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May 27 2014

The truth about working for a Startup

Ever wondered what it would be like to work for a startup? Always felt tempted, but never felt ready to ‘take the plunge?’

So did I……. but then I did take a leap of faith and want to share with you my journey so far.

 

Besides running my own business back in the nineties I have always worked for large enterprises, which have always been good to me and allowed me to grow as a professional. They also have given me the chance to move countries and be exposed to diverse cultures that have ultimately shaped who I am today. I count myself lucky to have this type of experience in my resume.

During my professional career I have always wondered where I would be professionally, personally and financially if I had ever given the chance to pursue my own personal business agenda. I am talking about being provided with an opportunity to use my business acumen, a chance to make serious money, and to pursue my personal dreams. I’m sure many of you reading this article have the very same aspirations.

The rat race can seem sometimes like an evil trap and once you fall into the machine it’s very hard to break out of this. Ultimately large enterprises want your full-time attention and dedication in exchange to a nice salary package with a good healthcare plan. We commonly get to a stage in our IT careers where we make good enough money and have a steady income, and most importantly, you know that you will be able to pay your bills at the end of the month. At that stage there are also chances that you are married and have kids at school, making any decision to leave the steady income and the healthcare plan much harder.

I finally broke free of the seemingly locked in cycle, but was not without a lot of thought and fear for my family’s future. It has also to do with the right moment in life to try something different. I now have real appreciation for those who make the effort to break free.

I am not yet launching my own company, but as most of you know few months ago I decided to join a startup and I am going to share with you some of the learning about working for a startup.

 

– Why people join startups and the risk of being unsuccessful

Most startups fail, so the first questions you have to ask yourself is if you fully believe the company and the product. That is very important, because if the company eventually fails you will feel that you at least tried to achieve something that you believe. It won’t be as painful.

Startups provide the opportunity to reach individuals and change people’s lives in tangible ways. For that reason many young graduates are looking to work for startups – and at their age the risk is much lower anyway. I am not going to explain how stock options work in a startup because there are may articles out there talking about it, but in short, you receive stocks and they vest in normally four years. After that period you can buy them at strike price (when you joined) and sell if the company goes public or is acquired by a larger organizations.

For the reason that most startups fail it is critical that you choose carefully and wisely. In my case, with a family, the choice had to be ‘spot on’ and I took the time to explore the options. So far, I have been very successful with my choice, but for the sake of my family, I joined a startup that already had few rounds of venture capital investment and happy referenceable customers. In terms of financial upside I could have been much better joining an early stage company, but it was not appropriate for me with such high risks involved. You will also want to ensure that your salary is fair and that you don’t put yourself in financial peril if things don’t work out.

One of the best aspects of working for a startup is the opportunity for rapid growth. Many companies choose to promote within their company because they want to give their talented employees the opportunity to advance their careers. This characteristic allows startup employees to have the opportunity for quick promotions. Not that I have seen much in the company I work for but I am starting to see people moving positions to learn other areas of the business. There’s definitely room from learning and growth.

 

– The right time to join a Startup

The best time to join startups is probably when you are coming out of the university and have not yet pounding the treadmill of the rat race. It’s the moment in life where there are fewer risks involved. Some prefer to even try to start their own startup company.

I only moved to Silicon Valley in 2010, and even like that I chose to work for large organizations until 2014 for a numbers of reasons. These reasons are personal and financial reasons.

When we made the decision to move to the USA I became my family’s breadwinner, so taking a risk at a startup in a different country was not an option for my family. It was not until my wife started working in USA that I started looking at possible options to join a startup. Having dual family income certainly helped me with the decision to look at opportunities. I am not sure if I would have done it without the certainty of at least having one of us employed. In addition to that, while at the large company I was working for I had the sense that I still had something to achieve or deliver.

The best time to join a startup is the time when best suits you and your family, but you need to be prepared because most startups fail and you must be able to handle the risk.

I particularly recommend reading ‘51 Startup Failure Post-Mortems’ and my favorite ‘Postmortem of a Venture-backed Startup – Lessons Learned from the rise and fall of @Sonar‘.

 

– The work life balance myth

During interview processes, a few people have asked me about the work life balance while working for startups. I understand where they are coming from, because there’s this pre-conceived notion that in startups everybody is working 24hs. I can only answer for myself and for the startup I have joined that this is not true.

In saying that, I am the type of person that doesn’t stand still. I am always up to something different, either writing articles for my blog, engaging in debates on twitter and forums, coding a new tool, running a new podcast show, etc. Even while working for large organizations I was always busy and up to something different and interesting. My personal problem is that when I master my role and have nothing new to do I get bored, and eventually leave the organization. For people like me startups offer a huge upside and different work opportunities.

I think this is the mindset and get-up-and-go that most people working in startups have anyway, therefore I don’t think I am working 24hs a day. I work hard because I like it!

Work hard, Play Hard! I truly believe in this saying and as I write this article I am at Tokyo Narita airport after a full-on week in APAC, and now flying to Hawaii to meet with my wife and daughter for a deserved week vacation. I promised them to stay out of the twitter and email, but could not stand still and not write this article.

If you are the type of person that always just likes to work from nine to five and always likes to disconnect on weekends, perhaps a startup will be a tough environment, as others will require things from you faster than you will be able to deliver.

In early stages of a company “do-it yourself” is the ultimate catchphrase. Commonly startups don’t have many resources in the initial phases to get everything done and you will have to do much more than what was listed in your job description; if actually there has even been one. I am absolutely fine with that.

Some people who have been to many startups may even prefer to leave the startup when the “do-it yourself” is not an option anymore and the company starts to get more structured. I call them serial start-up contributors.

 

– The run

Here are the simple things that I have learned working in a startup that I will take with me forever and may even contribute to never going back to a large corporation ever again (I should really never say never).

The foremost important thing I learned is about the desire to win.

You are small, they are big.
You are David, they are Goliath.

You know you have a winning product and all you want is to beat the competition, move forward with your product and wow customers. I learned something new about myself, this desire to win. Sure, when I worked for large organizations I had always desire to win and beat the competition, but it was nowhere near to how I feel working for a startup. Specially when you have carefully chosen the startup and you believe the company and product.

Ha! Collaboration. That must be the part that I love the most about working for a startup. In a startup everybody has a common goal. Sometimes in a startup the goals aren’t very clear just because there’s so much to do and you have to be your own CEO, but everybody know they must do what it takes to help the company grow, the product be successful and customers be happy. In part this is because people really want to see a successful company, and in part because startups give employee stock options and with company growth there are real financial upside. With that comes the sense of collaboration. Everyone is always ready to get out of his or her way to help and collaborate.

As companies grow, it becomes hard to maintain the sense of collaboration because people start to have their own agendas in regards to the product, marketing and other areas. That’s also the time when politics and hierarchies start to kill the company culture. Where I work everybody still have quick and easy access to executives and the CEO.

 

– What’s next

We are building a company and product for the long run and I think I will have a number of different positions in the years ahead of me. As the company grows I am sure there will be many opportunities for me.

Someone looking for a new position asked me recently what’s like to work for Nutanix and my answer was – It’s everything you expect a startup to be. That’s the best way to describe the company I work for.

 

In short, life is not a dress rehearsal! Find passion in a technology, mitigate your risks, stay aware and most of all…… enjoy the ride!

 

 

This article was first published by Andre Leibovici (@andreleibovici) at myvirtualcloud.net.

2 comments

2 pings

  1. eric

    Great article. You might want to change that to David rather than Samson.

  2. Andre Leibovici

    eric, thanks and good catch. That’s what jet lagging and tiredness does to you.

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