Friday, September 8th, 2017
I guess I should start the post with some disclaimers but I would do that at the end, because these thoughts are more important than who I am, who is sharing them, what are their qualifications, what are the vested interests, etc.
Over the last few years, I have seen the rise of unhealthy practices in the name of startups. It didn’t matter much when it used to happen to others and I was in my own cocoon but it is spilling over and becoming quite mainstream. The bigger problem, however, is the fact that those responsible for such practices wear it as a badge of honor and not something that they are secretive about or even ashamed of. We live in a country where decent jobs and good opportunities are hard to come by, unless you come from a privileged background. Even if you do come from a privileged background, it is often incredibly hard to question authority. I have been lucky and privileged enough to confront but I am pretty sure that is not the case with everyone.
I have seen with my very own eyes, someone very close to me, cry in office because she couldn’t handle the pressure. She was from a well to do background, was qualified with two professional degrees, and could literally walk away from a job that was being abusive. Heck, I have walked away from jobs that I didn’t find interesting – yes, I regret a bunch of these frivolous decisions I made but I had the freedom to make those decisions.
Startup Founders and CEOs – your employees do not have that privilege.
I am not saying that the founders and CEOs are greedy inhuman selfish dolts looking to extract the last bit of juice by exploiting their workers but this concept is hard to understand even to extremely well qualified, well-educated, empathetic, good human beings. I agree that some of them are greedy inhuman selfish dolts who are doing this to make themselves feel good. I know more than a few who get a kick out of a situation like this but I honestly believe, most people are nicer and it is the startup porn which is turning them into BDSM fanatics. They not only abuse their employees but often even do it to themselves in the name of startups. That is how a startup is supposed to behave. They believe that if they, and everyone who is working with them, are not putting their heart and soul and blood and sweat and tears into building the next greatest thing on earth – they are not doing a good job. These are unrealistic expectations and failing to meet these expectations often leads to abuse. This abuse might not be economic or physical – far from it – most people would walk away from these situations but it is often emotional.
The abuse comes in many forms because of these rocket high expectations. When you are looking for ninja rock-star developers to work at lesser pay than what they are already getting, the abuse starts there. Some of these Founder / CEOs yell and some of them openly show disappointment in the way work is delivered. I am not sure what the right away to handle sub par performance is, but a lot of startup porn survives on setting the bar so high – the employees are set up for failure.
What worries me is that smart successful emphatic people who have run marathons, helped stray dogs, have degrees from IIT-IIM share this on social media with pride. These are people who I like to hang out with. These are people who I would bet on to do great things in life and I have taken those bets. The scary part is not the acts that they do but the amount of pride they show when they do it. The scariest picture to come out of Auschwitz concentration camp was not of the heaps of dead-bodies but the holidaying, Accordion-playing, laughing Nazis.
Here are some of the most common examples that I have seen on social media from various startup founders.
I have seen startup founders trying to pay as low salaries as possible to employees. Every business does that and it is part of the capitalistic culture we operate in. There is a problem with this attitude but that is a discussion for another day. The problem is with the justification – we are paying you less because we are a startup. That makes absolutely no sense to me. You are running a business and running a business has some costs. Your logic of paying less because you are a young un-funded seed-funded startup is bullshit. Please try to understand that the person who is on the other side of table, asking for a job, is often in a much worse condition than you are. Once you do close that recruit, do not showcase this as a success story on twitter that you were able to hire someone for 70% of his previous salary. It might be an exercise in validation for you but to a lot of other young founders, CEOs, small business owners you have given them an unrealistic goal to achieve. Every social media influencer who RTs a tweet like that is further cementing the idea that it is the right way to do things. IT IS NOT!
Let me not even get started with how these startup founders abuse freelancers. Nearly every freelancer that I have spoken with avoids Indian customers if he / she can afford to do that. The ones who do not have the choice to walk away, often end up feeling cheated. I am not saying that big companies always pay on time – far from it. They have their own set of excuses. The fact that you are a startup, is not an excuse. If you are a freelancer who is reading this and the next time a startup founder asks you to do something for less, just ask a very simple question – Why? If he says, “We are a startup”, ask again – So? How you take it forward from there depends on you because business is important and you got to feed your family or finance the next Europe Trip. All I want to happen is that this justification – “We are a startup” should end. Ideally, it should have ended yesterday but I would be happy if at least no one says this to me.
