Thursday, July 15, 2010

Working for a start Up

I have been observing a trend when I talk to people about my working hours is this is not sustainable. They tell me, sooner or later the people at my company will burn out and drop out. They tell me this is not how start ups work. They tell me there is process that should be followed. I don't have the numbers how many of them actually themselves worked at a start up. Much of my discussion is with people who are working for a huge giant or online discussions/comments on others blogs.

For me, I think in building a company there is blood and sweat..quite literally.

I have worked for 3 companies in past 5 years. All three work in the start up mode. Been able to work at the first two companies for one full year each are my biggest achievements of my life. Those companies worked on GE model of shunning the bottom 20% employees every quarter. And 14-16 hours days were not the long days but normal days. My current company, sometimes has 14-16 hours days or even longer. We've had our weeks when no one in the team had more than 4-5 hours sleep in a 24 hour cycle. Working at these companies gave me quite useful lessons:

If the company gets your laundry done and/or provides you with food, do not work at that company.

Other lesson or realization, the important one was if needed, I can work for 2 weeks with only 40 hours of sleep or I can work straight 50 hours without sleeping.
The lesson learnt was I can work hard and that gives me self confidence. Plus starting my career like that has put in some kind of mental acceptance in my mind that start ups do such heroics time to time.

Often in discussions, my efficiency during those 50 hours stretches comes up. People do not realize that if someone is working so long at a stretch, it has to be under so much pressure that efficiency is bound to go up. So if i was at 50% after my 30 hour, because of that pressure, it would have not fallen below 50%.

Please keep in mind that attrition in start ups is very high. So 4-5 years at these companies is like eternity and I am about to reach my eternity years at my current company. But, With all the long hours and pressure, the question of sustainability comes up. In all my companies we've had good number of people who were in their eternity years and still enjoyed working at those places. Thus making me conclude it is after all sustainable. Though you will get people who will not be able to work as long as you can and they will bow out sooner or later. My advice to those guys is "DO NOT JOIN A START UP". Recently a guy quit at our company because of too much work. And what he did he went to another start up. He came to us from another start up because of too much work. He is an intelligent guy and super smart. But if he doesn't want to work in such a company, why he joins them.

My experience tells me, you will get superstars who are very smart and will not burn out but excel at start ups given an opportunity. My experience tells me, one needs to identify himself what kind of culture he likes and join the company accordingly.

Maybe when I am in my 40's I would want to work 9-5 with tons of coffee breaks and long lunches in between. But for now I am very happy I started my career at companies where people around me work so hard.

I should say, I am not advocating long hours for start ups and all the companies try hard improving the process and hiring etc, but with budget constraint and goals of the company sometimes those processes and better practices are put on hold and you do have to work so hard. My current company, we try to follow process and have life along with work but we do have our all nighters time to time.

So when you join a company make sure you know what you are joining and you are comfortable with.
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