Life at a Photonics Startup: Lessons Learned Working at Startups: A Close-up View
Startups, particularly tech startups, have been having a golden time, with some stellar success stories. It is easy to feel like you just missed the next Facebook (Meta?), Uber, Tesla or Amazon, with regards to being an early stakeholder, envious of those lucky first few hundred people who surely must have gotten a lion’s share as a perk for working there. At the same time, working at a teeny ‘company’ with barely any stationary and paltry online presence can also be a leap of faith that few would want to undertake, even when you logically understand that the next big thing is probably in that foundling stage right about now. ‘Risk vs rewards’ is not a catchphrase exclusive to investors—it applies to any decision you take in life. Through this article I hope to take away some of the perceived, and some very real fear, of embarking into uncharted territory with a startup where you are not the founder, just the employee.
Working for a startup can be scary AND exciting, particularly if you get the opportunity early on in your career, when honestly, everything is scary. It can be an extremely rewarding and educational experience, especially with the right team and technology. As with most decisions, there is no straightforward ‘right’ answer, and it depends on your unique situation and preference. There are many factors that come to play when deciding the right job (startup or otherwise)—financial status, long term plans, immigration status, personal and family situation, interests, location, flexibility, relevance to your specialization, preferred working and management styles, and a lot of other things—all of which need to be considered, weighted by the importance each of these factors merit for you personally. We will discuss how all of these deliberations are relevant when deciding your foray into the startup world, and if it seems like I am playing both sides, it is because I am and because I would like to paint a clear picture more than I want to paint a pretty one.
There are multiple stereotypes and myths about startups that one hears: there’s no job stability, you have to put in 16 hours a day, the company could be shut down in a week, you work out of a garage with barely any funds, and possibly, at the end, you get bought out, and with your impressive share of stocks, you can easily hit millions. Like with other generalizations, these originate from a few experiences and truths, but have been handpicked, twisted and exaggerated to disproportionately increase the ‘high risk/high reward’ aura of startups.
In essence, working for a startup is not very different from working for a larger company—you are employed for your specific set of skills, with a monthly salary, health benefits, stocks, with a contract, possibly even a 401(k), other in-house perks, etc. You have goals and deadlines that you need to achieve, your employment and career development is basically contingent to your performance. The top leadership is critical in setting the tone for the company’s culture and values, including honesty, transparency, and also in making the key decisions that matter in terms of financial health, raising money and exit plans. The major difference is that you have a smaller team, possibly limited resources (though that varies from startup to startup), and hence your purview will include a broad area as all responsibilities are shared with a small team. If your company has external financing, you have to show your progress periodically, and your survival until making a profit is often determined by your ability to convince your board of your viability to make profit some future date, and securing intermediate financing as required. And that determines all that you do during your time there, and for how long you have a paying job there. So yes, there are some high stress weeks where you need to get things done by a deadline (and these are often things that have not been done before, especially in the realm of hard tech, so it can be challenging), and that can demand longer hours and some weekends occasionally, which again, is not that different from a bigger company.
On your quest to achieve these goals, you acquire many skills in addition to what you were hired for. You learn to collaborate and work with a small team of people and to play to each other’s strengths. ‘This is not my problem’ mentality doesn’t really stick in a startup environment where the whole team is affected by the company’s performance directly. Being a small team, everyone plays a critical role in determining the progress. While in my opinion it is a great feeling and an opportunity to be challenged and engaged, it does mean there are multiple single points of failure. As for stability, in many ways an employee is more indispensable at a startup because of low redundancy, especially if you’re doing decent work, and you have a greater impact on the company culture so it is harder to swap/replace people unless absolutely necessary, which leads us to the dreaded ‘well, what if it IS necessary due to low funds?’ question. The answer to that my friends, is yes, sometimes startups do go under. But it isn’t a sudden departure or depletion or bankruptcy, it is gradual- something that the company knows at least a few months in advance, and it comes back to the honesty and transparency of the people in charge as the consequences greatly depend on how they handle it. If your leadership is sound, honest and keeps their people’s best interests at heart, they will cultivate a culture of openness where people feel free to ask the hard questions, get an honest answer (including about things like viability, feasibility and financial health and lifespan) and can make decisions accordingly. If you are extremely lucky, you will have a few mentors and friends who want you to succeed and your willful departure does not resemble an acrimonious divorce. That said, voluntary downsizing also happens, especially in startups struggling to stay afloat. I would argue that willful or unnecessary firings happen more regularly in the corporate sector than in startups, and the rise of the ‘hire fast, fire faster’ mindset is painfully gaining a foothold. The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that in the face of perceived crisis, most companies play it safe and err on the conservative side. As an employee in a startup, you can easily make yourself integral to the team by doing decent work, being open to learning and playing well with the others, making you extremely hard to replace, so that is not a decision that the management makes lightly.
