8 things learnt from a university graduate.
Recent graduates have a new dilemma of what style of work they want to do early in their career.
Looking back a few decades, before the dot-com boom and the generation of your parents, a large majority of individuals focused on getting good grades at school with the intent of joining an established company that offered a fair salary and a stable lifestyle.
Now, career paths such as working for a start-up, freelancer, social media influencer and starting your own business have become increasingly popular. All these career options share common principles and go through similar processes.
I hope to provide you with some insight into what it’s like working at an early-stage start-up and share some of these principles.
This summer I had the opportunity to intern in Tokyo at an exciting, new start-up called Zenu. The company’s mission is to transform the customer experience in restaurants using technology.
Zenu provides a service where customers can view the menu, order and pay for dishes all on their mobile phone by scanning a unique QR code associated with the restaurant they are dining in. The menu can be viewed in multiple languages, has a selection of photos and descriptions and ingredient tags to cater to individuals with allergies and specific dietary requirements.
Restaurant owners have the capability of creating a flexible menu making it easy to add, edit and update dishes as well as set up dynamic pricing. They will gain access to a previously untapped source of data (the static, paper menu) that will help them reduce operational costs, manage inventory and gain insights into customer behaviour, giving them a competitive edge in a crowded market.
Here are 8 things I learnt.
You’re on your own
With only three people in the founding team, there’s no time for anyone to babysit you. That isn’t to say that I didn’t receive any help. My tasks were often divided into several, short, 1-week sprints and a weekly Skype call where I would report my progress.
I was mainly working on the data engineering side of the product which involved researching, designing and deciding on what type of databases would be used for storing data. My two technical colleagues (front-end and back-end engineers) were less familiar with the architecture and technologies involved in the data lifecycle so I was solely responsible for this side of the project.
Having said that, I received a lot of advice and guidance on the high-level aspects of the topics which helped me narrow down my area of research.
Your opinion counts
Working in a small team makes it easy to communicate and express your own opinions for many business decisions. For an early-stage start-up, there are hundreds of decisions that need to be made which will influence the future course of the company.
In the past, I worked in a large corporation where I was just a small cog of a very large machine. I was assigned straight-forward tasks based on my limited experience of the industry, most of which I wasn’t told how my work would contribute to the overall project. All decisions were made by senior management, so I didn’t have a say in most things.
At Zenu, even though I was an intern and the only non-founder, I was able to express my own opinions and make an impact on important business decisions.
For instance, I convinced my team to store analytical data in a fully-managed, low cost and scalable cloud environment such as the Google Cloud Platform as opposed to storing it in the existing operational database. Choosing the correct database to store your data is very important because the data must be stored in a secure and reliable environment whilst making it very easy for developers to manage it. You don’t want to be redesigning and migrating databases once operational data starts streaming in.
With just a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection, it has become easier to work in any space, at any time.
At Zenu, the team is spread across three different continents which meant I never met two of my colleagues in person during the internship.
How can a company where everyone is not in the same place operate? Crazy right? Fortunately, the tools available now make it much easier to work in such an environment. On top of our weekly Skype meetings, we used Slack for messaging, Google Drive for sharing files and Gitlab for organising tasks and sharing code.
At an early-stage start-up, you want to build a team with complementary skill sets. Each member has an individual skill or an area of expertise, which when combined through team effort, accomplish goals efficiently and effectively. Since our team was designed like this, there weren’t many tasks which depended on another member finishing theirs.
The focus of the work is to constantly make progress and complete tasks within a set deadline. Such a work style means that flexible working hours can be enforced. As long you finish by X date, you can take Tuesday off or work between 11:00–19:00 etc.
There are still managers that like to enforce the 9–5 work lifestyle where your commitment is measured by the number of hours sat at the desk. However, remote work and flexible hours are starting to gain popularity (and has become more feasible), especially among the younger generation.
At Zenu, we didn’t have an office or a co-working space. I was free to work at any time, anywhere.
I worked in various cafes around Tokyo, so I got to explore the city at the same time. I am not a big fan of this style of work because it can often get quite boring working on your own. Occasionally, I worked together with friends who were working on their stuff. Afterwards, we would go grab lunch or dinner and this made each day a little bit more enjoyable.
Easy to deviate from the main goal
During the early stages of a start-up, energy levels are high, and your brain is exploding with new ideas. Understandably, the team gets excited as they take small steps in converting a boardroom idea into reality. Here at Zenu, I experienced this positive vibe and passion.
However, the constant flow of new ideas occasionally hindered our progress to focus on our high priority tasks. A couple of hours of meeting time were wasted discussing minute features that could be added to the product or talking about things that are further down the timeline. Oftentimes, I questioned whether we were making our internal deadlines because progress seemed to slow down and we were talking about plans far into the future.
One example of prioritising things in the wrong order was when one of the founders wanted to start marketing the product through paid advertisements on social media to onboard some customers and see how the market reacts.
However, the website was incomplete so there was no information on what the product was or how it worked. Even if the website was complete and customers who believed in the idea did sign-up, the product was incomplete so we would run into the risk of underdelivering (and we know what happened with Elon Musk…).
