Working at a Startup: Lessons Learned

22 Nov 2016

Greetings from 2023! The text is still true, though I've made minor changes. The most important one is that I removed "foreign" from the title. The insights below could be applied to any company, so the adjective was not adding any value. After 7 years in Germany and a bunch of companies behind me, I'm not even sure what "foreign" is now.

I changed jobs a month ago. The reason was simple: my previous company was no more, has ceased to be, expired and gone to meet its maker. Sure, it happens quite often in a startup world, but this experience was new to me, and frankly, very instructive one. As a note to myself, I'm going to analyse it and make a set of valuable "life lessons" that I've learned from it.

How Did I Get There

One ordinary November day, almost a year ago, I got a message from a stranger. She said that she worked for a startup that helped companies to find their ideal employees. She was interested in me as a potential candidate because of my GitHub profile and was eager to invite me into their system. To get there I had to fill out my profile and pass a basic Skype interview with a recruiter. After that I got a couple weeks of "being visible"; during that time companies were able to see my profile and send me requests for their own interviews. Since there was nothing for me to lose, I did the steps and forgot about it.

After a couple of days I got a message from a small startup. They were doing telemedicine for a couple of years now and looked pretty good. At the end of a Skype interview, which was mostly chatting about experience and so on, they asked me whether I liked them and offered me a job. Being upset after getting a rejection from Google a month earlier, I was very glad to get an offer so soon and carelessly accepted it without any bargaining. In addition to modest salary, I also got a pack of stock options. Dreaming of luxury yachts and expensive cars, I started collecting papers necessary for a German visa.

Take your time to make a decision. Get a handful of other options to consider before saying "yes" or "no".

Evaluate the cost of life and salaries in your field in a country you're planning to work in before accepting any offers and even negotiating.

Take a stock option offer with a grain of salt: in addition to the weak chances of your new company to become the next Google, there are a lot of tricky clauses and rules which can leave you without desired wealth in a snap of a finger. It's a nice addition to a decent salary; accepting it as a substitute for a part of your salary is not a good idea though.

Pay attention to the interview process in a company you're applying to: while hard whiteboard coding interviews won't guarantee that 100% of company employees are and will be competent, the absence of any technical tasks there raises the risk of black sheep passing through.

I still advise paying attention to the interview process, but along the lines of spotting the company's red flags. The absence of technical tasks or coding challenges is not a red flag for me now if the company is just starting up, has a small budget, and its founders do not have a technical background. In this setup, it's okay to hire anybody who is able to code enough to show to investors.

The Best Days

Fast-forward to April, 2016 when I finally arrived in Berlin. I've been working remotely all the time since January, and finally, had an opportunity to meet my new colleagues face to face. On the very first evening I went with some of them to a restaurant near my place and had a good dinner there. Next day I met the rest of the team; they were kind and friendly. So far, so good.

The real issue I have soon discovered was the absence of somebody taking care of papers and on-boarding. It was unclear who I should have asked about necessary documents and promised phone and gym subscriptions. It was always someone's side responsibility, and sometimes, people didn't pay much attention to it. An example of it was how I tried to get paid for the time I worked for the company remotely. Turned out that it was a side-responsibility of the CFO. He gave me a form which I had to fill out so that later he would pass it to the Accounting (the company outsourced it). The form was not the most descriptive one, but I managed to complete it with the help from my fellow developers who have been in the same boat before. I sent it to the CFO right before the end of April and started waiting for my salary. When it didn't come on time, I asked him. He replied that he forgot to pass the form to the Accounting because he was too busy.

Pay attention to the processes in your company. It's a management's job to make sure that company works like clockwork, both externally and internally. Neither the quality of the product, nor the user base nor any other thing can save the company when it is managed badly.

Nah, not really. I've since seen some companies that were awfully managed yet got investors' money and were alive for a long time. It's still a good idea, though, to pay attention to the processes in your company and see whether they make sense to you.

Apart from this nuisance with getting salary, working there at that time was good. Every week we had company meetings and watched how the product grew and people used it. Though some time ago I decided not to get personally attached to the projects I do on my job anymore, I did have a good feeling that "this thing I'm working on right now is useful to people".

So, by the end of June we had a successful launch in Norway and a big feature finished and ready to be rolled out. Also, we were going to move to another office on the last day of June. When I came to the office that day, I thought that we were on a road to success, but half of the team getting fired proved me wrong.

Life is volatile. Even when it seems that everything is better than ever, things can get much worse, and it's good to be prepared for this turn.

Struggling and The End

After those events, work did not progress well: partly because everybody was uncertain about the future, partly because there hasn't been a new road map yet. We were basically slacking the whole July, drinking beer and hanging out. It started getting a bit better in August, at least on the product side, but still was very volatile. Discoveries of new unpleasant issues on the management and financial sides were made almost every week; they didn't make us feel better either.

The pleasant and somewhat funny consequence of this situation was an increased number of various team events. I think that almost any time we had founders in Berlin, we went with them somewhere to eat and drink. In the end it turned out that the company fell apart earlier than the team.

On the day we discovered that the company is no more, we went for the last team hangout. I got pretty drunk and returned home at 4 a.m. Two days later I flew to Italy on a vacation, and after that, started looking for a new job. But that is a different story.