To offset the ‘positive’ things that I have said about startups, let me share something not quite as glamorous—while it is true that you get stocks and are positioned to possibly hit the jackpot IF your company IPOs or gets bought, it is not as common or as big as it is made out to be. Tech companies generally give you bigger paychecks, and some stocks too, and the steady increase of a well-established stock could easily overtake the gains of your startup stock value increasing, but hey, it HAS happened, and often enough to make it a stereotype, so you never know… Of course, the equation is different if you’re the founder or a primary investor. Money always begets more money. Think about it as buying 10 shares vs. a million. Even when the per share price increase is the same, the bigger your stake, and the more meteoric the share price, the more impressive your profits.
Additionally, there are some smaller everyday aspects that matter to varying degrees for different people. Many frameworks that are taken for granted at larger companies simply do not exist at startups, at least till somebody builds it. Mentorship, for example, will likely not be an established practice at a startup because everyone is running full steam ahead, and also because you have a smaller pool of people, and everyone is more or less uniquely skilled. I personally think this is one of the more important aspects of working at a startup—you meet fewer people, so if you need to expand your network, you have to put in some time and effort. It is likely that you meet some real bigwigs, like VCs, investors, KOLs because very likely you deal with an important aspect of the project. The support for career progression, and development may vary from startup to startup depending on how important the management feels it is, and how much time and resources they can afford for it. This might again be something that is driven by your initiative.
Diversity and finding someone exactly like you is also harder because of the small pool. This can get challenging at times, especially if you feel unheard or misunderstood and seek somebody with shared experiences. Immigration is often handled more fluently at larger companies, being well aware of the immigration processes and requirements, but at startups, this might be a discussion that you have to bring up, push for and lead, although usually most employers are aware of the need to support immigration for their employees.
The lack of structure in terms of appraisals, feedback, bonuses, promotions and raises can possibly be a challenge, but on the flip side, as an employee at a smaller company, you can influence these decisions and frameworks as they get built. These things often take a backseat while the startup is still trying to take off, with everything non-critical being held off for a later date, when there is time to breathe or when the employees feel the need for them. All of this is subjective to each startup (larger companies usually get a more rigid structure owing to a larger workforce), and I must reiterate the importance of the company’s culture and top management which often dictate how these aspects are set, although the employees often have a strong influence on these aspects as well. Other differences may include: smaller pay package for startups, with stocks to make the offer lucrative; less rigid framework for documenting and reporting work at startups; need for teammates being more collaborative and possibly work in close quarters; less vertical and horizontal room for movement in startups, or rather, fewer ‘bins’ since each person could possibly be a department; less clear definition of what each day will look like at a startup – none of which are positive or negative, but just a different way things are.
I will aim to enumerate some of the dis/advantages of working for startups and also some homework one can do to ensure a good fit, as much as possible, but please be aware that while I have tried to garner information about various startups and larger companies, it is still the opinion of one person, and to get a deeper understanding, it is always best to talk to multiple people, from relevant backgrounds.
1) Hands on experience and a close up view of end-to-end processes for how products are conceived and developed. 2) Great teaching experience since you handle a lot of responsibilities and projects. 3) Direct exposure to workings of the business side of startups, including pitching, soliciting funding, legal framework. 4) Potential for exposure to relevant contacts (and fewer number of intermediate people between you and anyone higher up in or out of the company that you might need to interface with). 5) Amazing learning ground if you are planning to form your startup, due to #1 to #4. 6) Career growth can be great if you prove yourself to be vital to the company’s growth, age and experience do not matter as much and you can take up projects much more impactful than your age/position would normally dictate!
7) You have more of a say (in most cases) in your company’s direction than at a larger company.
8) The experience of launching a product is highly valued in most circles and can give you a leg up at your next job.
9) People often feel like they do more relevant and meaningful work because of the direct impact they have on the company.
