Advice for the non-founder

If you started a business, the internet is full of places you can turn to for advice, inspiration, and experiences.

But what if you are a non-founder, an employee, in a startup? I didn’t find much, coverage or advice, for my context (Indian, Engineer-MBA). So here are some of my experiences (after 3+ years as a non-founder), in the hope that they would help someone.

1. Check for as***les

When you join a startup, you do a lot of checking. For product-market fit, differentiators, capability, backgrounds, cultural differences, coffee preferences, et. al.

Please, also check if the founders are, well, good people. You are just looking out for yourself - cos as***les can’t retain customers, talent, or investors.

In fact, among the candidates we interview, those from other startups give us some euphemism of my-boss-is-a-bleep. Anecdotally, we realized that a bad apple has much more impact at a startup. Even in a small team at a large company, there are enough redundant processes to minimize the damage that any one person can do.

2. It’s OK to commit

3 years ago, about a month after I joined my company, I was wrapping up a phone call with an old classmate I hadn’t talked to in a while. As we say our goodbyes, he asks, “By the way, you are still looking, right?”

If you like the people / work / direction, shut up and work. It is perfectly OK to commit and pass up a couple of opportunities that may look “better” on paper.

Explaining this to your friends and family may be another issue — but remember that they don’t know what you have. And some things you like about the job simply cannot be put on paper. Tune out the references and alumni groups, and get to work.

3. Find that one important thing…

In Zero to One, Peter Thiel says “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”. I’m sure that’s great advice if you are starting up yourself.

But If you are going to work for someone else’s startup, ask yourself this: “What is the one important thing you are great at, that the founders aren’t?”. This skill has to be business-critical, and you need to enjoy learning/doing it. Almost everything you negotiate for later — stake, access, a place of the board — will grow from this.

For example, back when I joined in 2014, my company was doing extraordinary work, but lacked design skills / sense, for both promotions and products. I happily filled that gap, and it has paid off.

As the go-to person for all things in one field (usability and design for me here), you will get pulled into important things not directly in your JD.

4. Be selfish

When you are managing a team, enterprise clients, retail customers, and office dynamics all at once, it is easy to lose sight of yourself.

Set aside a quiet 2 hours, at least once a month, and look at the world with your selfish lenses on. Analyse what you have done, and ask yourself — “Am I doing my best work here”.

You’ll see immediate and significant improvements like:

  • Prioritization will improve, and you’ll start fighting for the things that matter
  • You’ll start planning regularly as a matter of course
  • Your motivation levels will go up. And it’s hard not to be constantly in good spirits when you know you are doing your best work :)
  • You’ll get what I call the certainty boost — that productivity jump when you get complete clarity after a period of mucking around
  • And yes, you may end up taking a confident decision to do something different, and seek a role / industry / geography change

5. Be a grown-up

Fight for the things that matter — like good infrastructure for your teams, quality vendors, or how we appear to a client.

But it’s a startup, and you’ll have to pinch pennies somewhere. Plus, if its bootstrapped like mine, you’ll do it almost everywhere. So don’t, don’t be that guy who turns up his nose at the little-less-than-5-star hotel the company booked for you.

In fact, in my first couple of years here, whenever in Mumbai, I used to bunk at my CEO’s house. And the late-night arguments more than made up for the bad mattress.

6. Continue being a grown-up

As you grow, and start handling multiple teams, you need to continue being a grown-up (refer “Be a grown-up” above).

This particularly helps when you need to stretch your budgets. For example, I handle a team of 8, and all of them — engineers, designers, and content folks — have better laptops and work-spaces than I do.

And this helps in unexpected ways: when I need to stretch a budget, such as a higher salary cap for my next hire, I don't have to try too hard to convince the powers that be.

7. Negotiate for access, and the rest will follow

In all my time here, I have never negotiated for my salary or stake (of course, it helps that my founders are nice guys).

But I digress. My point: As you grow old in the company, access is the ultimate currency. Access to strategy meetings, hiring, big decisions, and so on. You cannot be the accelerator forever (that’s gas pedal to some of you). Fight for a hand on the steering wheel so you can have a say in where you’re going as a company. Get access, and all else will follow.

In fact, for my appraisal this year, since I know our P&L, I was already aware of how much I would get. And this way, you won’t feel ripped off or overpaid, both of which can lead to creeping discontent.

8. Take that break

You are working at a startup, so there’s that stress. And you’re handling a team, so there’s that. Plus, you are not a founder, ergo, you don’t have full control over the decisions that affect your team. So do yourself a favor, and take a day once in a while.

If your family is anything like mine, I understand this may be more difficult that it appears (my bank-manager dad or school-teacher mum have never really taken a “casual leave”). Am all ears if you have a solution for this :).

9. Fight it out — up and down

Management wisdom says you should be ‘open to inputs’ from all comers. What it conveniently leaves out, is that these ‘inputs’ often clash with your own perspectives, and can lead to fights.

I am not sure this is universally applicable applicable — but I welcome these fights. Fights can bring out brilliant ideas. Fights also equalize — whether you are arguing with your boss or your newest hire, from that moment, you are equals and professionals. Good cultural precedent to set, and, perhaps more importantly, these are good fun at the end of a long day.

10. Spit it out

My daughter is six-weeks old. In one way, she is far easier to manage than anyone in my team, or even my founders.

And here is why: she cries the moment she needs something.

So I never have to worry whether she has a problem.

Please don’t be that guy/girl who waits for your quarterly 1-on-1 to bring out a big issue.

Yes, there IS a common-sense sweet spot in the middle, between a silent sufferer on one end, and a daily whiner on the other. But most of us are not in that sweet spot. Most of us are far closer to the silent sufferer end than we realize.

I don’t know if it’s because of our Indian upbringing, education system, or work environment, but it’s there. And it’s a problem. So when you feel strongly about that next assignment, the team structure, or simply your laptop, please don’t hold it in. It’s the best way to making your boss’ life easier.