There is no such thing as a startup culture

  • June 7, 2016
  • 4 mins read

As of April 20th, 2016, Exotel is four years and 10 months old as an organisation. In the start-up investor jargon, Exotel is a VC-funded, high-growth start-up. Our home-grown on-demand cloud telephony services, powers over 1000 businesses of all sizes and shapes.

Now, if that’s a lot to take in in one go, welcome to the startup world. This sense of overwhelm is the reason employees and entrepreneurs alike find it fascinating.

The la-la-land of startups

Entrepreneurs are storytellers of the modern age. They know that the most famous stories are simple. The story’s appeal is founded on fundamental human emotions. There is always a hero and a villain. Surprising twists are always around the corner. They succeed because they’re able to captivate their investors and the initial set of employees with their story.

The early employees in any startup make or break it. Given this, it is essential that startups work with the best people they can find. But today, the world is filled with folks who want to join a start-up but have no idea why. They are replete with myths about start-ups. The biggest one being – there’s something called a startup culture.

The two main points that get listed under startup culture are

  1. one would learn the most in a start-up
  2. success is proportional to the funds raised.

A quick search on the interwebs would list dozens more.

Where then is the disconnect?

In the scramble to stick coloured labels and putting them on various axes to make life easy for themselves and their investors, most entrepreneurs forget the employee side of the story. What should people expect when they join a start-up?

I’ll try and answer that with a number-driven story, backed by the experience of a founder and the HR person.

The story I’m going to recount now is from my personal experience. It’s one of my company and its employees.

Looking at the graph, you can see three distinct phases – Jun 2011 to August 2013, Aug 2013 to September 2014, September 2015 and later.

The myth of the mono-narrative start-up

Can there be a single unifying employee story across the three phases? Was there a single start-up culture. 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.

From the vantage point of a co-founder and the HR person, I have a unique perspective. And this is what I want to tell the people who are eager to work in a start-up. 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. As a person who wants to work in a start-up, it’s important that you understand which stage the company is in, and what you can expect.

The early days

Perks: ESOPs, beer, and camaraderie

The first phase from June 2011 to August 2013 was the soul-searching phase – Product-Market fit, in entrepreneur parlance. The company was trying to find out if there was a market in the real world, and that they’re willing to pay for it.

Note how the average experience of employees in the graph increases steadily. Also, note how there are very few new hires. There was a good problem to solve, and there was light at the end of the tunnel. The problem was so challenging that none of us left. We all put our heads together to solve the problem.  Long work hours and a salary that ran out by the 10th of the month.

You should not join in this phase if you’re looking for:

  1. a safety net
  2. a specialised role
  3. a lucrative health insurance policy, again

You get the idea.

If you are a generalist who has ambitions of running your company in the future, this is your chance. Grab the opportunity by its tail.

The most professionally satisfying phase

Perks: steady paycheque, ESOPs

The second phase was from Aug 2013 to Sep 2014 – the repeatability phase, in entrepreneur parlance.

Having achieved the Product-Market fit, some of the old bunch left us to start their companies. Establishing repeatability for a company that wasn’t founded by them wasn’t an exciting prospect. On the other hand, a new bunch of people joined us – great entrepreneurs, the ones who could take responsibility of one vertical, bringing in fresh blood and new ideas.

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 circle of influence. You will get your hands dirty in various aspects of the business and find one best suited for you and the company. You get to participate and define what eventually becomes the startup’s culture.

You need to have the ability to imagine and set your goals. There’s no such thing as a  KRA/KPI that comes to you from the management, and that’s a double-edged sword.

You shouldn’t join in this phase if you’re looking for:

  1. someone to hand you down micro directions
  2. only success and no failure
  3. somebody else to define these successes and failures

The sexy phase

Perks: Everything you’ll get in a corporate job

The third stage from Oct 2014 to now is the scale stage.

The employees 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 hires a whole lot of specialists – tech, sales, support, operations. You are in a stage where people join you every day/week. You can no longer recall everyone’s names leave alone their hobbies and passion.

At this stage, processes and policies become paramount. You are expected to participate, embrace and adapt them. You are supposed to live up to the numbers and culture that you’ve defined. This stage is the most comfortable stage for most people to join a startup. Of course, you’d be missing the whole multi-tasking phase, which is most exciting.

Advice to the founders and HR

While interviewing potential employees, clearly define what stage you are in and what you expect from them. It is also important to understand what they expect from the company. Do not hire people who won’t fit it.

Advice to people who look to work in start-ups

Startups are not monolithic beasts. They cover the spectrum – all the way from a pigeon to a blue whale. Understand the stage the start-up is in, 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 and live happily ever after.

Manisha Mishra

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