writing > product > Life in an Early-Stage Tech Company
Last Updated: September 2014
10 minute read

Life in an Early-Stage Tech Company

It’s a fairly common question near- and new-grads try to answer in the STEM field.

Should I work at the small startup/start my own company, or join a big corporation?

Countless blog/forum (most of HN)/Quora posts exist addressing this question. Every student’s circumstances are different enough meaning no matter how many of these you read, the decision remains unclear.

I chose the former by joining bitgym. What follows will be in the context of a specific tech startup scenario — pre-funding, early stage, self-sustaining, small-team. This could be either in a startup trying to bootstrap, or hasn’t finished raising enough funding for smooth operation yet.

This is by no means trying to be a complete list, these are items I haven’t seen discussed enough elsewhere.


So let’s start with the down and dirty that you may not hear as much.

Poor

We try not to talk about not hitting payroll. Usually the whole team decides to forgo the paycheck for the month. There is a non-monetary cost with every month of not receiving a paycheck, but it also gives us clear deadlines to make things people will pay for.

Your 20s are the best time to save money, whether for further schooling, paying off student loans, or starting an investment portfolio. Throwing your lot in with a startup is definitely putting all that on hold. And as everyone says, don’t for a second think you’ll make this lost money back. It’s the entry fee to play the startup game.

However, as a single, new grad with the insurance of the hireability of a software engineer, it’s a lot less scary than you’d think. We’re not damned, just forced to be resourceful for now.

On The Clock

As a founder, and very likely as one of the first employees, you can never truly be off the clock. Every moment you aren’t contributing to making your company a success feels like wasted time. There’s an unwritten expectation that everyone is on-call to hotfix issues 24/7. If you are out with friends, you head home early for the night because you made the mistake of looking at your phone to see the bug report that you need to get back to your laptop to fix. You start to take your laptop with you when you go out so you can tether your phone to fix the next bug ticket that pops up like that. This can get overwhelming if you don’t have the mental discipline and guts to draw clear boundaries for your time.

Fib

This is fairly well-known within the startup bubble — startup founders and early hires feel the need to put up a front. “Things are really looking up,” we say, while we haven’t hit payroll for the last 3 months. For the first year or so, you fib to friends and family about funding being just about the corner. A huge partnership with a major player that is about to materialize will change the everything. A big client is seriously interested. They may all be true, but note the “almost” nature of all these things.

People who hear this a lot know what’s going on. If you hear this kind of thing from your potential employer, you’re probably going to be saying this too if you take the job.

We do it partly so our friends and family don’t worry about us, but moreso to convince ourselves that we’re still on track. We want to believe what we’re saying, and sometimes we repeat the same fib to so many people that we really do end up believing it ourselves.

It’s a lot easier to just say things are going great, rather than try to explain that “they may or may not be and I don’t really know that’s just the nature of my job”. The startup community has started to get more open about this, and here I am trying to do my bit.☺

Relationships

This is one of the most stressful and scary aspects of building a startup — all your relationships are ticking time bombs. Your relationship with your parents, close friends, housemates, teammates and especially any potential romantic interests — not one is spared. 8 months or so into such a startup…

We keep fibbing as mentioned earlier to duct-tape over any cracks in these relationships. Eventually people catch on and many of them can’t take it any more, feeling like they’re being led on.

Low expenditure is fine when you’re only responsible for yourself, but it greatly limits your social flexibility. You stop being able to hang out with your friends at bars and theaters and concerts and fancy restaurants, and they get tired of adjusting to your “creative and affordable hangout” ideas. Also, all your dates think you’re cheap. And they’re right.

Your non-existent savings makes you terrible mate material, meaning you’re looking at a delayed life-partnership. Any significant other you may have had when this started is probably tiring of the whole thing and just wants out as you’re wasting their time. Depending on your cultural background, this could also mean your parents could start breathing down your neck about getting a “real job” and settling down.

As you clear the 22–27 age bracket, these things only become more and more real.

I know founders who look like they’re doing great at managing their relationships. I can’t say for certain, but I would be willing to bet they are investing a lot more into doing so than they would have while pursuing a more stable career.


