September 12, 2013

CHIANG: Setting Startup Misconceptions Straight

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By DEREK CHIANG

Like many other young people who can code, I have a “Zuck” dream: to start a revolutionary company and change the world. It’s this desire that led me to work at a startup.

My experience this summer helped to dispel several popular misconceptions about startup culture. While many people might think startups are run by twenty-somethings hacking in a garage, only about 10 of the 50 employees were in their 20s. This is not surprising: as the IT industry matures, joining a startup is no longer considered a risky move for one’s career.

Rather, for many people deciding to work at a startup has become a matter of equity versus salary. At my startup, all employees had a meaningful share of company stock, so they understood that the company’s performance directly correlated with their income. I found that this motivated the employees more than if they had a set salary.

Interestingly, many of the leadership positions were taken by the younger employees. One software architect (which is the most senior technical position) is only 21. Our CEO just turned 30. Seeing someone about my age doing 100 times better than me was humbling and inspiring.

What really impressed me about the organization, however, was the level of openness and transparency.

Since the company was just on a single office floor and only had about 50 people, it was never hard to simply go talk to someone. There were no cubicles, and even the CEO sat with the other employees. My mentor, who is the most senior engineer at the company, sat just right beside me, a mere intern. The openness encouraged communication and naturally led to better decision-making and stronger morale, since everybody knew that their voice could and would be heard.

Another stereotype is that people at startups pull lots of all nighters. It was certainly something I was prepared to do. But in fact, the office was almost always empty by 6 p.m. People came into the office whenever they wanted, or even worked from home, as long as they remained reachable and productive. Indeed, the whole atmosphere was extremely relaxed.

Come to think of it, this isn’t surprising. A sustainable work style is the key to a company’s long-term success. Too much pushing will only result in a bunch of burnt-out employees. Not having a fixed schedule also worked well; it’s not a secret that different people have different “productivity peaks.”

In the end, my internship led to great experiences and lasting relationships. Before this summer, I had a lot of trouble seeing the relationship between what I learned in class and what I did in practice, but my mentor showed me the value of having a deep academic background. Thus, I now have a lot more motivation to dig into computer science theory.

Perhaps most importantly, I met many amazing individuals who I hope to keep in touch with for a long time. They are intelligent, motivated, and entrepreneurial. They are the kind of people who, if I ever decide to start a company, I will call to ask for their investment, mentorship and even partnership.