Life at Early-Stage Startup and How To Decide If It’s For You

This topic has been on my mind for some time now, but I never had the chance to (until today!). I’m writing here while sipping my ice chocolate in 1/15 Kemang, and knowing that few people have been asking me to talk about this, let’s get to it!

A little bit about me: I am currently the Head of Growth & Marketing at CoLearn, one of the most recent EdTech startups in Indonesia. I joined the company when it was just 4 months old and I was fortunate enough to be trusted on leading the company’s growth initiative from 0 to more than 1 million users.

Disclaimer: The opinions stated here are my own, and not those of my company.

The way I structure this post will be to answer a series of most frequently-asked questions about my experience of working at early-stage venture:

  1. “Why should I join early-stage startup?”
  2. “Is it actually for me?”
  3. “What should I expect/know before joining one?”

Why should I join early-stage startup?

A lot of reasons! Sure, I might be quite biased due to the fact that I’m currently working in one. However, I do think my opinions here are justified. Here’s why:

  1. You’re the mini CEO: Imagine a role in which taking initiatives making important decisions is hugely encouraged, minus the risk of being a CEO. The key difference between making decisions on an early-stage startup and a larger company is that any input might become actionable right away, allowing your impact to be seen and felt quickly.
  2. It will accelerate your career: As a result from the first point, early employees can quickly make their way up the ladder and enjoy titles and benefits that only senior corporate employees get. Obviously this isn’t always the case, but you aren’t always judged by your age or experience, but more on whether you’re able to bring in significant impact to the organization. If you’re in the right situation, you might even be granted with an ESOP to allow you have stakes in the company’s growth.
  3. Amazing learning curve: I often describe this experience like being thrown into wolves or learning on the fly. One might say that you can still learn a lot on larger companies, which is true. I’d mention one difference though: In early-stage startups, your learnings most likely won’t be specialized, especially if you’re fortunate to become manager or head. You will need to have a broad understanding of marketing, sales, product, data, and consumer insight. Also, early-stage will teach you how to be scrappy and resourceful. The speed at which this learning take place is exponential. A lot of things can happen in one week, one month, let alone one year. You will often look back and wonder why you were ever that naive before.

Again. I’m not saying it’s all rainbows and sunshines because obviously it’s not. However, the reason why you should join early-stage startup can be summarized in this one simple sentence:

Early-stage company is probably one of the few workplaces it’s riskier to not try something than to try. If you’re obsessed with seeing your wildest idea to life, then search no more.

Is it actually for me?

Assuming that most people who read this are fresh graduates or those still in their 20s, the short answer would be yes.

However, the longer answer would depend on few things. Even though I’m currently endorsing for it, I’m trying to be as objective as possible so please bear with me. I’d say that working in an early-stage startup is a great opportunity to explore if…..

  1. … you want to accelerate your career
  2. … you have a deep hunger to learn new things
  3. … you are comfortable with making decisions and experimentation
  4. … you can stomach more financial risks (depending on the stage of the company)
  5. … you can deal with uncertainty and pressure

I have no doubt that most of us would have no problem with number 1-3, but I’d like to emphasize on the last 2 points. Here’s what those actually mean:

Being able to stomach more financial risks doesn’t mean that the pay isn’t attractive. In a lot of cases, you can easily find early-stage companies who are willing to pay more than larger names in order to attract great talents. What I meant with financial risk is that you have to take into account that early-stage startups are more likely to go collapse, especially if the said startup is still in pre-Series A.

The thing about bankruptcy is that it can happen in the next 3 months, 6 months, or 1 year. Nobody will ever know (although you can still foresee it based on the industry trend and the company’s stage). For early-stage startups, tomorrow is never promised, and if this is something that bothers you psychologically, then it probably is not for you.

Regarding the last point about uncertainty, I’d say this is even more important as uncertainty is just something that you expect every day. In early-stage startups, people change their minds like they change clothes and that’s because every day is all about survival.

The ability to quickly adapt becomes that valuable. I’ve seen some talented individuals who quitted not because they were not capable, but because things and goals were changing every day and it made them uncomfortable.

The good thing about this is that this is something you can always learn to be comfortable with. If you don’t think you fall within this category, don’t sweat about it. Early on, I was really bad at dealing with uncertainties until I had no choice but to learn to work around it.

What should I expect/know before joining one?

First thing first – every day is a survival day.

And I mean it. Really. When I first joined CoLearn, we simply didn’t know if we would still have a business 3-6 months later. Every day had to be closely monitored simply because delaying things even for just one day would make or break the company. When you take into account the context and everything else, it changes the whole dynamic and your working cadence. Quarterly review becomes monthly, monthly becomes weekly, weekly becomes daily, and daily becomes hourly.

Second – data are a complete mess.

One of the major caveats of joining early-stage startups is that nobody has really put their thoughts on how to make data actionable and easy to track. This will most likely bother you, especially if your role is highly dependent on data. However, if you have the DNA of a problem solver, you may turn this into an opportunity and work with the involved stakeholders to build an easy-to-understand dashboard that can transform raw data into actionable data.

Third – don’t rely on HR to catch up.

As much as we all want it, never expect to have someone who will guide you through the first few days at the company. As I mentioned previously, early-stage startup is all about survival. Everyone’s plate is already full and they barely have time for anything else, let alone to onboard new comers.

What you can do is take the initiative to learn about the company and get to know everyone that you will be working with. Learn the art of managing up and propose a concise plan to your direct report on how you can quickly catch up and familiarize yourself with the environment.

“After reading your story, I’m now interested to work in early-stage startup. How can I find one?”

Congratulations! Interest is the first step to greatness. Now to answer your question, unfortunately I don’t have many great answers to help you. One of the things you can do is to surf on Tech In Asia and identify early-stage startups who just raised a funding. Identify its CEO or managers of the division you want to aim, and send some cold emails to express your interest

Oh…. you can also check on this one. Surge, a Sequoia-founded accelerator for early-stage startups in India and Southeast Asia, has a dedicated page for all vacant roles in their portfolio companies. Click here to browse through!

Surge also happens to be the accelerator program in which CoLearn was founded. If not for all the incredible resources and guidances they had given, we wouldn’t be where we are today. I’m forever thankful to Surge for changing my life!

Anyway, thanks for reading and let me know what you think in the comment section below!

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