So, you want to hire for your startup?

So, You want to work for a startup? is an interesting post by the founders of Taazza targeted at people who want to join a startup. Having worked in a starup for more than two and a half years and having known other people who have done so for even longer, I can easily appreciate the post; it is great advice and I would second it. Most, if not all of the things they say in the post are bang on. This is very unfortunate, in my honest opinion. I’ll try to explain why I think so in this post.

Let’s take a quick look at what the proposition is when an early-stage startup is looking for an employee (update: this is not a quote from the Taaza blog post):

We are a very young startup who does not yet have a business model. We are looking for some really bright fellows to do some time with us. There are very many advantages of slogging with us: You’ll not get paid much, pay a lot more tax than your friends in larger companies and of course you won’t get almost any of the perks they do. You will work your ass off; and not just on the stuff we are hiring you for — you’ll get to spend some quality time on everything from maintaining our website to keeping our office clean. If all these great things are not attractive enough for you — you selfish pig! — we’ll give you some stock options. Yes, that’s right, you’ll actually own a teeny-tiny percentage of our company, a company whose value there is no easy way of determining. And in the (very unlikely) event that our startup succeeds and makes an exit (in say 3-5 years time) — and you don’t get fired before that on account of cost-cutting — you’ll actually make some money! So what if this money isn’t much more than what you would have earned in the same time had you joined some other company? The money you will make from your stock options will feel better — after all, it has come at the cost of your social life and health. “This will build character.”

Only a fool would look at the above and shout in excitement “Oh Wowie! This is the greatest opportunity since God offered a job to Moses!” This isn’t too much of a worry though — there are enough smart fools who would in fact do that very thing. But — and this is an important but — for how long do you think they’ll continue to think so? How long before they see that they are really getting a raw deal? After all, these are smart people!

I am not accusing founders of trying to fool smart people into joining them as employees. I am just pointing out that, amid all the excitement, founders tend to not empathize with the people they want to hire. They tend to become overtly greedy and miserly. Greedy and miserly is good — even great — for a startup; but being so in some cases might be detrimental to the very goal they are doing it for. The expression “penny wise pound foolish” very succinctly summarises this.

Of course, none of this applies if the founders are looking for a co-founder and not just an employee. The issue probably is that they are really looking for partners who can take up only a little less responsibility than a co-founder but they treat them as mere employees.

P.S.: Of course I am exaggerating.

P.P.S.: Lest it comes out that way, it is not my intention to rile at the post by the Taazza guys, I sincerely think it is good advice.

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19 Responses to “So, you want to hire for your startup?”

  1. Sameer says:

    The original post again stereotypes startups too much :) it’ll scare away a lot of people who’d otherwise be great entrepreneurs. Not everything is about 18-hour workdays, or the money vs returns part of the equation. Sure thats there – but their post almost draws focus to those facts as the primary considerations!

  2. sids says:

    @Sameer

    Oh, it so totally does (stereotyping)! But I guess they’re taking it to that extreme only to drive a point; and they do that well. It might just help filter out the people who are not passionate at all (about the idea/experience) but view startups only as a get-rich-fast scheme.

  3. Sundar says:

    The references to Calvin were very apt. :) But, trust me, having a stint with a startup early in your career does build character and skills! This should compensate for the opportunity cost, I think.

  4. Arjun Ram says:

    Thank you for engaging in the conversation and I think its important that it be discussed.

    As someone who has worked for a startup, a mid size company & a fortune 100 company I can categorically state this:

    If the vision & the team is right, the amount of learning that a person gets in startup cant be compared to what you would learn in a bigger company.

    Not to mention mentorship – you are going to get better attention in a startup than bigger companies.

    Also, personal growth in a startup is accelerated. It would take about 3-5 years to become a team lead at a bigger company but if you take ownership of a subsystem in a startup you are bound to grow much faster.

    It is in the interest of the management to keep you at the startup and let u grow.

    I do agree that it doesn’t help being greedy, but it is important that everybody in the team feels that they are part of a bigger dream. Understandably you cant expect the founders to give away a big portion of the equity early-on unless you are a co-founder. If negotiated in the right fashion, it makes sense to give more equity as they hit milestones.

    At the end of the day startups are not for everyone – Here is what it boils down to:

    - If you want to work on exciting technologies
    - If you have an appetite for risk
    - If you are willing to commit 300+ days to help yourself grow

    then startups are great! Otherwise there are a million service/technology companies to be part of. If you are somewhere in between then work for a smaller company that is very well funded or a private company with a good revenue stream.

    The question is do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond? Its about individual preferences.

    I dont think its fair to slam all startups in general. Moreover the indian ecosystem is just evolving.. Have some faith, a little bit of patience & the passion to achieve something.. We as a country will go places!

  5. Arjun Ram says:

    @sameer: Could you please elaborate on why the original post stereotypes in “too much”?

