“Why don’t you apply for a regular job at a large secure company with a good salary and a stable career, (i.e. a multinational)?” asked my mother, my brother, my uncle, some of my friends – and sometimes people I hardly know – over and over again for almost six years!
Life has taken me to several places where I’ve endlessly learned, evolved, and really saw what I’m capable of doing. Those places were; a relatively small NGO (not one of those we see on TV), a photography studio, a startup, and a small tech service company where I kind of started a new department. I found myself always having to explain what my company/NGO does, what exactly I’m doing there and why the heck I choose these kinds of jobs – in every single conversation. It was no easy matter.
How I managed to answer these kinds of questions will be the subject for another article entirely. But let me tell you what those six years of “jumping around” have taught me about working in startups and SMEs (small & medium enterprises).
If you’re a fresh grad or an ex-corporate guy/girl looking to work in a startup or about to jump into one, here are a few broad lines of what to expect and what to do;
- Live with uncertainty
Big corporations delude themselves into thinking they know the future. They believe they can read the market, predict numbers and so forth, when in fact no one knows anything really (read about the theory of The Black Swan to get what I mean). Startups, however, REALLY don’t; they’re not even trying to claim that they do. If they’re operating in a new field, it’s so difficult to predict the market’s response, the costs, the prices, or the effect of anything they do. It’s all experimental to them, and it stays that way for a while. But even when they’re not the first startup to operate in that field, data is rarely – if ever – available about the business world in Egypt. So, for a significant period of time, everything is trial and error, lucky strikes and blind-walking.
- Change, change, and change again
Building on the above, the track they’re moving in could change from one month to the other, based on their findings and the feedback they get from clients/the public. But this also depends on whether the founders are keen enough to test their grounds in the first place, sometimes they just keep going! Sometimes the change is less dramatic, like for example changing the office, team shuffling, or even management change when the scale is bigger than a startup. In all cases, you need to be flexible and adapt quickly. If you cannot deal with change – and fast – you’re not gonna survive.
- Owning your work
And then comes the core part of your job – the job itself. Maybe this applies to all kinds of work, but in small companies and startups, it becomes literal. Your work has to be yours. If you don’t get it done, no one else will, and it can stay astray forever! In small teams, every person is overwhelmed and overloaded with their work, they don’t have time to cover for yours or follow up on you. Follow through with your own work, ask for help, ask Google, nag, even ask your friends outside work to help you. Be resourceful and just get the job done.
- Everything is your business
Have you owned your work yet? Great! Because it’s time to take on some more. Yes, that’s right. There’s a lot to be done when running a business or even an NGO of any kind, and usually there’s no budget to hire someone for every single job, it’s just not possible. The miscellaneous tasks are never ending and they need to be done because projects depend on them. So if you’re ever asked to do one thing or another outside of your role/scope of work (which you’ve probably never received in the first place), you’re expected to gladly say yes. Forget the luxury of “it’s not my job”, “I don’t know”, or “it’s none of my business”.
*But while this is not exaggerated one bit, there is a limit to what you should accept. Do learn to say no to things that you know will frustrate you, not teach you anything whatsoever, or will take the time off more important things on your task list. Try to negotiate, offer alternative solutions, or bravely say that this needs an expert to do it.
- Take nothing for granted
Sometimes a startup gets a generous fund, a profitable month/year, or has initially started off with a hefty capital. Luckily, you find the management splurging on new office furniture (or a whole new office perhaps); and then comes the shower of coffee machines, free coffee, occasional free lunches or outings, and the fantasy of a team building event or trip outside the office coming true…etc. Do NOT take this for granted, cherish every minute and consider it your lucky time, hope for it to stay but be ready for it to crumble with the next financial bump in the road. Remember – nothing is certain!
- Do accept advice
If you’re in one of those lucky companies that boomed in the first year and reached unprecedented numbers, or one of the others who gradually made it up the ladder; please do not have, develop, or maintain arrogance. It’s true that most young entrepreneurs are really clever at what they do – sometimes to the point of genius, and those they recruit for technical or business functions are also geniuses. But that doesn’t mean that they know everything, or that they understand everything. Even if they’ve been educated at the best schools and universities, or come from corporate backgrounds, they can still benefit from those around them – whether investors, fellow entrepreneurs, friends, parents, or even their ‘evil’ clients. Please don’t be one of those people who believe only in themselves. Sometimes others can see what you don’t.
Take it from my humbly wise/crazy self: all kinds of job have their pros and cons, and more cons than pros in this material world of ours if you ask me. It’s a matter of knowing what kind of obstacles you can deal with, what type of challenges motivate you and what you can’t even cope with. Think about what environment you want to work in, what skills you want to acquire and the kind of value you want to add. Then make your choice. Remember, the “right” and “wrong” choices are completely subjective.