Maintaining perspective in a startup

The high startup failure rate and the increasing popularity of startup roles means that young people entering the workforce are perhaps more likely to experience redundancy than previous generations.

This, so logic would have it, will be a traumatic experience that comes totally out of the blue. But should that really be the case? After all, the only startups that really go on to become the next Facebook or Google are Google and Facebook.

Writing on the wall

A few months back, I was made redundant from a startup (not the one in my profile tagline) that I had been working with on-and-off for the past two years. The company was pivoting its strategy towards (what will hopefully be) greener pastures and my entire team was laid off as a consequence. Seeing two years of work amount ultimately to nothing more than audience-building for the new product launch was a predictably disappointing experience.

On balance, the writing had been on the wall for a while — not least because the entire company was aware that we were shifting our business model and strategy. Funding can only stretch so far and we were planning to rebuild from the ground up; inevitably, heads had to roll.

Unlike my colleagues, I was in the unique position of only working part-time while I finished my studies in advance of joining a law firm. Accordingly, beyond the immediate disappointment, I was not plunged into the same insecurity as my peers. Above all, I did not have to go through the rigmarole of applying for new positions while worrying about how I was going to make next month’s rent.

The paradox

Herein seems to lie the unspoken paradox of working in a startup: you typically work long hours and accept low pay in order to scale a business that you probably do not have any meaningful equity in.

There are, of course, tremendous upsides too. In my two years at the company, I reckon I learned more than I would have during two years of a business or management degree — not least because the various vicissitudes of the business moved faster than a university syllabus ever could.

As clichéd as it sounds, when I joined the business there were just three of us in an office basement. I took a personal hiatus to intern at an investment bank for three months before rejoining the company to find that we had moved into a new office, tripled our headcount, and were on the verge of closing our first major funding round. I assisted preparations for our first investor show, did my best to source new talent as we grew, and generally chipped in whenever I was needed.

Regardless, we all worked veryhard — though it must be said, none more than our CEO/founder — despite many of us knowing that we could be making more elsewhere. My own team even helped to formulate our pivot, which, in the end, amounted to signing our own proverbial death warrants, before seemingly proceeding to forget what we had just done.

I think that most people who work in very young startups are eager to pitch in above and beyond their pay-grade, not because they are desperate for a promotion but merely because there is a very clear sense that the company they work for ultimately consists of the people around them. (Of course, the veracity of this belief ultimately boils down to whether one considers a company to be its employees, its shareholders, or a combination of both.)

In this environment, it’s easy to occasionally lose perspective as your own personal goals become intertwined with your employer’s.

Maintaining perspective

Ultimately, a job is a job — unless you own tangible equity in the startup you work for, this is a fact worth remembering. Business is risky, and none are more so than startups, particularly when even the faintest sliver of profit is beyond the horizon. Maintaining perspective is therefore paramount, since your job can be snuffed out by a change of strategy or a dearth of cash.

Working in a startup does often involve squaring the paradox of acceptingboth long hours and (often) lower pay with what the numbers do not show: one hell of an experience, an insane learning curve, and the chance to actually build something. In my brief experience, at least, those stereotypes undeniably held true.

As such, I have just three words for my colleagues who remain: best of luck.

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