    I dont mind being accused of being overly optimistic but stereotyping is a different story ;)

    Arjun Ram
    Taazza

  6. Sameer says:

    Umm, cause it talks about “startups” in general not Taaza specifically. The crazy work hours, ass-busting, monetary vs stock considerations etc may apply to some, social goals apply to others, the kick that some get from deep tech are relevant elsewhere, and in some the huge multitasked roles are the major learning. For yet another kind of “startup” the romance of being different and battling common wisdom or an opportunity to drive major change is the main objective, and I know people who’ve taken huge huge pay cuts, no options etc to do that.

    Projecting one set of motives and drivers to all kinds of entrepreneurial efforts is what I thought led to the stereotyping – I have seen in some VC posts as well (but then, they *are* trying to make people as much as possible for the same moolah spent, so its understandable :) Whether its useful is another debate.)

  7. Arjun Ram says:

    I guess I am missing something here.. The only statement in the original blog post that talks about work is this:

    # startups require sacrifices from everyone including you the candidate (pay/effort/etc)

    I have no idea where you getting the crazy working hours-ass busting bit! I hope you are looking at the link that sid posted and not the quote that he has posted – The Proposition that he has quoted is NOT from the original article. Here is the original article :

    http://blog.taazza.com/2009/01/06/so-you-want-to-work-for-a-startup/

    The original post talks to the ground work thats need to be done in getting into a startup. And I believe the ground that has to be done is generic to startups not certain kinds of them.

  8. Arjun Ram says:

    Hit send by mistake-

    And I believe the ground work that has to be done is generic to startups – not just certain kinds of them.

  9. Sameer says:

    With you all the way about the groundwork bit. Yes the ass-busting work bit did come from the quote – but I think in the blogosphere – including the very well written post at Tazzaa – there is a fair bit of a “this is what startups are about” that happens. Your post also does a little bit of it – talking about the blogosphere itself – the online presence and similar advice. Not every kind of startup needs people who’re necessarily with-it vis a vis the blogosphere. Truth be told, I was hardly a denizen of this echo-chamber before I became part of a startup – and there is a huge world beyond.

    Sure, its a very good approach for a certain kind of startup, and in that context sane advice indeed, but to say “will help other startups and those who wish to work for them” broadly is stretching a limited context. This approach, incidentally, would also be useful for a decent slice of job opportunities as good, smart teams at established workplaces, not just startups alone.

    Yes, I did mix up the original post and the quote, but the point still holds. There’s many a kind of venture, and there’s many a reason to work for them. If you’re interested in what any of them does, go speak to them with an open mind, and honest heart. Get your and their expectations set very very clearly. See if what they’re after and what you’re after are the same thing – could be money, could be something built over a long term, could be something you want to learn in the process, could be a change you’re trying to create.

    Whether you publish a blog, or not :)

  10. sids says:

    @Arjun Ram,

    Thank you for stopping by to continue the discussion.

    Like I mentioned in the postscript of the post, I am exaggerating here. Exaggeration is a great tool if the task at hand is driving a point. And I think this is a point worthy of such a treatment but one that I haven’t really seen being discussed.

    I whole-heartedly agree with you about startups providing a better learning opportunity than larger companies. But this is true only for certain kinds of people — some people can learn better in the more structured environment of larger organisers; I personally know at least one such person (who is still working at a startup).

    I disagree that startups can provide better mentorship. Most startups I have had the opportunity to interact with (as well as the one I’ve been working for over two and a half years) are in fact looking for people who are good at getting things done by themselves without anyone hand-holding them. This is not because they don’t want to have a culture of mentorship but because the required pace of execution demands that it be so. More power to you if you’re able to develop such a culture even in such an environment.

    I have not been close enough to any startup that has survived long enough for such a thing as growing up the management ladder to kick in! And where a startup did survive long enough it didn’t have a heirarchy at all, thus eliminating even the possibility of such a growth. Of course, climbing up the management ladder is not the only form of growth and a startup does offer ample opportunity in almost every other possible way.

    But ‘growth opportunities’ is a very important point that you’ve pulled up. Startups can definitely provide an amazing growth opportunity to young smart guys who cannot ascend the ladder at a larger company due to nothing but lack of experience. Large companies need to use the experience (in terms number of years the person has worked for) as a more important criteria than abilities for appraisals because that is how it is (truth be told I don’t know why it is that way). Startups are not bound by such things. But unfortunately I have seen that most of the startup management still gives as much, if not more, importance to experience. This is especially true if that management has hitherto worked only at larger companies.

    I absolutely agree that startups are not for everyone. I’ve known someone who realised as much only after he joined one and then quit within six months; he wasted his own time as well as that of the startup.

    Whether you want to be “a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond” is definitely an individual preference. But the question I am asking here is that if I do decide to be “a big fish in a small pond,” should I be doomed to hunger?

