Everyone Should Try a Start-up

Last February I decided to move to LA from Boston for a new job.  Previously, I was working for a medium-sized e-commerce company named Vistaprint.  It was my first job out of university and I spent a great 4.5 years there.  But I decided that I wanted to try my hand at a start-up to see how I would like it.  Most of my knowledge of start-ups at the time, came from Hacker news articles.  I knew it was a lot of work and that I wanted to try it before I “had a family and settled down”. Right around this time, an old University of Waterloo friend, John Hinnegan contacted me about a start-up he co-founder.  To make a long story short I joined his company, ThinkNear, which at the time had 4 employees, was just over a year old and was in the process of pivoting.  After an incredible 8 months we ended up being acquired by our current parent company named Telenav.

People say that you learn most from your failures but you should also learn from your successes. Keep in mind I only worked for a start-up for 8 months.  I also wasn’t a founder of the company and came much later in the process (after A LOT of ups and downs from what I hear).  Here is a list of differences and interesting insights that I came up with after analyzing my brief stint working at a start-up.  This list is meant for people who are debating joining a start-up over some other larger company, not necessarily for people who want to start their own thing.

1. It’s all about doing.

There is so much that needs to get done at a start-up. When I first came in, I was cranking out code about 10-12 solid hours in a day.  I loved it.  There were so much to do and so few bodies and what felt like so little time.  Theoretically, the main idea is what the company was founded on, so it turns all to execution.

2.  You will build NEW things!

This one is for the software people.  At larger companies the % of your development time that you get to develop new features is probably ~30%.  At a start-up it is > 80%.  Factor in the fact that you sit in almost no meetings and the disparity is much larger.  Because you are building new stuff with little oversight, you learn a great deal about how to design software components through trial and error.  If the business grows, you will run into scaling problems and have to re-architect your solutions.  I ballpark that I learned more in the last year than I did in about 3 years at my previous company.  Nothing beats building stuff and seeing it break.  Then iterating on it and improving.  This was my favourite part of working at a startup.

3.  Efficiency in execution.

Time is insanely valuable at small companies.  At larger companies you often have time to plan and architect solutions.  In a start-up, you need to move quick.  You need to always balance the effort involved with achieving an acceptable goal.  You often write code that you know will not scale past 10x the volume or will need to be re-written in 6 months.

4. Jack of all trades.

Developer.  That’s you.  QA Tester.  That’s you.  Release Engineer.  That’s you too.  Bug chaser-downer.  You guessed it.  You will be doing everything.  If you don’t want to do this, then you should go work at a cushy big company.  It’s not glamorous but it will make you a well-rounded developer.

5. Your ideas will be heard needed.

I started this list off with saying you must be a doer.  But you will have plenty chance to dream up ideas to real problems.  During the course of the startup you will encounter so many problems that do not have trivial solutions. You will be tasked to come up with solutions.  Or maybe you are having a problem and you thought of a solution off work hours.  To bring in an idea and say “I have a potential solution to problem X” and your boss says “yeah, lets do that next week” is very empowering.  At a larger company, you more than likely will be told that “it doesn’t fit on the project plan” or “we need talk to X”.

6. Your work will matter.

Big companies spread their risk across many different projects.  That is just smart.  Startups don’t have that luxury.  Not only will you be writing production code right away (a claim that many large companies like to make).  But you will be responsible for major features.  If you bone it, you put a dent in your company.  That’s what makes it more exciting.  You get more responsibility and the satisfaction of doing work that you can see move the needle.  In larger companies, projects can get cancelled and your work is wasted.  No time for waste in startups.

Anyways, this is a short list.  Everyone should try a start-up at least once to experience what it is like.  You only need to be a doer who likes to build new stuff efficiently, while working the entire release cycle with lots of ideas handy.


We Can Do Better Than Capitalism

I am sure I have read somewhere that you shouldn’t write publicly when your emotions are out of whack.  Oops.  I caught up on some of the news this week about the bill (H.R. 933) that passed Congress and it makes me sad.  I don’t like being sad.  Just to be frank, I am not super connected to the political world.  I get 95% of my political news from John Stewart – I frankly don’t have enough time in my life to wade through most of the garbage that comes out of politicians mouths – I can’t blame them, the media scares them into groupthink.  John Stewart hits the tip of the iceberg and if I find something interesting I will read some articles.

So when I heard about the provision that was added to H.R. 933 I got really angry.  If you haven’t read the text it is below.  From section 735:

“In the event that a determination of non-regulated status made pursuant to section 411 of the Plant Protection Act is or has been invalidated or vacated, the Secretary of Agriculture shall, notwithstanding any other provision of law, upon request by a farmer, grower, farm operator, or producer, immediately grant temporary permit(s) or temporary deregulation in part, subject to necessary and appropriate conditions consistent with section 411(a) or 412(c) of the Plant Protection Act, which interim conditions shall authorize the movement, introduction, continued cultivation, commercialization and other specifically enumerated activities and requirements, including measures designed to mitigate or minimize potential adverse environmental effects, if any, relevant to the Secretary’s evaluation of the petition for non-regulated status, while ensuring that growers or other users are able to move, plant, cultivate, introduce into commerce and carry out other authorized activities in a timely manner: Provided, That all such conditions shall be applicable only for the interim period necessary for the Secretary to complete any required analyses or consultations related to the petition for non-regulated status: Provided further, That nothing in this section shall be construed as limiting the Secretary’s authority under section 411, 412 and 414 of the Plant Protection Act.”

Anyways the gist is, if the government finds out that an approval for a genetically modified crop was acquired illegally, the USDA is required to ignore a court’s decision finding the agency approved a crop illegally until it can investigate more thoroughly”.  Isn’t this backwards thinking?  Shouldn’t it be, “lets see if it is healthy before distributing it” instead of “let’s distribute it until we find it is not healthy”.  The US has routinely made big blunders in terms of public health – compare the number of substances banned the US by the FDA in cosmetic products vs in Europe.

Too many of the critics and supporters of the bill are worrying about the wrong parts of the issue. Details that the item was added anonymously and the provision was in there for more than a year.  WHO CARES.  The important part is why did it get into the bill?  For critics, focusing on this insignificant pieces of information gives the supporters rebuttal power that detracts from the actual issues.

I read an article by Jon Entine on Forbes.  His logic could be cut down by anyone with just a little bit of reasoning.  For example,

To date, no court has ever held that a biotechnology crop presents a risk to health, safety or the environment

Since he doesn’t state it, I assume he means that we shouldn’t be worried that any crop ever will harm humans.  Or that they have never done anything wrong, thus they could never possibly in the future.  Both would be ridiculous claims.  Take this scenario: What if a biotechnology company influenced the court’s decision by using money or power…just like Monsanto did by increasing the amount of money it has donated to Roy Blunt, senator from Missouri and the man who helped insert the provision.  I am not saying that is true, but rather it is not that large of a stretch.

Too many people get stuck in the weeds and can’t see the overall big picture.  Why would we subvert the judicial system’s power for big business?  The more rulings I hear congress/supreme court, the more I am saddened.  This reminds me of the “Corporations are people” debate.  How could anyone not logically conclude that if you do not cap campaign donations by corporations, then politicians will be controlled by people with the most money (e.g. corporations).

Many people in the US believe capitalism is the perfect system.  They are wrong.  It is the best we have so far.  One major downfall is that money is power and it rules all.  Money has more influence than government (hence why senators take money and vote “on behalf” of companies).