Why You Should Work In A Startup Before Starting Up

It was the last time in university that I ever had sought help for a personal consultation with Annie Ng, my university professor. Annie is (and still is), the most motherly professor I had ever came across in my 4 years in Singapore Management University. Prof Annie often went the extra mile to prepare us graduating students for professional success; sharing with us her stories about how she worked herself up the C-ladder, to eventually become Motorola's Regional Chief Information Officer.

And that day in November 2013, I stood outside the consultation room where she was waiting for me. I had gone in expecting to pick her brillant brain for a great business startup idea. But I never got the brillant idea I had been looking for. Instead, she shared a piece of advice that in retrospect, was much more valuable than a brillant business idea. In fact, it has saved me a ton of headache in immediately starting out on my own.

This is the same brillant advice that I want to share with you. It was this: "John, you would do better working in a startup first, before starting up on your own"

And this was the reason why she said why she said:

LEARN,and FAIL at the company's expense. Not yours.

Prof Annie saw it this way: Unless you're Bill Gates with infinitely deep pockets, starting out on your own often means that only you (or your partner) will have to bear the consequence of failures. Before meeting Prof Annie, I was naive to think that it would be very easy to startup.

What I had failed to consider was that the real startup world is a tough and unforgiving environment. In the early stages of startup, there're only two general circumstances in which a startup is destined to survive. The first is when it has rock solid financial backing, like having venture funding. The second is when it is able to generate profits to sustain itself. Truth be told, most startups survive their infant years either through venture capital, or good old bootstrapping. And for startup to survive, it involves a good deal of learning, and failing, both of which come with opportunity and financial costs.

If you started out purely on your own, you might learn the needed skills (marketing for etc), but nobody's gonna pay you for doing that.So why not work first in a promising startup, and get paid to learn at the same time, all on their account?

"Why not work first in a promising startup, and get paid to learn at the same time?"

Her statement shifted something in my perspective, and 7 months down the road now, I now give this same piece of advice to aspiring startup founders.

Learn.

"I was being paid more to learn more!"

Shortly after being assigned the Marketing portfolio at Innova Technology, I clocked close to a hundred hours in the first month of work alone reading up marketing gurus,blogs,even to the point of Skyping one guru, just to learn the ropes of marketing quickly. I devoured whatever material I could get my hands on, learning everything from Customer Development (Steve Blank/Justin Wilcox), Lean Startup (Eric Ries),writing good sales copy (KISSMetrics blog), and just about everything under the sun about startup marketing.(If you want to know more in depth of these resources, I've listed them down in this blog post: 10 Useful Startup Marketing Websites Which Got Me Started). These accumulated knowledge would later prove to be very useful as I applied them to customer development and eventually crafted a highly viral marketing message for the product we were working on: the Duet Bluetooth tag for protecting mobile phones.

But the best part of this learning process was: I was being paid by the hour! While it seemed barely enough at first, three months later I was eventually bumped up to a contract basis that paid much, much more. Seen this way, I was being paid more to learn more and at the same time save up precious seed money for my next startup venture!

I've since also managed to save sufficiently enough for my startup venture

Fail.

"Nobody except Innova staff would tell you the many failures we made."

While I can now look back and say that Duet was an overall resounding success, the marketing campaign I spearheaded for Duet's product launch didn't come without its fair share of failures.

Nobody except Innova staff would tell you the many failures we made. I remember the time we flopped spectacularly with a Techcrunch Press Release. We took a big risk footing out $6000 to get Techcrunch to write a review about Duet, only to receive a very negative, critical article by a moody Techcrunch reviewer. Nobody would tell you how we missed out a couple of tiny, but critical product feature specifications in our Marketwire press release that cost us another $500 to re-issue the change. But in all of these, we learnt to "fail forward" and make corrections, as John Maxwell puts it.

Now, imagine if I had launched Duet totally on my own with a shoestring budget, without the backing of a team and any venture capital funds. How do you think I would have been able to cough out $6000 + $500 = $6500 to make those changes? With a well-funded startup, this failure is financially cushionable, but definitely not if I had been on my own.

Now do you see why it's much advisable for an aspiring startup founder to first work in a startup before starting out on his own? In addition to Prof Annie's advice, there are also many other traditional reasons which support working in a startup first, such as the opportunity to network, and also to gain market experience. But personally, being able to learn (and fail) at the company's expense was the strongest reason that changed my mind to immediately jump recklessly into starting up something. There is a school of thought that strongly advocates jumping straight into the deep end of the pool (pure bootstrap without working in a startup), and that sometimes works too (chances are 1 out 10).

But if there's a wiser, time-proven, lower-risk, smarter way of starting up, why not use it to your advantage?

Share with me your thoughts.

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