I currently consult at a non-profit called Ashoka (ashoka.org), and volunteer for two other NGOs – Make A Difference (makeadiff.in) and Purkal Youth Development Society (purkal.org). Just 2 years back when I graduated in May 2015, I was one of those typical IIT graduates who was excited about working for startups, with the aim of starting one on my own as soon as I felt ready. With having some acquaintance to the entrepreneurship world, thanks to the 4-year experience of working for the Entrepreneurship Development Cell in college, I got an opportunity to work for a young startup – Zimply – which had got its first funding right before they came to college for placements. I worked there for 9 months, gaining massive experience in many verticals like product development, operations, marketing, and human resources.
Having developed a solid understanding of the different aspects of a young startup, I next worked for a mid-sized company called Simplilearn. Simplilearn is in the business of selling online certification courses to working professionals, in subjects like digital marketing, big data, software development etc. I, as a Category Manager, was given the responsibility of managing the category of software development, which involved doing anything and everything to increase the revenue of that category, for which I had to work with the marketing team to increase leads, train the sales team to sell more, launch new courses with the product team, decide what content went on the course page, and anything at all which would lead to more revenue coming in. I was actually very happy to have been chosen to handle around 5% of total revenue of a multi-million dollar company at the age of 22. Learning wise, nothing could have been better.
Until I started facing a dilemma.
I did not know what it was exactly. I was doing well and had a steep growth trajectory in front of me, but I was somewhat uncomfortable from within. And so, I started asking questions and seeking answers. Once I figured them out (don’t worry, they are explained in detail later), there was only one option in front of me. Quit the startup sector and join the social sector. And one day soon, I quit, without having any backup. Being jobless for the next 2 months, I tried to figure out ways to enter the social sector full-time. And luckily, I got an opportunity with Ashoka soon. Even though I had to take a 70% pay-cut, I couldn’t have been happier. And now having worked in the social sector for almost 4 months, I can put my hand on my heart and say it that this has been the best decision of my life and wish I had taken it even sooner (well, you can’t blame me; in the Indian society, we are hardly acquainted to anything else other than engineering or medical). But anyway, now coming back to the reasons of why I quit the startup sector, I think I am now in a position to better articulate it, and hope it will be worth a read for all of you.
Note: This is strictly my opinion. Some of it might sound too strong, but it’s based on my experience. I feel that I cannot generalize it for all startups or individuals working for startups, but in majority of cases, it’s what I have seen. The motive of the post is to bring forward another perspective of startups which is not much talked about and something which might be interesting and useful to you.
Let’s go. Here are some of the major reasons why I quit the startup sector.
1. Profit over Impact-on-Customer. Always.
In at least 80% of startups that I have come across, I have seen them claim that they are a customer-centric company and that they always put customers first before taking any decision. However, I hardly saw this being implemented in any startup that I have been a part of. Whenever a choice had to be made between profit and impact on customer, startups always chose making profit. To give you an example, I, as a Category Manager, was told to train the sales team to make their sales pitches include points that were untrue or twisted. When I brought these out to the senior management, they were completely ignored. I am all up for using creative marketing and sales techniques, but not for twisting the facts and figures and give customers false information to get more revenue. I am sure this specific case does not happen in every startup. But I have seen startups choosing profit at the cost of negatively impacting the customer in their own capacities. I am not generalising it, but in my opinion, this is largely prevalent in most startups and companies, as my friends working elsewhere told me the same.
2. The teams are not driven by the startup’s cause, but for other benefits
In our list of “Reasons I work for this organisation”, it is not surprising that the items we all have in common are our personal benefits like money, growth, power, status, etc. But if “believing in the cause” could have been another common item in this list, wouldn’t it be amazing? But as it is not the case in this sector, the consequences are many. This is the reason why people do not go beyond their roles and responsibilities to do more towards the cause, it is the reason why almost everyone hates Mondays except the ones who have 7-days working! (yes, don’t be surprised, there are startups with such working environment as well), and it is the reason why most people leave as soon as a better opportunity comes along, monetary or otherwise. Imagine a place where everyone’s (or at least the larger teams’) personal belief is aligned to the cause they are working for, at least to a certain degree, wouldn’t it be a place where magic would happen?
