow management. Quit early, if financial intelligence is a concern.
- Uncertainty of a job is a natural part of life. You do not know if you’ll be alive tomorrow. You can either choose to worry about it, or be happy and live every moment to the fullest.
Quoting from The Case of Unbridled Mules:
“What makes a mule a mule is the refusal to understand what is more valuable at this stage in its career. Experience in a responsible company would make one a lot more money later, than a high paying job in an irresponsible company right now.
It is easy for fresh talent to be misled, and that’s where aggressive young organizations have to show restraint. Money cannot buy customer loyalty, money cannot buy talent.”
If the company wins, everyone wins. If the company loses, everyone loses. Mismanaged companies (startups or not) will always prove harmful to careers. And employees (startups or not) ARE taking the risk. No one is entitled to crazy increments and security.
You chose the pill, Neo. Now have the guts to live with it.