But of course, there’s lots of upside. We often hear “learning opportunities”, “culture”, “risk and reward”. Here are some less-heard-of but equally powerful positives.

Resourcefulness

As a natural result of intermittent and unreliable income, we are either naturally resourceful, learn to be resourceful, or tire of trying to be and quit. It’s kind of an exciting game, trying to maximize utility with what you have, getting creative to make things work. I sublet when leaving town, trimmed lots of recurring expenditures, cook more, bike and walk to get around. I wound up mastering a bunch of new life skills while learning to live on a tighter budget.

Health

As a direct result of trying to be resourceful, I also lead a much healthier lifestyle than the vast majority of my former classmates. All that biking, walking and running while they’re in their fancy cars or on that company-paid commuter ride; the home-cooked, less fatty/oily food because I sure as hell am not spending $25+/day on eating out; the complete absence of snacks because that shit is expensive; the controlled meal sizes because I only eat what I need, and am never presented a cafeteria buffet. Hitting the bar is not even a question.

These things pay off quite easily and quickly when they’re your daily routine. The motivation required to consistently make the healthier decision is a lot more easily found when that’s the only good choice in the short-term and the long-term.

Time and Energy

This was a bit counter-intuitive to me. I fully expected to be doing the 60 hour weeks and more going in, and it wasn’t far from the truth many a week. Yet, I wound up with more time and energy each day than when I worked in a large company. There are three main aspects that made this happen for me.

Flexibility

I don’t need to come into work if I don’t think I will be effective for the day, as long as I hit the goals expected of me. This means if 9–5 is more productive for me to run important time-sensitive errands or work on my personal projects, I can work on the product over the weekend when I don’t want to go out, late at night, during the moment of inspiration, while waiting for the subway, or whenever I feel like it. I just need my tasks done in time to not block my teammates or a release. Not having to waste 8 hours of my day hoping to be productive eventually has created so much more time in my day.

Control

I’ve come home really late or slept (or stayed awake) at the office several nights, when it’s crunch-time. But generally, as part of a tiny team, I can exercise some control in scoping and scheduling product goals that I have to work on. As long as I learn to estimate well and exercise my involvement in the company, I’m not pulling all-nighters left and right. Of course, I don’t estimate very well every time, but that’s my fault, not my job’s.

Mental Drain

During the day I may think really hard and long brainstorming ideas, designing software architecture, stressing about a live-in-production bug or arguing about a product decision. But the work is stimulating and fun, not mind-numbing and rote. Unlike the rest of my body, my brain feels a lot less tired the more fresh work it’s given. Almost every day, I’m excited to get home after a grueling day of coding at work, just to fire up my home computer and code a different project, do some writing, have a call with my teammates on side-projects or learn about a new technology. Dinner and bedtime are afterthoughts, unless I have plans (I don’t). I can spend my time pretty much exactly how I wish I would.

In my opinion this is the most valuable benefit of my career choice — I have way more time to pursue projects and activities outside of work. The three months during college when I interned at BigCorpCo., this was as far from true as possible. I worked strictly 9–5, 5 days a week, on mediocre problems. And wanted to do absolutely nothing between 5 and 11 besides cook/eat dinner, read Wikipedia and play games. In the weekends I just wanted to meet up with friends and go have fun somewhere, just spending whatever money I earned during the week. It was an okay rut to be stuck in for a bit, but still a rut I shudder at the thought of living in forever.

What should you do?

I think the only valid suggestion I can give is to get a taste for both. Internships are a reasonable way to experience stable companies. Taking a year off to focus on a startup will get you a feel for that space. Most people will feel comfortable and at home soon enough if they’re in the right environment. Many of my friends in the startosphere now had spent a reasonable stint in the corporate world either interning or for a while after graduating before hopping on the roller coaster.

If you aren’t sure which way to do something, do it both ways and see which works better. - John Carmack, creator of Doom

If you’re leaving school soon and about to start your career in tech, try both, you can probably afford to. You’ll find home sooner, and be happier for it.


cross-posted: on Medium