It’s on you

The fate of the startup you work for is up to you. Taking a back seat will not do.

I was upset. Worse yet, I was upset at my CEO. The highest point of my nascent startup career so far suddenly became the lowest. We’d just finished pitching a prototype of our product at Amazon’s headquarters. The pitch went well. On the way back to the Seattle airport, I was in a car with the top two people of our company: the founder and our brand-new CEO. While they were discussing the rest of the roadshow that we’d just started, I was waiting for a pause.

Minutes earlier, in the middle of his polished pitch, our CEO showed a powerful slide of our company’s distinguished team members that were going to make the dream of our product a reality. My trouble was, I was the only employee not featured in the slide.

I tried rationalizing it. The 10 head shots were perfectly lined up on the slide. Squeezing in one more photo would break the layout, I thought. I was the one with the least experience in the industry, so if someone had to be omitted, it had to be me. I was also a recent hire, even though some of the others pictured in the slide were hired after me. I needed to figure out whether it was just my pride hurting; if so, it would be selfish of me to bring up this issue.

Back in the taxi, I was already regretting asking the question. After saying something about the lack of space and time, and an awkward pause that followed, the CEO said:

I was silent. I did not think I was as distinguished as many members of our team, but there was a reason I was hired as an early employee. I was a researcher in a relatively new area that was at the core of the company business. The company founder knew that well and was quick to fill the silence with my accomplishments. To my relief the conversation drifted elsewhere. The rest of the roadshow pitches still did not include me in the slides, but I thought I had done what I could.

I was wrong.

During the early days of a startup, everyone does what they have to do. Professionals who are hand-picked because of their unique background and talents do their share of cleaning up, unclogging bathrooms, assembling furniture, fixing office wiring, and all other kinds of work that are necessary, even though it is most definitely not the best use of their time. This goes beyond office chores. In software development, for example, this includes coding modules that need to be done, just not necessarily by a PhD in, say, machine learning (which I am not, by the way, just using this as an example).

While this is what a startup’s early employees are expected to do, it’s not enough. We were hired because of the talents we advertised. Other talents of ours may not be known to anyone else in the company.

As the startup evolves, it is our responsibility to figure out the most useful ways in which we can contribute.

It’s easier said than done, of course. In the middle of the action, it’s quite natural to want to fit in. To be a good team player. To not lose the job. On the other hand, it all won’t matter if the company fails: everyone will lose their jobs.

As our startup grew, I found myself stuck working on the same components that I built in the early days. I naturally became the expert and the best person in the company to maintain them.

I was now the best person for this job, but was the fact that I was doing this job the best thing for the company?

In retrospect, I think it was not. While our startup had some success, it eventually failed. My former colleagues and I spent months reminiscing about all the wrong company decisions that were now so obvious to us. As we were reliving the lows and highs of our startup adventure, I could not help but think: What if I had used all of my expertise to help the company avoid the mistakes that were made?

Don’t get me wrong. I have no illusion that I could have single-handedly saved our company. Yet, in a startup, particularly in its early days, a single person can have an enormous impact on its future direction. What if I had focused on the impact, and allowed that focus to help me overcome any personal reservations that I had about going against the flow?

What if that time, in a taxi to the airport, I did answer the question “How would YOU introduce yourself?”

Founder of susuROBO. Talking machines: contributed to roboceptionists Tank and culture-aware Hala, trash-talking scrabble gamebot Victor, Jibo, and Volley.