Unrelated side note: I often get calls and emails from students asking for a discount. Just asking them ‘Why?’ has made a significant difference in the way they perceive the course.
Once it gets past the money issue for companies, there are obnoxious expectations set from founders about how much time the employees should put in – and do it with a smile. Because, hey – we are a startup and that is how things are.
When Deepinder Goyal, founder / CEO of a Billion $ startup called Zomato, was asked why developers were expected to stay in office from 8:30 AM to 8 PM, his response was:
“Actually, we don’t enforce an 8:30am timing. But what I expect is that if I request for a team meeting at 8:30am, you would show up at 8:30am. Why would we contribute to open source if we are barely able to ship what we need to ship to keep our users happy. All these are unrealistic expectations from a growing company. If you are part of the tech team at Zomato, you are clearly at the wrong place. You should either try to get answers to thsese questions by talking to me and believe in what we are doing, or leave. We don’t force people to work here if they don’t want to.”
If it was just one company and one CEO, we could have called in a case of one bad egg and moved on but that is not the case. There are multiple startups, big and small, which have these expectations from employees and tell them to walk away if they don’t like it. Not everyone has the ability or the guts to walk away. We have all read and heard about women not being able to walk away from bosses who sexually harass them. Expecting an employee to walk away because he is not comfortable with the working hours is way too far fetched.
Let me add, this is not limited to big companies who can pay for it but also to smaller firms. I have seen founders take selfies with their colleagues about sleeping in the office in sleeping-bags and being proud of it. There is nothing so important that can’t wait a day.
We often overestimate the impact of our actions in the short term and underestimate it in the long term.
Sadly, it has become a norm for founders to set an example by working really hard and expecting the same from their employees. Hey, we have all heard stories about people pulling all-nighters on Redbull and drinking (eating?) Soylent because it saves time. Expecting your employees to be doing that is not far from abuse and as a founder and if you are doing it to yourself – it is not just a choice that you have made but it is self-harm. It is nothing to be proud about. I smoke, I drink, I eat all the wrong food – I know these are my choices but I also know that these are the wrong choices that I have made for pleasure.
Fake it till you make it as a mantra is so immensely popular that it is almost treated as a gospel. Hustling and jugaad are just some of the words that are used to glorify actions that are often on the wrong side of the spectrum if not illegal and unethical. The problem with terms like hustling / jugaad is that they can be used to describe clever maneuvers and strategy like organizing a small party to get the word out about your small crummy startup which would have otherwise taken lot more effort but they can also be used to describe various actions by Uber.
The ethical bar for businesses is often low. That same bar becomes lower if it is India and even lower if it is an Indian startup. That should not be the case. We have often encountered claims far bigger than actually possible by many startups or just measuring stuff that just doesn’t make sense to appear bigger. I forgot the name of the startup but I recently read about a company that was proud of a ‘Million customer logins’ (or was it a Billion?). Justifying such stuff in the name of hustle, or jugaad, or because ‘we are a startup’ and we should be allowed to play with a different set of rules is just not done. As a funded company’s CEO, if your salary is 1/3rd of the company’s revenues (which have fallen over the last year) and you appear at events to give gyaan about culture and ‘looking forward’ – there is something wrong with you. Calling it hustle to get the word out about your company is wrong and sets the wrong example to the people who have come to listen to you.
Before I end this post, I would like to clarify a few things. The only startup that I have worked at was a company called MindTickle. It now has around 200 Crore in funding now but back in the day, it didn’t even have a proper office space. It didn’t feel odd because I and all other employees were respected. I find that respect lacking in a lot of founders that I talk to and / or read about on social media. I have a feeling that things have changed in the last 4-5 and it is not the millennials who are ruining it but they are the ones getting exploited.
I run a small business, which is doing fairly well and employs around 10 people, but I never call it a startup when I am with friends or colleagues. I am not saying that I am saint and I never do the things that I have pointed out in the post above but I consciously try to check my privilege and never offer a justification by saying, “we are a startup”. I can understand if you think I do not have the right to talk about all this stuff because I never ran a startup and I am OK with that judgment. Please do not question the credibility or the motive of the person writing this post but consider the point that I am trying to make here.
Intellectual, liberal, secular – these were all good words. These were the words that were used as compliments. In the past 5 years, they have become insults. I just hope that startup doesn’t go down the same route and become a term of derision and ridicule by 2020.
Director of a small sized enterprise that runs www.handakafunda.com