Until a few months ago, startups were the flavour of the season to start one’s career. Top notch engineers and executives quit their jobs in Silicon Valley to join them in India. But now, the ground has moved—or so it seems. The events of the last few weeks have swung the pendulum too far. IITs have barred six startups from hiring their students this year because they paid less than what they promised. IIMs are unhappy about the delays in joining date. Next year, these firms will probably lose their coveted zero day status at these campuses due to the public fracas.
It’ll be tragic if events like these instil fear among fresh graduates and their families that startups ought to be out of bounds. I think it an utter travesty if they ask questions like “What if a failed startup smears a smudge on my resume?” For that matter, “If it goes belly up, would I have wasted my time?”
If you are among those grappling with these questions, this one is for you.
Keep in mind though, too much noise and romantic notions have been peddled around about what a startup is. The past two years have painted a distorted picture—fancy offices, fancy salaries and fancier perks. But reality has struck and we’ll see sanity return to this market. Unlike what you read in the media about becoming billionaires and overnight successes, most fail.
Then you will come to a crossroad. Imagine staring at a job offered by the likes of Infosys, Cognizant or Unilever on the one hand. Then on the other, there is an unknown startup. If you opt for the former, a blanket of security will envelope you. The latter offers lower than market salary, a promise and perhaps stock options at a later date.
Given this dilemma, why should you join a startup? For that matter, why should anybody join one?
Simple. Because now is actually the best time to consider a startup job—a shockwave of rationality has hit them. They will be run more sensibly, and with a lot more focus. Of course, you’ll see bursts of irrationality in the race to gain quick traction and market share. But it won’t be wanton and it won’t be random anymore. Things will be done to a plan. The plan may be flawed. But that’s par for the course. Startups try, fail, pivot, and they survive. Or they die and the team makes a comeback again in another form and shape.
So, don’t let the news about downrounds (where investors buy a company’s stock at a lower valuation than in previous rounds of funding), restructuring, salary corrections and cost-cutting scare you. Working at a startup can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. A word of caution. Before you get into this game ask yourself some honest-to-God questions.
1. Am I cut out for the job?
Not everyone is cut out for a startup job. It’s easy to be lured by the hype war stories your friends and batchmates share. Instead, ask yourself:
- Am I ready to go out of the comfort zone that a structured job offers?
- Can I deal with ambiguity and uncertainty?
- Do I have an ambition to start something of my own at some point?
- Am I willing to make the work-life balance trade-off?
If your answer is yes to all of the above, jump in. Join an early stage startup.
An answer like “I want to join a successful startup” is a plain silly one. If the startup is successful, it is not a startup. If its survival is not under threat, it is an enterprise. It’s just a more exciting “sector” to work in.
So don’t mix up joining Google, Amazon, Facebook or even Flipkart with joining a startup. Of course, these firms offer great careers and jobs that give you responsibility early. But their survival isn’t hanging on a thread or bound by the passion of a small team. You can experience that only at an early stage startup.
2. What should I focus on?
If you answered yes to any of these variables, don’t join one.
Consider money first. If you’re young, say in the 22-26 bracket, what are you really worried about? Your stakes aren’t too high. Don't eye the salary and the fancy perks. Remember, less than 5% of you will rise to be the CEO or run your own firm. And those who do get there, don’t get there because they took a “Day One” job or the highest paying offer on campus. They get there because they focus on learning over earning in the formative years of their career.
Some of you may have financial obligations and student loans to pay off. If that be the case, stay away from startups. Go for a corporate job and bide your time. Take the plunge when you can afford to.
3. So what should I join one for?
There are some things that you will get only from a startup.
Join for the grit and the grime. It’s where you roll up your sleeves and get down to work. It’s where you learn on your own, learn by doing, and learn fast. You learn what not to do. It’s a place where things inevitably go wrong.
For instance, the team may not have the experience, the market is a tough one, customers may not accept your product or service, or because customers don’t want to pay. Every day is a firefight. No one will hold your hand and take you along.
4. What can burn me?
Startups aren’t really companies. They are “provisional businesses”—until they prove that they have a right to exist and thrive. Therefore, by implication, you are a provisional employee. Don’t forget that. Ever.
