An Untainted Account of Startup Life

Date:   Friday , June 03, 2016

Headquartered in Bengaluru, Exotel is a prominent cloud telephony company helping the businesses via virtual phone systems and eliminating the need to invest in any hardware or maintenance.

The Land of Start-ups

Entrepreneurs are storytellers of the modern age. They know that the most famous stories are simple, and their appeal is founded on basic human condition. They always have surprising twists. The success of an entrepreneur depends on how well they weave this story to their initial employees and investors. At least, that\'s the way it\'s supposed to work. If that\'s the case, the world would not be filled with people who want to join a startup, but have no idea why. Potential employees wouldn\'t be replete with myths about startups - there\'s something called a startup culture, one would learn the most in a startup or success is proportional to the funds raised - to name a few. A quick search on the interwebs would list dozens more.

Where is the Disconnection

Entrepreneurs scramble to stick coloured labels on various axes to simplify life. While the founders and investors are taken care of, what happens to the employee side of the story? What should people expect when they join a startup? This is a story from my personal experience; one of my company and its employees.

The Myth of the Mono-Narrative Start-up

Every founder sets out to create a fantastic place to work. They assume that their company is a great place to work in; the pay, culture, freedom and so on, is on par with the rest of the ecosystem. And this assumption is a result of the founders\' perception of the truth rather than malice. I have a unique perspective to tell this story. I\'m a co-founder and the head of HR at a very fast growing startup. And here is what I want to tell all the folks out there who are eager to work in a startup. My story is an untainted version of all other versions.

Multiple Narratives

Here\'s the twist right at the beginning. There isn\'t one story. There are three stories. Any company you want to work for will fit in one of these stages. And here is what you can expect at each stage.

The Early Days

The first phase is the soul-searching phase - Product Market fit, in entrepreneur parlance. The company is trying to find out two things - is there a market for this product in the real world and are people willing to pay for it with real money. During this phase, there will usually be a handful of driven employees solving a problem that they feel passionate about. There is a good problem to solve, and there is light at the end of the tunnel. Hardly anyone leaves during this phase because the level of passion is extremely high.

Perks: ESOPs, Beer & Camaraderie

Long work hours and a salary that gets over by the 10th of every month. If you\'re looking for a safety net, do not join a startup at this phase. If you\'re looking for a specialised role, do not join a startup at this phase. If you\'re looking for a well thought-out health insurance policy, again, do not join a startup at this stage. You get the picture. If you are a generalist who has ambitions of running your own company in the future, this is your chance. Grab the opportunity by its tail.

The Most Professionally Satisfying Phase

The second phase - the repeatability phase, in entrepreneur parlance. Having achieved the Product-Market fit, a few people will leave to pursue their own entrepreneurial dreams. Establishing repeatability for a company that wasn\'t founded by them isn\'t exciting. On the other hand, a new bunch of people will join - excellent entrepreneurs, people who can now start running specific roles by themselves, bringing fresh blood and new ideas.

Perks: ESOPs, Steady Salary, Ownership, Camaraderie & Beer

You take home a steady pay cheque that\'s not your market salary, compensated handsomely with stock options. You get to sell to and talk to the movers and shakers of the industry - entrepreneurs, established industries, and build your own circle of influence. You get to get your hands dirty in various parts of the business and find the one best suited for you and for the company. You get to participate and define what eventually your company culture becomes.

You need to have the ability to imagine and define your own goals. There\'s no such thing as a KRA/KPI that comes to you from the management, and that\'s a double-edged sword. If you look for micro directions from the management, you don\'t get any because you are the management still. You will be expected to hire and build your own team. You should be able to handle success and failure with equanimity and still be able to define your failures and successes logically with numbers. If this is not what you want, don\'t sign up for a startup at this stage. Wait for it to get to the next big stage.

The Sexy Phase

The third stage is the scale stage. The entrepreneurs who\'ve been able to carve out a niche for themselves hit a jackpot and those that can\'t move on. The earlier key employees who can\'t think and breathe scale, leave. The company will hire a whole lot of specialists - tech, sales, support, and operations. You are in a stage where there are people joining you every day/week. You can no longer recall everyone\'s names or what their hobbies and passions are.

Perks: Steady Job & Market Salary, Defined Roles, Set Processes

At this stage, processes and policies become paramount. You are expected to participate in and embrace these processes and policies, learn and adapt. You are expected to live up to the numbers and culture that you\'ve defined. This stage is the most comfortable stage for most employees to join. Of course, you\'d be missing the whole multi-tasking phase, which is the most exciting.

Advice to the Founders & HR

While interviewing employees, clearly define what stage you are in and what you expect from the candidate.Understand what the employee expects from the company before embracing them into the organisation. Do not hire people who won\'t fit in.

Advice to People Who Look to Work in Startups

Understand that startups are not monolithic beasts. They cover the spectrum - all the way from a pigeon to a blue whale. Understand the stage the startup is in and think what you can expect. Do not wait for things to come to you. Keep challenging the management and actively participate in defining the policies and culture.If you think this is not your cup of tea, join a corporate.