10) There are a number of ‘alternative’ job paths you can take after enough startup experience—product management,
startup consultant, VC, startup founder, be an adjunct professor, or go work for your own company! 11) Stocks—most startups use ‘stocks’, or a small % of the company as the carrot to hire you, which works similar to stocks you would buy on the stock market. The draw is that this will be given to you at the present-day valuation of the company, which can increase a lot if your company does well, especially if it gets bought.
1) Typically, more demanding hours than a standard industry job, with periodic high-stress days/weeks (this part is similar to the kind of activity during the end of the financial year or quarter or product launch in some companies).
2) Not very easy to switch teams as there are not a lot of teams/people in a small-sized startup.
3) Finding a mentor is harder in a small company where everyone’s job and skill set is more unique.
4) Sometimes the support for other career development (conferences, courses) might be lower, depending on the company’s financial health, bandwidth and business.
5) Goals sometimes change.
6) Not always a good situation for someone who plans to stay in the same company for a really long time.
7) Less certainty/stability than some other corporate jobs. 8) Often there is no structure for yearly pay raise, bonus, promotion or performance reviews, since the main priority is keeping the company afloat.
9) It is a different culture than working for bigger companies.
With all this in mind I would still say that my experience in the startup world has been exciting, educational and fulfilling, and I would not mind if my next job was at a startup too (keep in mind all this is without me hitting the jackpot). I feel like I am doing important work in different capacities, and am actually significant to my company and its direction, and am learning beyond my years.
If you are considering working for a startup there are a few things you can research to help make you an educated decision. A lot of the information is online these days and professional social networks can be very useful if well utilized. The most important factor, at least according to me, is being aware of your own preferences. More often than not, a preference is just that—not an indication of something good or bad – and when you think about what’s important to you, it helps guide your decision towards creating the life that you want for yourself. There are no assurances in life, and an informed guess is the best you can do at times. Beyond that, it helps to look at situations as training lessons—you learn to love or you learn to avoid. In addition, I do believe there is something to be gained by working at larger and smaller companies, and the skills you develop in each setting are crucial and complementary to each other.
Here are some questions you should try and get answered (although some of it might be confidential) or general areas you should pay attention to:
1) What is the funding situation (more to the point- how many years’/months’ worth of funding)? 2) How many people are working on the team? 3) Who are the investors?
4) What is the technology (in as much as can be disclosed)? What are the challenges to that technology? What are the competing technologies like?
5) Get a feel for the team dynamics and company culture.
6) Try to find out any red flags: how many ex-employees have quit? Why, and how was that handled? How does the team talk about each other and their life at the company? Do they seem respectful? Do they seem happy? How open does the culture seem?
7) Might seem trivial, but is there any diversity on the team?
8) The CEO and top management are an important part of the deal—not just for the obvious ‘flagbearer’ reasons, but also because of how much influence they have on the company, especially with a small team. The culture comes from top-down. Respectable, strong, well-qualified leadership always bodes well for the venture.
9) Talk about the company’s roadmap—ask questions where you feel it’s necessary.
10) One thing to note is that there is a difference between excitement and fanaticism, and respect and deification. It helps to be able to distinguish these because often that can be the difference between a sound proposition with legs vs. a bubble.
A good job opportunity can be more than a salary, and I am a firm believer in ‘everything finds its way,’ but a rewarding career can definitely be helped along by covering your bases, being attuned to your gut, and allowing yourself to say ‘yes’ as well as ‘no.’ Being skilled, hardworking and passionate will ensure that no matter where you work, the project will benefit from your participation, and if this is not valued enough, you can have or create other opportunities that will. Above all, talk to others who might have relevant information, do your research, but trust your own judgment, and then make the most of any opportunity that you get. YOU are the prize!!!
A Bit About the Author Dr. Sarmishtha Satpathy is a biophotonics researcher with a background in noninvasive functional detection of neural activity and other novel optical detection and stimulation techniques. She currently works for a neural diagnostics startup company ‘Openwater’ in San Francisco, as an Optical Scientist. She is also an active member of the photonics and STEM communities, having served on committees of SPIE, Optica and SWE, and is an avid advocate for DEI in STEM. She is very passionate about food and travel, and enjoys making and drinking floral
lattes. She is originally from India, currently based in San Francisco, California, USA.