3. F****** politics everywhere!
Huh! There is just no escaping this. I have tried to stay away from this as much as possible all my life. But once I knew politics is ubiquitous, I started working towards trying not to get affected by it. But in the business space, it is so prevalent that it will affect you no matter what. People try pulling you down, take credit for your work whenever they can, appear to be your best friends to your face but talk behind your back, play the Game of Thrones at a level even Littlefinger would be embarrassed. It was sad to see how the desire for more money and status got the better of the inherent goodness of people. And it was even sadder to see how people continued to enjoy playing politics, despite acknowledging it.
4. Personally, the startup doesn’t give a shit about you. Sorry to say that.
I remember once, for the first time, I got late for an assignment that was given to me (I had shit loads on my plate already), and I was writing a mail to the senior boss explaining my work overload. I was quite confident he would understand my situation, and in fact, empathise with me for I gave everything to the company day in and day out, but guess what? There was no reply on it. This is the person who would reply within 5 minutes if it was purely work-related, but choses to ignore you otherwise.
No matter what you do, you will get much less credit for what you deserve, both tangible (promotion or appraisal) and intangible (respect and compliments). You’ll do a thousand great things, but they will not be recognized as much as they should, for the bosses never want you to feel on top of the world, risking your demands would go higher. I can understand if you do not agree to this point, for may be your immediate boss is a good person; maybe even the one above him; but someone in the hierarchy above you will not be, and his doing will come and bite you, sooner or later. And when that happens repeatedly, you’ll get sick and tired of such an environment, especially if you are a person who values personal relationships with people more than anything else.
5. Most people are constantly in a state of insecurity
The Indian startup sector has been moulded in a way that the pressure to perform is so high that the stress levels of employees are off the charts. To get maximum ROI out of their employees, they are kept in a state of fear where they are unsure about their present, let alone their future in the company. To describe a picture to help you understand better, I have seen new people who are just 2 months old in a company spending hours on job portals to look for new opportunities as a backup. And of course it makes sense when you see employees getting fired every now and then without any notice. It is completely fine for a company to let go off employees who are not performing up to the company’s mark, but not in a way where you don’t even give them an opportunity to improve. What startups usually opt for is to fire them in the most inhumane manner – one where you are not even told the reason of getting fired. And for people who don’t get fired, it is at least made sure they feel they can get fired anytime the company wants.
Having witnessed the above situations affecting most people in this sector including myself, I decided it was time to move on. The startup sector is great if you want to learn about businesses. But I think there is something fundamentally not right with it.
Does the social sector take care of these?
In my experience of having witnessed three NGOs very closely, I think it is fair to say that it is much better in handling all the cases discussed above. Let’s go point by point.
- In the social non-profit sector, since the only aim is to create social impact, the question of profit never comes up, and all your efforts are only towards creating more and more social impact.
- To a large extent, you will find people who believe in the cause. Since this sector pays less money than most, people join because of their inherent interest in the cause. Of course, it is to different degrees, but this creates an environment which is lively and one where people really like to work.
- Politics does exist. There is no escaping that. But out of the different reasons for politics, at least money is eliminated to an extent, as everyone is paid less.
- In this sector, you are respected as an individual. Personal relationships are nurtured. Your well-being becomes a priority for the organisation as it is directly related to your output. Due to lack of bandwidth and resources, in some NGOs, you might have to work even more than a startup, but the culture is such that you will love to do so, and would do it yourself without expecting much in return. It becomes a much better environment than a startup in this sense.
- I have seen people in the social sector much more relaxed and at inner peace than people in most other sectors. The reasons are many of course. You believe in the cause, get to work for what you really enjoy, have a higher work satisfaction, and do not worry about money. All this leads to a much higher stress-free and a happy life than the startup space.
Now speaking about my personal transition from the startup space to the social sector, it did not hurt at all as I’m a person who’s least bothered about money. Moreover, NGOs work typically like any other startup where you are trying to solve a problem, and so, I already had an advantage, thanks to all the skills I learnt in my startup experience.
So what’s the takeaway? Actually, nothing really, as I am not trying to influence anyone to do anything. The startup space has its own advantages, but you have to mindful enough about the other side of the coin as well.
But I would like to make a suggestion. If possible, do try to work for an NGO, maybe as a volunteer or an intern, as soon as you get some time. I’m sure you will enjoy working there and get to know a whole new world which most of us are never made aware of. Many of my friends who got in touch with the social sector recently have started liking it and some of them are considering a full-time switch too. Who knows that even you might feel the same way.
Do ask me if you need any advice. And if you have any questions or opinions, do post them below or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oh and one last thing, if you do finally make that switch and attribute it to reading this article to whatever degree, do remember I am a huge Starbucks fan.