Newspaper headlines about the funds they raised might make you feel comfortable. But don’t be tricked by it. No matter how much they have raised in their series A, B or C, they might be nowhere close to success. Funding is usually a marker for an investor’s hope and greed, not consumers’ validation. A lot of startups get funded when they are “buying” customers with deals and discounts. The truth is revealed only when they withdraw these incentives.
5. Do I have the support system?
Don’t be a hero. If you are not ready to live out of a sleeping bag, and drink watered down Old Monk rum, startups are not for you. Having a support system—and in India, it’s mostly the family—is a great advantage. Keep in mind, asking them to support you financially is not a choice. Because for all practical purposes you are now an earning member. You opted to take the startup route. What you ought to do is be candid and share stories of your ups and downs with your parents (or spouse as the case may be) and ask that they support you emotionally.
Heck, they may love you even more for wanting them to be part of your journey.
6. Do I know what I am signing up for?
Here’s what you need to check before you join one. Some of this data may be publicly available. But tap your circle of friends and colleagues and do some research about the firm.
#1. Founders and Team: Research the founders and their background. Don’t believe all of what you read and hear about hyped up startups. There are outstanding ones that haven’t bothered with the limelight.
Watch out for old boys’ clubs. Inevitably, they take all decisions, never delegate or involve others on the team on broader decisions. That they will lose sight of their business and people is a given. And before you know it, they will panic at the first sign of pressure and take knee-jerk decisions.
#2 Culture: Startups are evolving places. So don’t expect a culture. If one exists, it will be a raw one. What you need to know is their operating philosophy. What you need to know is their values and behaviour.
Are they transparent about their situation with the team?
Does the wider team know the challenges or is it a bunch of three people handling the funding and investors?
Do they care about customer experience? Do they resolve complaints?
Try their services and register a complaint. See how much they care. If they do, join them. Else, you know what to do.
Little things like these will tell you a lot about them.
#3. Role and Exposure: Join a startup at an early stage and rest assured your learning curve will be steep. Consider yourself lucky to get paid to make mistakes.
If you are joining a late stage, well established, well funded startup, be clear about your role and who your mentor will be. Some firms are like cruise liners—lots of people with lots of tiny jobs and you can get lost. Find one which is known to create room for experimentation and promotes talent that shows spark.
#4. The Business: Find out as much as you can about the market a startup is in
- Who are they serving, and what are they solving?
- How big is that market?
- How will they be different?
- How profitable can that idea be?
- How they will use technology (or whatever their mojo is) to beat the incumbents?
Deploy your common sense
#5. Structure: Do they have a team of people who know what they are doing? Or are all of them in permanent experiment mode? Ideally, there should be a mix. We’ve just seen a lot of this in the last few weeks where startups that were “experiments” were garbed as “pivots”.
Instead, you should ask: Is there a method to the madness? How do they tackle difficult problems? Find out from your friends: What’s the structure? Who does what? Are there regular review meetings? How do they measure progress?
So if you find the answers are ambiguous, stay away
Starting up is tough. And it’s even tougher in India, where things don’t move. Where all the infirmities of our market come to play and make it difficult for a small business to break through and scale. That’s just the way we are—so if your startup promises an easy life, free popcorn and coke, run. Far away.
In fact, ask if people are overworked or not? If the guy interviewing you doesn’t have dark circles, ask why. Startups are 24x7 jobs, and that’s why you learn so fast.
Save your paycheque. Don’t spend it away on too many beers. Assuming the first one doesn’t work, having a financial cushion will give you the chance to keep taking risks. The startup wave has just begun in India—and the experience you get will get more valuable by the year.
And finally, work your backside off. You’re in there not just for a free ride and the learnings. While a startup can offer you a lot, you’ve got to have the spunk to ask yourself what muscle do you have to offer the startup. And as much as your successes will be applauded, your flaws will be exposed as well. The responsibility on you to deliver is huge. Live up to it.
On a parting note, here’s my version of Catch 22: “If a startup is crazy enough to offer you a hefty salary, you should be sane enough to decline it.”