Thinking of where to start?
If you think joining a start-up company is your Willy Wonka’s golden ticket to lucrative stock options, mega cash-ins later, and early retirement before you hit the legal drinking age, then you might be interested in the Brooklyn Bridge, which I can sell to you at basement price, or even the Statue of Liberty and Madison Square Gardens. Act now! This is a limited time offer.
Let’s do a reality check, the name “startup” says it all. It’s new, it’s young. Like a baby, it can be immature and inclined to unpredictable bouts of tantrums thrown left and right.
However, it can also be energetic, exciting and full of promises. Just like a human baby, you never really know what you are going to get. I will share my battle scars and lessons learned from two babies…urrrmm, startup companies I’ve worked in.
Startup numero uno. Please keep in mind this was the first startup company I worked in, so I was rather naïve and foolishly enthusiastic.
The “company” was the equivalent of first-world slave labor, meaning that a handful of graduate students were used to do the manual research under the fierce (as coined by Beyoncé) leadership of equally clueless senior scientists. The cherry on top was that the CEO was also the CSO in this less-than-10-people startup.
When I joined as an in vivo senior scientist, straight after my first postdoctoral fellowship, I had an energy level higher than a caffeinated monkey, with an IV drip of Red Bull, and this little gem was exploited endlessly.
Since I was the only person who could perform in vivo surgeries in small animals, I would frequently work late (sorry, no overtime pay, as stipulated by my awesome contract) and work in the makeshift “lab,” a.k.a a converted trailer in stifling heat.
Now, here is the thing you have to understand: in startups, there are normally only one or two projects, and if your project hits a stumbling block, or if the CEO/CSO can’t reason scientifically, then you are trapped. When the in vivo validation stage of the project hit more bumps than an American Ninja on the obstacle course, the CSO’s brilliant plan was to change the animal species.
However, with limited funding, we ended up breeding our own animals, and I had the fun task of working out which lucky lady was going to consummate their illegitimate tryst with the fabulous stud.
It was crazy. If your CSO’s only plan to get the drug to work is to pump insane amounts of the stuff into the animal until it drops dead, which clearly violated acceptable animal ethics rules, or in a dose that would be equivalent to a hundred times over what is acceptable in humans, you, my friend, are royally stuck.
There are numerous crazy rules I put up with, which I would never do again. Such rules include mandated lunches with my co-workers, so I must meticulously synchronize my chow-time with those of my fellow colleagues; greeting the CSO every morning with a saccharine “Good morning,” and bidding my adieus every evening to boost sagging morale. Five minutes late to work due to unforeseen circumstances or just plain traffic jam earned me an hour deduction, but somehow the numerous hours of overtime never worked out in my favor.
This is because startups normally have limited funding and resources, and are often under the micromanagement of some egocentric dictator-wannabe, who can make you question why you fell in love with science in the first place.
There are certain logical and dignified decisions you can make. Also, I didn’t know people who “know” people, and being an animal lover (crazy, I know, for someone who did in vivo work), I chose to leave the position with my head held high. However, there was a high price to pay, because in small scientific fields untrue rumors by vindictive ex-employers can spread like wildfire, like a spurned lover, and it can put a serious dint in your career prospective. Furthermore, I never got my accumulated holiday pay, but I consider it a small price for the sake of my sanity and health.
Moving on to baby number two. This company has passed its glory days, like that dodgy and lonesome pot of yogurt hiding at the back of the fridge, weeks if not months past its expiry day. It had the distinct aroma of a podgy, middle-aged man, furtively longing for his high school football days.
Again, I joined as an in vivo senior scientist. However, this time there was already another in vivo senior scientist in house. She viewed me with unfounded suspicion and resentment. She had joined the company during its hay days, straight out of graduate school.
When I suggested new anesthetic techniques and devices, which are painless for the animal and have a faster recovery time and a significant lower death rate, she flipped a lid and refused to participate. A scientist who is at odds with technological advancement, who’d think they exist?
It took many weeks of discussions, heated meetings, live demonstrations, comparison between old and new techniques before the CSO, who was not a trained in vivo scientist, to convince him to bring the new anesthetic device on board. However, the seed of discontent was sewn, and I witnessed the worst of human behavior in this small company, now less than 30 people.
This is the other lesson I learned in small companies. When an existing staff member feels threatened in any way, they have the means to rally people up and make your work life unbearable. When people who have been the only authority on a specific area of expertise for a company are challenged, however legitimate and logical the suggestion might be, their first instinct can be to attack you.
However, you have to remember, it’s not really about you. They might have antiquated thinking, then when you frivolously amble along and make a genuine recommendation to improve the status quo, you are seen as the perpetrator who unmasked them, and made them seem outdated to those who previously worshipped their unique knowledge.
It didn’t matter that I frequently stayed past 10pm at night (I don’t seem to learn my lesson about unpaid overtime quickly enough) to complete experiments alone, or that I actively researched for ways to improve work flow, all that mattered was that I didn’t “fit” the expected mold. So, after less than a year in that soul-crushing environment, my survival instinct kicked in and I resigned.
When the antagonistic and hostile CSO asked me where I was going, I had enough flare to tell him “that’s none of your business,” and it felt great.
I didn’t have another job lined up, but sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith. I felt free, as if a great big cloud of emotional strangulation and sanity pounding had dissipated. The best part was to find out later that the company went into liquidation a little over a year later. Who said karma was blind?
In summary, when you choose to invest your time and energy in startup companies, which have a failure rate of 85-95%, tread carefully with your eyes wide open, never allow your dignity to be undermined, do what is ethical and hold your head high if you ever have to bow out.
I think in terms of startup companies, maybe Forrest Gump said it best “Life (startup) is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” I would add in my own twist “some are just chewy and ruin your fillings, some are bland and dense and then there ones that are just full of nuts.”