    I’m not trying to slam all or even any startups here. I’m only trying to add a perspective that seems to be totally missing.

  11. Sameer says:

    @Sids

    Not true that experience is the only driver at large companies. I’ve seen otherwise often, though its very very manager dependent.

    Even in the extreme-job-posting you’ve quoted, its kinda nice they’re making it very very clear what their expectations are, and also stating whats on offer right upfront. I think thats the key, from both ends. That, and of course, following up on the other’s expectations once agreed upon. Someone who joins a renewable energy sratup at this juncture, for instance, is probably looking at building skills for the medium term future when this is big – and must make this need very clearly known to the folks they’re working with. My wife joined a startup like organization clearly stating her need for work that she finds satisfying, as well as flexibilty in terms of hours and the like. That dialogue is the most critical one for both the guys offering a position and the guys thinking of taking it up. No standard “assumptions” about startups etc should or do apply.

  12. Arjun Ram says:

    @Sameer, Glad we sorted that one out. The blog post does NOT apply to every startup. It doesn’t matter if the company publishes a blog or NOT but if they DO then make sure you do your groundwork to know about it. I hope we can discuss the essence about the post rather than the semantics. Also you will surprised what social media states about your company, give it a try at socialmention.com. You might find the results surprising!

    @sids: Could you please clarify the post & mention that the quote is from our blog post, it would help ;)

    As for management hierarchy and so on, I was talking about roles and not necessarily titles.

    Please remember that we are still talking about a relative young startup ecosystem here & hence the experiences that you have had might not be same as what could experience in mature startup environments.

    I started my career with an American startup & spent about 5 years with them. My experiences are built on those & hence I bring those perspectives to Taazza. I didnt make a big $$$ bucks then but the experience came in real handy to make $$$ later ;)

    Either ways fellas, its been a good discussion & I hope you have gotten to know a bit more about Taazza asa company. I am taking the liberty to request you folks to recommend people to be hired ;)

    May be one of these days we can grab a drink! Cheers!

  13. suman says:

    I for one am totally on board with the assessment given by the taaza (or tazaa, whatever) guy’s, though, i haven’t dissected it finely ofcourse. I think, there has been enough romanticism about startups in general over the years and its time for pragmatism to step in. The sad thing is one has to actually start a startup to gain the aforementioned wisdom, which is often knocked into you and not presented.

  14. Sameer says:

    Sure Arjun, will spread the word – always good to help out another startup.
    Social media – have realized over time that a lot many of our users probably would not even recognize the phrase. In fact, I’m curious if there’s actually a negative correlation between “social media” echo and what we do.
    @suman – pragmatism is surely the only criteria. But the reasons may differ. I’m not sure how you look at MapUnity’s goals, or that of EasyLib, but I’m sure they’re being very pragmatic. To someone with the usual 10x-returns-and-VC-funding story, their approach might appear to have more “romantic” (used in a slightly condescending sense I guess) elements to it than the “hard-nosed prgamatic business” ones. But thats where its important to not immediately get down to espousing broad theories about how startups work and what it takes. Sure, “here’s my experience” is a good one to share. But honestly, I’ve done and seen lots for almost 4 years now, and hey, there are far better entrepreneurs in businesses whose complex motivations and mechanics I do not even begin to fathom.

  15. sids says:

    @Sameer,

    I do understand that even larger companies are sometimes able to look beyond experience when it comes to the growth prospects for an employee. But (based on my very limited exposure) I find this more to be an exception than the norm.

    It’s not just experience that seems to matter a lot, it’s all kinds of labels: number of years you’ve worked for, the degree you’ve got, the college you’ve got that degree from and even where you come from*! It’s unfortunate that these tags are given importance over and above capabilities. It’s even more unfortunate when this happens even at a startup.

    * I’ve heard way too often that people from the state of Bihar (in India) are supposed to be very intelligent! I’m not saying that they aren’t (I really don’t know) but it is too much of a generalisation based on too flimsy a premise and can lead to nothing but prejudice. But this is a topic for another blog post altogether.

  16. sids says:

    @Arjun: I’ve updated the post with a clarification. Thanks again for stopping by for the lively discussion!

  17. Arjun Ram says:

    @Sameer! Thanks! No body disagrees that there are other criteria, just keep in mind that this was a blog post to give some direction to folks applying to startups, not a manual :) I think it has achieved its objective in getting people to discuss about it.

    I would like to take this opportunity to ask to guest blog on our blog or write about it & we will link to it.

  18. sri says:

    Er.. anyone interested in a startup (not for profit) university? Man it does a lot for your character ;)

  19. Chetan says:

    Startups looking to attract potential talent to work on their next big idea, check http://www.workforastartup.in – a definite source to find potential talent for your budding startup.