Don’t Work For A Startup

Two years ago, I was unemployed, delusional, drowning in debt, and drunk every single night in front of the computer after days and days of endless coding (and, well, drinking). I was trying to build something visionary, something that would catapult me into stardom, something that would let me cash in millions. None of these things happened. As Daniel Kahneman discussed in Thinking, Fast and Slow, it was a clear case of affective forecasting.

Fast forward two years, here I am, mulling over the remaining days I have left in what seemed to be a roller coaster ride of endless, rigorous days of scaling up, never ending ad-hoc tasks, and ever-switching job descriptions. I remember writing about the nitty gritty of a startup almost a year ago and how excited I seemed to be back then. Unsurprisingly, it seems to have stuck on me and I’m still feeling the exact same way two days before my exit from the company. Only now, as I look back, am I able to discern how I survived the deranged world of a startup.

Don’t work for a startup. That’s the best tip I could give anyone planning to join a startup company and that is certainly what I did (or in this case, didn’t do) during my stay in Rocket Internet’s Lazada Philippines (LP). By now you’d probably be thinking I’m delirious or something but give me a chance to clarify. There’s a logical explanation behind that adage.

If you’re the traditional employee thinking about joining a startup company, think, think twice, hell, think it over a million times before you actually do. Yes, startups will always welcome aboard people like you because the first thought that comes up is your value proposition—meaning, your experience—and not your willingness to create and implement processes, to work with other departments, and—as cliche as it may sound these days—to go outside your comfort zone. I’ve seen a lot of this type come and go the second one of the things I’ve mentioned above comes up. People, especially Filipinos, are not natural go-getters. We live in a very passive and reactive place in this world and we have one of—if not the—highest tolerance for inefficiency. Just look at our public transportation for crying out loud! The accountant who’s given the task to draw a process flow that would explain what happens when a customer returns an item and opts for a refund comes running out the door the very second. The need for jacks of a single trade is quickly becoming a rarity these days.

“Are you flexible?” is the worst question that comes up in job interviews. Not because of what the interviewer wants to find out but because of what the interviewee understands of it. Whenever we are asked about our flexibility, the first thing that comes to our mind is time. “Yes, I don’t mind the graveyard shift.”  Flexibility, in this case, is being diverse and biased to action—taking the initiative of going outside your job description to get things done. In a startup, everyone needs to be a leader. As Sheryl Sandberg says in her book Lean In, “Taking initiative pays off. It is hard to visualize someone as a leader if she is always waiting to be told what to do.” If you need to be ordered around to get things done, don’t work for a startup.

You need to keep ideas flowing in a startup. Try everything—even the dumb-sounding ones—and keep what works. Also, you can’t be an obstinate person when everyone decides to throw your idea out the window. You need to keep the engine running and keep on moving. Eric Ries discussed this verbosely in his book The Lean Startup. People within a startup need to know when to pivot or persevere. I like the former better in most cases because as the parody version of a well-known saying goes “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”

All things I’ve mentioned above matter but I think the one thing that helped me the most is learning the ability to talk to people. If you’re an introvert like me, stepping out of your comfort zone is much, much easier said than done. In a startup, you cannot hide behind your computer monitor forever. You need to actually talk to people to get things done. Hell, throw in a couple of guerrilla warfare tactics in there if needed. Treat the product manager out for lunch to get his buy in. Two books that really helped me overcome my introversion was Dale Carnegie’s famous How To Win Friends and Influence People. Yet another book that discusses behavioral psychology is Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch. Amazing what you can do once you find out how to talk to an elephant, its rider, while showing them the path.

As I’ve shared in the nitty gritty of a startup, I’ve never used Microsoft Excel before joining LP. Not mentioned there is that I’ve also never finished reading an entire book in my entire life. The good thing about startups is that you meet a diversified set of people. I was lucky enough to work with a person who was willing to share tips and strategies on how to survive in a startup, particularly one that deals with e-commerce. He—indirectly—became my mentor in short. I never asked him to mentor me or teach me anything. Up to this day, I don’t know what nudged him to do so. Dramatically, he started mentoring me during his last days in the company. He told me stories from when he was still working with Amazon.com, one of the icons—and giants—in online retail. He proceeds by lending me a couple of books to read; pretty basic ones: The Little Prince, Who Moved My Cheese?, and The McKinsey Way. He goes off to the unknown but not before giving me a list of books to read (a couple are where the quotes I share above are from). Books are always a win-win situation and you can only learn so much from them. To get a list of the books I’ve finished reading, head to my bookshelf.

If you think you need mentors to achieve great success, you’re heading the wrong way. As Sandberg discusses, we need to stop thinking that we need to get a mentor for us to excel. Contrary to what we normally believe, we need to start thinking that only when we excel do we get ourselves a mentor. Mentors are people too and they would not waste their precious time on people who wouldn’t listen.

I was learning so much. I signed up as a customer service representative but ask me now about marketing strategy, customer experience, logistics, search engine optimization, user interface, payment gateways, etc. and I can answer you right away. I was enjoying my time while others of my tenure were starting to quit, telling me they’re tired, things were not working, and other things I considered excuses. They got to those points because they worked for a startup and as I’ve said earlier, never ever work for a startup.

Before you hack me with a machete for confusing you, let me explain how it should work. You can dispose of my article as you wish but these are basically how I saw things working for a startup for almost 2 years.

Don’t work for a startup. If you do, it will suck the living life out of you and you will burn out quite easily. Instead, learn from one. When you sign that job offer, think of it as signing a certificate of registration. Startups are nothing but incubators. I know that’s antithetical but hear me out. Startups are incubators for people with less to no experience at all. Think of it this way: in a startup, you’re already getting free education while actually getting paid in doing so. Do you know how much it costs to get an MBA these days? Not to mention the time you actually spend in business school. I’ve shared this understanding with the COO of the company and he agrees with me—but not without cursing, filled with remorse over the time and money he spent in business school wherein he could’ve learned most of those things here.

As Daniel Kahneman discusses in Thinking, Fast and Slow, success equals some talent and luck; and great success equals some talent and a lot of luck. I was lucky to have a great mentor but I was more lucky to be designated in customer service which is the best place to be in a startup—especially in retail. You don’t get to poke as much when you’re in a different department. When the captain of the ship (in this case, the CEO) decides to steer towards customer experience, this is your cue to get your hands dirty. When you start figuring out the root causes of customer complaints, you will find yourself in the warehouse, sorting through financial papers, tinkering with the user interface, and especially, you find yourself in the middle of meetings you were not invited to before—and this is where all the learning starts to get fun.

For me, I’m off to a new adventure—yet another startup. I wouldn’t be off my game this time around as I am well-equipped with learnings from this previous gig. As the COO usually tells me, “You need to keep the same, great trajectory.” Of course, he was talking about metrics but I take it as it is.

So, are you thinking of joining a startup? When you finally sign that job offer, here’s a tip: knock over a few rocks.. and a few more.