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Why working for a start-up can be nearly entrepreneurial - lessons from a first employee

An “entrepreneur” is deftly described as a person who sets up a business and takes the risks associated with it for profits. When an entrepreneur sets up a startup, the first employees he hires are the most critical resources he invests in. From the employee’s perspective, working for a startup puts him in the same boat as the entrepreneur - albeit as a co-passenger, contributing to the extent of making or breaking the business.

I took the plunge to work with a start-up in vibrant Singapore in 2010. Soon after I joined, the realization dawned that the magnitude and intensity of the risk you take is nowhere near that of the owner but your fates are closely tied.

The Big Change

Your paycheck — might be lower than the market. A lot of smart start-ups offer ESOPS or other ownership plans and in time this could be a big bumper. Being a secondary earner, I could stomach the existential risk attached with the firm at the time. This is food for thought if your salary supports the family.

Your days are also highly unpredictable. The first six months were the most testing — a period of waiting to see market reactions to our venture. You also need to adapt to things that “simply had to be done”. Like an entrepreneur, you may not have much of a choice to pick and choose the kind of work you do in the beginning. I once handed out service brochures on the street hoping to find new customers — not exactly something you’d find in a job description. It brought a new found respect to the many people who do this day in and day out.

You multi-task and run everything from finance to HR and operations. The founders would definitely be building the business and really wants to do nothing with operations. If you are starting up from being a senior employee elsewhere, be ready for this.

Decision — making

Nothing can test your decision making skills as much as having a defaulter on the other end of the phone with unending excuses for non-payment. You end up deciding on the spot whether you want to drag the payment for another quarter or take an 85% payment right away. Of-course, when your clients are other start-ups, a quarter could mean they are no longer in business. Being street-smart doesn’t come easy yet no start-up can survive without that. The environment is wonderfully autonomous –you also live with the consequences of your decisions.

An open culture

This is perhaps one of the true beauties of being part of an early venture. If the founding team is liberal minded (as they usually are), they want someone who calls a spade a spade. I’ve learned that when entrepreneurs look for people to work with, they usually appreciate individuals who fit into a team but have individual opinions.

It will also teach you how to work closely with someone on innovative strategies and ideas. You agree to disagree and move on. There were instances where I openly objected to business decisions. Some were dropped, some others turned out to be winners and then some - mistakes. The important thing here is — we learned to respect each other’s’ guts. If you’re highly process-driven and like that in a workplace, a start-up is no place for you.

Get Uncomfortable

It’s an unsaid ground rule. I had to move out of my comfort zone — a lot! Attending networking events would never have been part of my job unless I made a “significant somebody” in a larger firm. Yet, I attended a lot of them while still a starting employee. I took time to embrace this unconventional work-style. Chasing people for money was embarrassing at first, but bills had to be met. Writing content for the company website — never imagined it. Wrote for around three versions of it.

Do it

We know it’s not a bed of roses. When money is scarce, you really question the moral correctness of the decisions you make and the projects you have let go. Holidays may have to be deferred to suit business realities. Personal life suffers and you’ll realize you’re spending a lot of time with your colleagues. Quite comparable to when you are the beacon bearer.

Comparable - not the same, it would be audacious to say it’s the same as a founder.

Given all that, I won’t hesitate to do it all over again — it’s been the most rewarding experience of my professional life. In the time I spent with the firm, I got a CPA, gave birth and moved countries while contributing to scaling it (upwards). On an individual level, I’ve become better at solving problems and more resilient, even developed a stomach to take a few risks — all qualities for a lifetime.

This is a ride I’d suggest people take. Especially if you’re thinking of joining the entrepreneurial bang wagon. Here’s how I would define a first employee — someone who joins a venture because he believes in it, is a voracious advocate of it, sticks around to see it grow and works for more than just a paycheck.

The article initially featured on Hacker Daily - Medium.

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