What I learned in my first startup job

Sungmy Kim
May 5, 2017 · 7 min read

Around the graduation time last year, my colleague said he found a service in NYC which is similar to my thesis project. The next day, another friend introduced me to the team of the service. Wait, what’s happening to me? It was how I got to know Vessel, as my first startup job.

Joined a startup for the first time

Vessel provides a library system of stainless mugs that allows customers to borrow and return the reusable cups at a cafe to reduce disposable waste. The idea of lending a cup is not an entirely new thing. I also came up with this idea as one of my case studies. However, it was very rare to find a team who actually runs this service in a real cafe, especially in NYC, a paradise of throwaway items. I haven’t thought about working for a startup, but eventually, I joined the team based on the common interest.

I considered these following things before joining the team:

1. What do they do for a business?
- Vessel tackles the everyday consumption and waste issues, which was same as my interest area.
2. What can they contribute to society?
- The idea is absolutely helpful for the environment, and all members of the team were enthusiastic about the mission.
3. What can I learn?
- I wanted to learn the process of fostering an idea to a system level.
4. What career do I want to build in the team?
- I believe it would be a good chance to expand my expertise as an experience designer and design strategist beyond industrial design, which is my previous profession.
5. What type of lifestyle do I want to have?
- I’ve experienced only a 9–5 on-site work, but I wanted to try a creative and flexible working environment.

However, it was hard to expect a salary and work visa sponsorship(which matters a lot for the internationals). So I negotiated
- to do the work that would be helpful to my career,
- and to work flexibly depending on my availability.

Working for a startup

Initially, I felt that working in a startup is similar to conducting school projects regarding team dynamics and the work process. No assignments, no grades. Moreover, it was easy to cooperate with the team members because we entirely shared the value and the goal of the project. As time passed, I realized that I had to have a clear role to work in this environment. All members have had some work experiences, and their skills have driven the project. If I were an entry level, it would be harder because no one gives me tasks or teaches what to do. I had to create my job by myself. Although I don’t have a role at some point, I still had to deliver a fresh idea to the team.

We were a small team(about 5 active members), so each one had to wear many hats while staying in their positions. It reminded me the situations in the previous company. People tended to push ambiguous work to other teams when they thought the task is not relevant to them. All departments were working in silos. In a startup, the separation is not useful at all. I played a role as an experience designer, but also conducted a market research, built internal worksheets, visualized the service, promoted the product, produced social media contents, supported a crowdfunding campaign, searched the investors, and maintained the website. These tasks were new to me, I was able to challenge myself. My scope of skills has been expanded widely in a very short time. Everyone performed their maximum capabilities. And that was what we had to.

Each job title meant more than usual due to the size of the team. Internally, there was a leadership issue. I wanted to do a user experience design as the primary role in this team, but another colleague has been working on this job prior to me. We knew each other, so we worked on the project together and shared the tasks without any trouble between us. But it could be sensitive if I insist on taking the lead on the job. I think this sensitivity arose because I was the last one who joined the team, and they accepted me because they needed a general hand, not a particular expertise that I have. Externally, job title represented the quality of the product itself. If there are many designers in a team, the product should be compelling in design. If the character of the product is tech-focused, but the team doesn’t have enough developers, the service may seem loose. The balance of the positions was regarded as the product.

When I joined Vessel, the team completed their second pilot and move on to focus on a crowdfunding campaign. I had to work on the fundraising with all team members although my desire role was not the one. Because the team was so small, all of us were sometimes busy at a time-sensitive task.

While I was on the team, I participated the Design Census 2016 that Google and AIGA conducted. It allowed me to think back my job. I don’t remember the exact questions, but they were
- How much are you satisfied with your job?
- How much are you satisfied with your company?
- Do you think your job is worth doing?
I responded them as 100% satisfaction, and I realized how much I put emphasis on the value alignment between me and the company. I was able to go through the challenges while working because I believe the everyday small steps would make a bigger impact on the society.

All of the members in Vessel were very aware of not only the environmental problems, but also human rights, gentrification, sustainability, and so on. This fact made the team strong. We were supportive of each other’s the side projects. I sometimes informed the Korean political news to the team and also heard the American situations. (Sharing is caring!) The founder of Vessel liked my political illustrations enough to introduce me as a young political artist. I felt very confident in this team.

I designed some sign stickers for the Women’s March.

Time to leave

Meeting scene. We all hated disposable containers. Vessel mugs and a lunch box were the usual items for us.

At the time working for Vessel about 6 months, I recalled the first moment that I joined the team. I have been satisfied with most of the list. But unfortunately, it seems difficult to build a desired career in some months. The project phase was not timed to my career plan. The second was the financial sustainability. Having 6 years of work experiences and Master’s degree from Parsons, but working for free while living in New York should not be possible. The fact of not supporting my family as a professional has bothered me. I had to stop losing confidence. I discussed this issue, but it wasn’t solved. So I decided to leave the team.

It was challenging time for me who have had only on-site full-time work experiences. Every element-Work location, work hours, time management, work flexibility, personal growth, independence, vision, teamwork, personal value, unpaid work- was entirely new to me and that made this time very special. It was always energetic to work with like-minded people. I got to know many organizations and supporters who are working on sustainability and found the strength of Vessel among them. I also learned how to communicate the idea in the current world and the importance of marketing and network. I was so thrilled when the people outside of the country welcomed our projects.

Moreover, I was grateful to have a chance to value between the work I like and the work for a living. Also, between the career I want to build and the work that sponsors the work visa. As an international graduate, it was very risky choice to working for a startup after graduation instead of devoting myself to look for the visa-sponsoring jobs. In retrospect, I was picky about jobs. I was hesitant to obtain the job that seems hard to see the advantages that I found in Vessel.

Was the startup experience toxic to me? Maybe, in a positive way. I can’t say I know everything about a startup world only with a 6-month experience. But I am sure it has many fascinating factors that the traditional jobs don’t have. I would recommend you to try if you want to rethink about yourself, your job, and the meaning of your work.

Sungmy Kim

Written by

Experience designer and design strategist, active in New York | sungmykim.com