Here’s what I learned working in an early-stage startup

TV series: Silicon Valley (2014)

Hustle culture and a ton of venture funding have led to a lot of hype around working on the most innovative idea and building new-age startups, but it's not all rainbows behind the scenes. Many folks will hype you about working for a cool new startup or idea without validating its product market fit.

All that said, working at an early-stage startup is like having a secret superpower. It’s like being able to understand the thoughts of the product gods and translate them into code. You can see the ins and outs of the business and know exactly what’s going on. It’s like being part of a secret society where everyone is in on the plan. It’s not just about coding, it’s about understanding the bigger picture and contributing in a way that makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself. And the best part? No need for a fancy degree or secret handshake to join. Just pure talent and drive.

Leverage and Growth

The sweetest thing an early-stage startup offers is great compensation. The high compensation package is important as it often plays a big role when you’re on the hunt for jobs again and gives you the perfect leverage against lowballing offers. While most MNCs discriminate based on the place of education, gender, and a million other parameters, startups never fail to see the candidate’s hardcore skills and the amount of effort that went into gaining them.

Sure, a FAANG gig might have some fancy perks, but it takes more than just a little elbow grease to land one. But if you’re a student from a Tier-III college who’s been dealt a tough hand in life without the right opportunities, guidance, or exposure, an early-stage startup might just be the wild card that propels you forward in your career.

What makes engineering effective is understanding the core business, product, and market the product is tending to before jumping into building features for it. Early-stage startups offer the perfect playground to expand your skills beyond your comfort zone, where you’ll likely have the chance to work with various mini-teams to bring a feature to life and this is where a ton of opportunity to learn can be exploited.

Just working for over a year in an environment like this has enabled me to understand, articulate, and come up with solutions for product requirements much more effectively than it would’ve been if I was coding features in a black box environment. The barrier to entry to learning these skillsets in a larger company is surely higher. In a well-cultured team, internal numbers such as revenue and market spending are also accessible easily, this transparency not only allows you to understand how the business is doing but also enables you to resonate with the mission of the company and contribute more ideas in a variety of areas other than your primary responsibilities.

The Quirks and Perks

Startups are like a family.

This couldn’t be more true, I was fortunate to work with passionate people who truly cared for an individual’s development while never failing to patiently wait for one to learn from their mistakes without having a demoralising effect on the person. This is a huge positive that is visible in most current startups; the last thing you would want in a stressful environment is people shouting at you for your mistakes and pulling you down instead of helping you learn and grow from them. I have been lucky to end up with a good company, and experience growth even while doing mistakes but continuously learning from them.

Ever since remote jobs became the norm, flat hierarchies have become quite popular, albeit most companies form hierarchies once they become bigger, but there are benefits to being a part of the company in this phase, each one on ones I had with the co-founder had something valuable to add to my learnings, I was able to ask and diverse range of questions and get unique perspectives most of the time, which in turn helped me form my own opinions on what worked the best for me. The sheer accessibility to every knowledgeable cross-domain person makes it a gold mine of learning.

Another thing that creates a pathway for exponential growth is ownership of product features. Taking ownership of each feature of your code can take you places, I mean literally, one day you could be shipping it, and another day you could be talking to the customer directly to understand the bugs they are facing while making sure you fix the code breaking the production server at 3 AM. It’s often a rollercoaster ride but certainly something that strengthens your capabilities to function effectively in a stressful environment. Sometimes you are working on the weekends, but on most days you are working longer hours, this is where unlimited leaves and flexible hours can be helpful to take some time off to retrieve your sanity.

Well, it’s Hell

Some days in a startup are exciting, but most days are brutal.

if you’re looking for work-life balance, you should probably run as far as possible from an early-stage startup. Because the concept of work-life balance is almost non-existent in most startups. This might be slightly conflicting, it’s understandable that the company is under the pressure of VCs and needs to showcase growth as soon as possible, but burning out the employees would only hinder the process more. As I’ve observed in startups, the methods and environment setup are not the most efficient or sustainable, there’ll often be unexpected delays and requirement changes. Late hours and All-nighters will most probably damage your mental and physical health, making you gain a lot of weight while not getting the schedule to exercise, and also constantly being stressed resulting in a lack of focus, sleep, and impaired digestion and breathing.

As much as a startup’s vision and product might be exciting, it can very quickly take the opposite route. While the team and culture might be awesome, where most startups fail is avoiding tech debt (for the obvious reason of time) but also generating revenue, this becomes a detrimental factor towards the growth of the product, this is where product managers come in either help the product grow or make it all boring (in most cases they do). In this instance, your awesome tech job can get very boring, monotonous, frustrating and oftentimes hateful. Product owners with very little insight will make you rewrite the same code over and over again fancily terming them “AB experiments” but quite a lot of times yield no valuable outcomes. You’ll find yourself rewriting the same piece of code multiple times, and very few features come across that require innovation, research and problems that are interesting to solve.

Doing something you love, on a schedule you cannot control, is the same as doing something you hate.

Monotonous work can quickly make you lose motivation, question your career choices and get you thinking about what you really want, cause you are already doing what you thought you wanted. This is where conflict arises when you are working day and night to make progress for the business but you are constantly unsatisfied with the type of work or even have misaligned values.

Employee Stock Options or ESOPs in short should be understood in great depth before feeling good about the total CTC, sometimes startups inflate the ESOP compensation just to make the numbers look big, but in reality, most ESOPs don’t mean anything until the company goes public or is acquired, and most startups never get there, and with long vesting periods, it’s almost fair to not count the ESOP part of your salary while negotiating.

When you’re on the verge of trying to match the pace, make your hard work make sense and hope that being invested in the company’s ideology will pay off in the long run, a final nail in the coffin is when you get laid off.

Photo by Garrhet Sampson on Unsplash

All that said, the recent market conditions have shown that no job is safe and with the rise of AI, we might have to find or even create jobs that do not exist today, so hope you keep upskilling and hustling and have a successful career ahead, cheers!

Make sure to reach out to me on LinkedIn and Twitter and leave a clap if you liked my thoughts.

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