Now the title might be a bit clickbaity but it’s true: when I joined Veriff I had received an offer with a higher salary from a larger company. I decided to write about my choice because, year after year, I’ve kept moving towards riskier ventures in earlier and earlier stages, and in hindsight, I always used to be too conservative.
There are of course many sensible reasons to maintain career stability: poor financial situation, health problems, dependents, etc. I’m not trying to convince anyone to take unreasonable risks. At the same time, today there are lots of people — especially in IT where labor shortage is especially high — who can find a new job in weeks and need to save only a couple of months’ worth of expenses to mitigate financial risks.
1. Building vs. improving
Startups are full of builders: people who like to start growing a business from the ground up. They know how to get 80% of the result with minimal effort. On the opposite there are improvers: achieving the last 20%, stabilizing the business and mitigating risks. It’s obvious that you need both kinds. Figuratively speaking: if there were no builders you wouldn’t have a house to improve, but if there were no improvers the roof would collapse in a few years after it was built.
One key to happiness at work is to find out which of those roles suits you better. It’s important to be honest and not get swept up in the startup excitement while disregarding your strengths and preferences.
My path to startups was slow. Since 2014 I have gradually moved to smaller and smaller organizations: 120,000 employees (Microsoft 2014), 300 employees (TransferWise 2015), 150 employees (Starship 2017) and 40 employees (Veriff 2018 — by the time this post was published we had already more than 100 employees). Even in 2017 while completing my Master’s degree in Switzerland I was considering applying to Google (50,000 employees), McKinsey (27,000 employees) or some other large corporation.
Probably the most important criteria that you can use to predict which category the person will fall into:
• thought pattern: what new can/should you build (builder) vs. how you can improve existing things (improver);
• development style: abrupt and a bit out of control (builder) vs. controlled and predictable (improver);
• optimal stress level: medium/high (builder) vs. low (improver).
This comparison might be a bit oversimplified and in reality, it’s rather a continuous scale. Your position on the scale can change during life: in addition to getting to know my own personal preferences, my preferences have also changed over time.
2. A large and diverse family
As the builder-prototype is a person who starts lots of new things and is quick to move forward your startup colleagues are never boring. Recently, we at Veriff asked our employees to share some interesting facts about themselves and there were, among others (each is from a different person):
• those who had made a living by playing video games;
• skydivers with hundreds of jumps;
• former and current professional athletes from basketball to sailing to figure skating to squash;
• owners of successful breweries;
• recognized light installation artists;
• literal life-savers.
This means that you’ll never be bored at company events or by the water cooler; and even if you go to lunch with a random coworker, you’ll have more than today’s special to talk about. More importantly: they are the ones who have tried things themselves, probably also had lots of setbacks, and understand that complex things don’t get done by sitting in a chair and blaming others. As you’re all in the same boat, including our former professional sailors, you’ll know even under pressure that everyone is working towards the same goal.
3. Fast personal growth
Startups are successful because they see opportunities that incumbents don’t or can’t use for whatever reason. This means that 10-year professional experience likely wasn’t the most important hiring criterion for Tesla in its early days.
However, you still need to bring in experienced people: e.g. there’s no easy way to master skills needed to manage a group of engineers overnight and companies are similar enough that you can apply experiences from another organization. But experienced professionals ask for a higher salary, a management position and stability. These are things an early-stage startup usually cannot provide.
Startups’ solution goes something like this: give employees responsibilities they shouldn’t get according to their résumés alone. This increases risks as they’re not always ready for it but if you succeed you just scored employees who are undervalued by other companies.
To an employee, it means much bigger opportunities for growth. Personal example: I conducted my first job interview exactly a month after joining Veriff and by the next day I was on my eighth. The faster the company grows the more opportunities and problems to solve there are. Thanks to this I have grown more in three months than I did in the previous year.
Of course, there are more reasons to work for a startup. This type of businesses give company stock to employees and this stock may be worth a lot of money one day. Working for a startup can be very prestigious in some circles — admittedly for the most part amidst other startup employees … There’s also more flexibility in work hours and coffee is free. All this by itself isn’t enough to sacrifice other benefits like a higher salary mentioned in the title.
These external motivators are not enough to motivate yourself to work hard long term. Effective motivators are internal: your work style is a better match for a startup, you like people working there and you feel like working for a startup is all in all a huge leap forward for you.