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.


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