“Cause a fiend, he gonna chase that shit no matter what.” – Stringer Bell (The Wire, HBO).
You will find similarities between a dope fiend and people without a job looking for one. Like a dope fiend, an unemployed person only cares about his next salary. The hustle to make enough money to buy the next hit is comparable to the endless rounds of interviews and tests he/she has to go through. We have to pretend like this is our life’s calling and prepare for things one would never need during the job. While big employers come with their own set of bullshit, unemployed folk are particularly vulnerable to being victims of startups or small businesses. Like a loose pack, you stand to either overdose on rat poison or be ripped off having been sold baking powder. I’m going to focus on Indian tech startups but I have heard many similar tales from my friends working in small businesses.
Years of Hollywood and tech journalism might create the following image of a startup in your head –
Few guys working all day on a tech problem they are passionate about. They are consumed by their work so much so that they cease to have a life outside it. They eat fast food for every meal. They drink tons of coffee and energy drinks. They fight over technical issues and there’s no hierarchy. They drink to celebrate small accomplishments.
Now this startup finds some success and things change a little.
There are interns and guys who work at the place but aren’t necessarily dedicated to it. People eat what they like, the pizza guy still serves the majority. There’s a coffee machine and beer on Fridays. Everyone still argues but there are people who have the final say. People go batshit while celebrating and evenings after work usually end up at a bar.
One of my favorite ways to describe what happens when people adopt ways/ideas of people of a different culture is – ‘Hitting the bullseye of the wrong target.’ This is exactly what has happened with the Indian startup scene. Following are some of the things that I’ve observed.
• Startups and their HR are proud about being a small company. They overlook the innovator’s dilemma and think employees of large companies are stupid.
• Your salary is defined by the industry norms. I thought startups were non-conformists.
• There isn’t really work from home or work at when you’re most comfortable. “We’re flexible” means office hours start between 9-12 and you’re expected to clock 9 hours.ou have to beg for a leave. You have to be very good at predicting when you’re feeling sick or have a fight at home.
• Everyone in the current team is a ninja. HR thinks there are people with 5 years of Swift experience.
• Coffee/tea/air conditioning hours are fixed. You better dare not make use of them outside those hours.
• Piracy is rampant. They will spend money on Apple products but won’t pay for developer tools or SaaS subscriptions. Instead, developers are asked to build it in-house. PC developers work on 720p laptops or desktops.
• HR is there to serve the company’s evil policies, not your concerns. HR is as powerless as you.
• Your boss is your boss. Forget arguing with him, employees are expected to call him, “Sir.”
• Forget drinks, you’ll have people covering their noses if you ate anything non-vegetarian. Forget pizza, you wouldn’t even find biscuits. Forget beer Friday, there’s always Saturday cricket after 5 PM and filtered water back at the office.
• Forget partying, there will be (a quarterly) celebration of birthdays with cakes and India’s favorite office prank – birthday bumps. Also, the amount of cake ordered is 50g/person. Festivals entitle you to a whopping gift of Rs. 100-500.
• Overtime is a flat Rs. 150-200. The cost of chicken soup in the nearest average restaurant is almost 3 quarters that amount.
• Leaving before your boss is considered rude. An ideal employee has a house-wife or lives with his parents. He/she is expected to know everything about his domain till the day he’s hired but never expected to keep up after that. Your other passions can wait for Sundays.
• Young boys who dropped out of college/school are employed as office help. Domestic/office help is a modern form of slavery prevalent in India.
• Ninjas debate about Bollywood and make sexist remarks during lunch more than they argue about technology.
• There are always a few guys who think playing popular “English” songs on speakers gives them gansta cred.
• Private customer data and even passwords are stored. Privacy and security are never on the agenda.
• You are asked to share your office machine password.
Of course, all of the above are not true for every startup out there. A lot of the above mentioned problems can be happily overlooked if the employee is treated with respect and the employer requests and explains himself. I don’t understand how people can be ‘smart’ but act like sheep. This is one gaping failure of meritocracy.
To me, you will inevitably feel underappreciated and shackled at a large organization if you are good at your job. But at an Indian startup you run the risk of being back in an atmosphere of servitude like in Indian schools/colleges. The ideal time to be involved in a startup is when you are so passionate about the business that you would work for no money. At a big organization, your job is your day job and unless you play the game of ‘who leaves last’ like the Japanese, you can have work-life balance.
PS: Foxcatcher is the title of the book (and excellent film) which tells the story of US Olympian Dave Shultz who was killed by the crazy heir of the Du Pont (industrial chemical giant) family at his Foxcatcher Farm.