This emphasises the importance of a minimum viable product (MVP); the minimum features required to serve the customers’ needs. You don’t want to be spending hours working on an idea or feature to find out that the customers don’t care about it.
An appropriate approach would be to adopt the Lean method by deploying the product with the minimum functions needed to serve the customer and pivot (make changes) based on market reaction and customer feedback.
The take-home is, prioritise your tasks and focus on the urgent ones. If you have buzzing ideas that relate to the product, jot them down somewhere and bring them up when a technical or business decision related to that arises in the future.
At a pre-seed start-up, time is limited, and money is scarce. For that reason, all my colleagues have full-time jobs to pay their rent and support their families. Whatever spare time and energy they had was dedicated to lifting the company off the ground into a fully, serving product.
The same applied to me. I knew in advance that I wasn’t going to earn a salary, so I had to find a part-time job alongside my internship to make a living. Typically, my days were divided into three parts. 2 hours tutoring in the morning, 3–4 hours on the internship, 2 hours on self-studying and the rest for travelling, eating, socialising and hitting the gym.
After several weeks, it became a routine which helped with time management and accomplish as much as I could in the limited time I had. I was more productive knowing that I only had a couple of hours to work for my internship as opposed to a typical 9–5 working day.
Importance of diversity
Surrounding yourself with people from different backgrounds and cultures will help you have a global mindset and become more creative. On a personal basis, it is important to realise that different cultures have different perspectives of the same things and by keeping an open mind, you will build strong relationships with people and easily resolve conflicting opinions.
In the work environment, a diverse team will contribute a lot of creative ideas based on their background and experience and ensure there are no missed business opportunities based on an incorrect preconception of the target audience.
The team at Zenu is based all over the world. We have an American based in Tokyo, a Hungarian in Switzerland, a Malaysian in New Zealand and me, a British/Japanese in Tokyo or London.
Pooling our knowledge from our respective backgrounds was key to making several business decisions. For instance, what currencies would we display on the digital menu. Restaurants in the UK and Japan tend to only accept a single currency, the Pound and Yen respectively, but restaurants in Switzerland operate with both the Euro and Swiss Franc.
Another realisation was the importance of a diverse age range in the team. Just like how people from different backgrounds and genders have different perspectives, various age groups also have different views and lifestyles mostly due to the advancement of technology.
At Zenu, we have two generation groups: me, a member of Gen Z (loosely, people born between 1995–2010), and my millennial colleagues (1980–1994). For the long-time survival of the company, we need to serve the present and future. The combination of my colleagues’ years of experience in the business and my knowledge and experience of a typical Gen Z behaviour (think of work-life balance lifestyle and lots of Instagram) ensured that the product would suit both the current and future generations.
Work when you’re not working
What do I mean when I say, ‘Work when you’re not working?’ A lot of my ideas came from when I wasn’t working in front of my laptop. Since Zenu is creating a service which aims to transform the way we order food and beverages in the restaurant using technology, I was always looking out for which type of restaurants this service would work in whenever I went out to eat.
One time, I discovered a food market hall which used a similar service to Zenu (using a phone to scan QR code). Another time, I ate at a restaurant where they used an electronic stylus and a laminated menu to click and order dishes. On both occasions, I reported back to my team on the competitors that were currently on the market along with their pros and cons.
Talking with my friends and family gave me a lot of new ideas and I was able to view things from a different perspective. Conversations at the dinner table in the share house led to one of the tenants giving me a lot of advice on the technical side of my work as well as another tenant loving the start-up idea so much that he liaised with his boss for the potential idea of working together in the future (since we had solved a problem his company had yet to do).
Find a Mentor
As much as you would like to know about everything whether it’s related to your career path or you just want to impress your friends, there isn’t enough time to learn everything. However, what you can do is find a mentor (or several mentors) that can guide you on your desired career path.
These people will guide you in the right directions and give you advice and point out pitfalls to avoid based on their area of expertise and personal experience. Having someone point you in the right direction can save a lot of time and energy whilst accelerating your progress to meet your career goals.
Before interning at Zenu, I had little to no experience in data engineering, but my colleagues would often suggest certain areas to look into by posting links to articles or videos which may be relevant to the assigned task.
One of my tasks involved building a pipeline between our operational database and our analytical database which I had been pondering for several days since there are many ways to do this.
I asked one of my share housemates, who’s an experienced ML engineer, on how I could tackle this problem without overcomplicating things. He was like “That’s simple, just use these two services.” I wasn’t even aware that these services existed and thanks to him, I saved a lot of time researching because I was looking in the completely wrong direction.
Which brings me onto another important message, don’t be afraid to ask for help!
Working at an early-stage start-up has its fair share of thrills and struggles. The key to surviving in such a turbulent and fast-paced environment is to believe in the founders’ vision. The everyday tasks may not have all been interesting and problems may have dragged on for days but the idea that your work is contributing to creating the vision into a reality is most definitely an exciting one.