Why working for a startup sucks and can lead to paranoia
Note: this article was written in 2015. Shortly after publishing it, things took a turn for the better, and I removed it in fear of it being discovered. At this point in time I have gone corporate, and it’s given me a better perspective on the positives of working in a startup. What you’ll read here is not my current view on startup life. What is instead is a snapshot of the discontent and paranoia that can come with working in one.
In the past four years I have performed online marketing for 5 different startups. I have worked in Shanghai, and I have worked in Berlin. I have quit 3 jobs, I have been fired from one, and I am currently in a Mexican stand-off about who will pull the trigger first at the fifth one. I used to justify this fast turnaround towards myself, but now only bother to come up with excuses to placate the family. “Dad”, I tell him, “it’s a modern day’s profession, people only move up when they do job hopping”. “Sis”, I say, “I’m just gathering experience so one day I can work in a normal company, earning a steady pay”.
It’s bullshit, I just can’t see an exit.
My startup experience has been in online marketing, so I don’t want to guess what it’s like for someone in product or customer service. I can only tell you what I usually see as perks on job ads for my industry:
- “We have beer Friday” (we don’t pay you enough so you can afford drinks out with friends, and we’d also prefer it if you got drunk and bonded with your team mates so you’re less likely to leave us)
- “We have a flat hierarchy” (we currently have no idea what we’re doing, and once we do you will either get a manager or become one)
- “We have a ping pong table” (don’t harass us about employee benefits)
- “We are a fast growing company” (we hire people all the time, sometimes without knowing what they’ll work on)
- “Lots of opportunities for growth” (there’s a high turnover rate, and you’ll probably be CMO after 4 months)
I started in online marketing the old fashioned way: as an intern. I had traveled the world for a year and a half, and when I came back I couldn’t land a job in my home country anymore. The thought of combining work and living abroad had never seemed more appealing. I applied in multiple places, and ultimately got offered a job as an SEO intern in Shanghai, China.
“Will I be able to afford accommodation on those wages?” I asked the HR lead.
“Yes! Everything is very cheap in Shanghai”, she replied.
Guess what? It’s not.
So there I was, stupid enough to have paid for my own flight, trapped in a country I quickly realized I disliked. I was expecting to enter an office buzzing with highly motivated creative souls gulping on beer while performing ping pong tricks (not that kind). Instead I joined a group of disillusioned man-children, wasting my free time getting drunk, high, or watching TV shows and movies. One by one my co-workers began to resign, until I found myself near the the top of the marketing pyramid, so fast I could barely ask myself what the fuck had just happened.
Shortly after that I left Shanghai. I never connected with the city due to my work at the time, and the startup scene in Berlin seemed much better. Guess what?
So there I was again, lured to Berlin by the CEO of a startup that was at best “a mediocre copy of a mediocre original”. You’ll find a lot of that in Berlin. You’ll find a lot of that everywhere in the startup industry. Whenever someone comes up with a cool new idea (Airbnb or Uber) you’ll find 50 other people trying to get in on the action.
When my CEO decided to choose YouTube tutorials over my experience – and build a toilet in the shape of a monolith, don’t ask – I decided it was time for us to part ways. The job termination didn’t go as easy as I had hoped, instead he begged me to stay over a coffee, resulting in what I still consider to be the most awkward break-up in my life.
I quickly found another job in the startup industry. You’ll find that once your CV covers more than a few months in online marketing, it’s not that difficult to move from one place to another. You talk the talk, and then realize sometimes the actual walk is not something your legs are suited for. That’s what happened in the next job. I was hired for my skill-set they said, yet relegated to doing online marketing by the numbers. I’m not sure if it was me audibly questioning the meaning of life due to discontent that led to me getting ousted, but I can’t say I shed many tears.
I found yet another job. Again they were the n.1 in whatever it was they were doing. I was stuck in a tiny room with people who could only say the job wasn’t “that bad”. I relied on cigarettes and after hour drinks to block this nightmare out of my head. Then one day my marketing manager announced he wanted to add more desks to the tiny room we were in, so I decided to leave. He desperately asked me what I thought he was doing wrong. I had signed a contract at another company at that point, so all I said was “eh, I’m just not feeling it”.
Job 5 in online marketing it is. Again in the startup industry. At this point it feels like a broken record: market leaders, innovative, disrupting the market, team players, etc… I’ve moved up in the company again, and all it has lead to is more dissatisfaction. Then again, why not: there’ll always be someone higher-up putting the blame on you, and focusing on the areas you aren’t good in. So to sum it up, why does working in a startup suck?
- The core idea of most startups is a ripoff
- The founders of your startup will cut cost everywhere. Hope you enjoy working overtime and getting underpaid in return. Hope you also enjoy hearing the phrase “do more with less”
- You will be working with/for people who are even more clueless than you are
- The people you get along with will resign one by one
- You will be exposed to a multitude of buzzwords and acronyms, to the point where all you can utter is STFU
- Even if your company’s product sucks, you will still be the one blamed for not hitting targets.
- You will have to sit through meeting after meeting about nothing, until you are faced with a choice: resign or assimilate
- If you do choose to assimilate: get ready to send daily emails to new arrivals saying “welcome to the family”, and get used to ignoring the sound of your grandfather turning in his grave
So is it all bad then? Well, I guess not:
- It’s an easy way to work abroad
- It’s quite likely you’ll end up sleeping with a co-worker, so not bad if you haven’t been laid in a while
- You will gain experience to get work in a more stable environment
- The pay is tolerable once you have a few years of experience
- You will be so good at ping pong you’ll add these skills to your CV
But as far as I’m concerned? I think I’m done. At least with the startup industry. Give me a work environment where I can actually recognize the faces in my office one day from the other. Give me a job that doesn’t suck up so much time I forget about my personal needs. Because, hey: wouldn’t it be nice to feel some satisfaction at one point?
Then again, Friday beers. Who can say no that?
Note 2: As you can tell, this was me at my most bitter. I am planning to write a follow-up to explain how things improved after I wrote this, and what I miss and don’t miss about working in a startup.