It was 2013. I have been working at an enterprise product company coding distributed systems for a huge codebase that took 1 hour to build even on a monster machine.
Nine months into the job, I got bored. I decided to seek new opportunities and started looking for startups. I talked to several startups, interviewed with few of them, got some offers and joined a good one and worked there for two years before taking the current time off.
Before you decide you want to work for a startup, please ensure that it is for the right reasons.
Most of the times, a startup work would involve lengthy hours, OK salary, ESOPs which are worthless and work that will take up your entire life for the years you work on it. It is perfectly right to work at a large MNC for all your life if you are happy.
Working at a startup is not as cool and it NOT going to magically uplift your happiness level. Finding the right startup to work for is difficult, so here is a list of pitfalls and red flags to avoid.
Perceived Coolness Quotient (PCQ)
Most of the time, people mistake perks for the company’s culture. It started with Google and some other companies providing perks to make their employees lives comfortable so that they can focus more on their work.
So if you ask someone about the culture (for example this Quora question), they would say our company provides MacBook Pro, has foosball tables and bean bags (even when I find it so uncomfortable over a well designed chair), beer in the fridge, LAN gaming sessions and what not. This is not the culture.
A good culture would be say a place where employees are treated with respect and heard no matter their designation, where you could ask for help if stuck without being shunned, where you are not penalised for making mistakes but corrected, where work and building the product takes a priority over petty politics, where your work is all that matters and not the location or time of the day when you do it (but obviously respect other people’s time).
In tech, culture could be no code deployed to production without running unit tests and code-reviewed by a peer, small incremental deployments, documenting stuff for future employees, great onboarding of new employees so that they can feel at home and start contributing from the first day itself, listening to everyone with a valid point before making major tech decisions etc.
Now to attract a typical 21–28 years old single employee, companies tend to create a lot of artificial noise on channels that matter (Quora, startup blogs, their own tech blog posts writing about something very trivial).
People need to justify their decision of joining a startup to themselves, their friends earning a lot more money, their parents who want them to work at bigger companies and their dog who loves them, that working so hard at this obscure 4 person startup is a better idea that the big beautiful glass building nearby.
Choose a startup that values the work you do, and you feel has more chances to succeed not the one which has a cool office or provides free beer.
How do you do that? Look for red flags, companies which are small but have lots of people leaving or getting fired. Lookup past or current employees on LinkedIn who might be friends of friends.
If you are in for the right reasons and not illusioned by PCQ as described above, read on.
Here are some signs of startups which signal danger and you should avoid working for them. Most of the points here relates to a culture where people would not be respected, shows shady ethics or are just plain stupid.
The “You are fortunate to get an offer from us” startup
“All our hires are from IITs, Stanford and Hogwarts”, the HR said coolly and continued working on something important when asked about the work culture. But I still wanted to discuss the CTC, but considering this was the first offer I received, I did not want to appear as someone who is in for the money.
But I still needed the details. I called the last person to interview me and had a chat. He laid down some below-expectation numbers with a bonus of working with people with great pedigrees.
It is always great to work with and learn from people with better skills than you. I have work with some brilliant colleagues who graduated from some of the world’s best universities, but I never heard them ever bringing it up in any discussions.
I have also worked with colleagues who had a modest educational background but were great at self-learning. If it had been limited to the HR shit talk then maybe it would be justifiable but when your potential colleagues start discriminating on the basis of pedigree, you should know it is not a good sign for future work-related decisions.
The “I always reply to emails after 10 days” startup
This was a leading e-commerce company. ‘Your telephonic interview went well, please send a couple of dates in next two weeks for onsite’. Mail sent, two weeks passed, again new mail.
Please send a couple of dates again for onsite. I sent a mail; ‘Not interested’. A series of apologies from some people followed, but I was simply not interested by then.
Last I checked, the HR guy who was handling this switched companies the same month. So either he was fired or he was switching companies and was on his notice period and was simply uninterested in doing his job.
The one complaining about other startups paying too much and destroying the ‘market’
The basic fact about compensation is neither the startup nor you are in it for charity. You have some skills which have a certain market value and would like to work at a great place where you can use the skills to benefit the startup and have some fun.
There was a founder who wondered how my current company was able to pay so much. In his words, “No company in this city pays this much”.
In another case, the founder started haggling for around 1 lakh rupees. Not a good sign for future appraisals meets if they ever had one.
The one who scheduled and missed the Skype interview (Twice)
Everyone is busy at a high growth startup. But that does not mean you should not honour your commitments and that too repeatedly. It is a red flag that you do not care about others and their time.
The one who wanted me to work for 2 days on a “project” at their office
The one with a verbal offer letter
You should never start considering an offer unless it is being given to you in writing over an email. One common mistake is agreeing to a promise of undefined stock options to be given at some uncertain time in future.
Most of the time, this never happens and the founder backs out of the deal. First make sure what you want from the company. Then get it all written down in writing in the offer letter.
A 2 person shop who replied to my direct mail with a “follow the process and use this career page to apply”
When you are a large company, processes help you keep organised and improves productivity.
But when you are a 2 person startup looking to hire their first employee, replying to a well-worded direct mail with attached resume with a link to their careers page form is not a good idea.
You should be open to using multiple channels and tools for hiring. Recruitment is hard and I hope they must have realised by now and improved upon this.
Startups, please invest more time in hiring and don’t be mean. Sometimes you need great employees more than they need you.