Working for Startups with No Skin in the Game

If you’re working at a startup with no stake in the company and they’re paying you the bare minimum, how do you flourish? I’m going to give you some advice on this matter.

Don’t fear change; see it as an opportunity to develop your adaptability. Too many people put themselves in a box. They categorize and label themselves, creating “limiting beliefs.”

Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m bad at math?” That’s a limiting belief. Or “I can’t dance, I’m a white guy.” You get the point.

Being versatile in my context would be the interdisciplinary approach I take towards learning. I went to school for engineering, but after graduation I worked as a graphic designer at Loose Button. I got to design their logo and work on web design projects. Eventually that lead to packaging and print design on the Luxebox. My favourite contribution was the sticker in the Luxe Box with the member’s personalized name on it. Everyone thought it was a wonderful touch and so far, no beauty box has replicated this feat.

I also learned about sourcing materials overseas and helped with transportation logistics. A few months after that, I helped Loose Button build an in-house photography studio for well under $2,000. My mom and my grandpa are avid photographers so learned a bit from them. I also got some help from a friend at my university photography club.

After leaving Loose Button, I started working for Unhaggle. Their goal of providing transparency in the car marketplace really resonated with me. To help explain their free invoice price report, imagine this: you walk into Wal-Mart and under the price tag it lists how much Wal-Mart bought the product for and how much profit they’re making.

Now imagine the price is negotiable. Replace Wal-Mart with dealerships and you get the point. The transition was easy because our core values were aligned.

In the short time I’ve been working here, I’ve been learning about optimizing conversions. I analyze web analytics and then help implement changes that will result in more visitors turning into customers. It’s a multi-disciplinary subject that includes psychology, graphic design, copywriting, usability and many other fields.

Doing this type of optimization reminded me of a bridge-building simulation contest in University. We had to build the cheapest bridge that could withstand certain loads. I treated the challenge like any other computer game. I spent hours “playing” and having fun. Sometimes the bridges collapsed in hilarious ways. I ended up coming top five in my class. The parallels illustrate that maximizing the efficiency of an input/output system applies to many different fields.

My parents were livid when they learned I was abandoning a career in engineering to live the startup life when I graduated. They couldn’t understand why I’d throw away a career with an average starting income of $50,000 a year. My dad threatened to disown me and my mom had a few choice words that amounted to emotional blackmail.

You have to understand where they’re coming from though. During the “cultural revolution” in China which started in 1966, university entrance exams were suspended. Many youths could not attend university or even find jobs. My parents were a part of the “Down to the Countryside” movement where urban youths were sent to work in rural areas to learn about farming. Some believed the government wanted to keep the masses uneducated to curb rising dissidence.

University exams were finally reinstated in 1977. My parents waited a long time to get a chance to get a higher education. Here I was, $40,000 in the hole and unwilling to take advantage of the job opportunities a piece of paper presents. I wasn’t willing to compromise so I moved out and continued to work for Loose Button.

That whole ordeal was a testament to my adaptability. I learned the importance of being a psychological warrior. I had to keep my mental health in check and keep positive and move forward; think Les Stroud in Survivorman.

I’ve moved three times since. I live out of a suitcase and sleep on an air mattress but I’m happy.

I’ve found my calling and it’s not engineering per se. The problem is that my parents put me in a box. They labeled me an engineer and wouldn’t allow me to deviate but I knew I was capable of much more. They keep reminding me that I’ve spent more than four years getting my degree but I like to remind them I also have four years of startup experience I’d be throwing away if I pursued engineering. My parents and I are on better terms now. I think I gained a lot respect by moving out and still be able to support myself financially, although I still can’t avoid nauseating lectures when I visit.

Music really kept me sane during this tumultuous time. I love jamming with my friends and making music. I’m a multi-instrumentalist. I played trumpet for a few years before I started playing guitar and a few years later picked up the drums. I even took vocal classes in high school and sang in a barbershop quartet.

The first few years of my guitar-playing, I had a lot of trouble with rhythm. Once I started playing drums, my guitar-playing got exponentially better. Again we see the value of interdisciplinary learning. The epitome of this is exemplified in the polymaths of the renaissance. I’m sure sculpting really developed Michelangelo’s spatial sense and made him a better painter. Da Vinci’s intense study of anatomy also took him to the next level.

There were many instances in my life where I felt like I was wasting my time doing things I didn’t particularly enjoy doing but it developed useful skills and complemented existing ones. The key takeaway here is to not focus solely on depth, breadth is also important. Of course it’s about finding the perfect balance between the two.