Before I teamed up with 3 friends and founded OpenSignal I was working at Tesco, the UK based supermarket chain. With almost 500,000 employees it’s one of the world’s largest companies. Going from Tesco to a team of four inventing a product for a geeky new platform (Android) was a big change. In the tech community it’s assumed that nothing beats being in a startup, but if you’re thinking of jumping off the corporate ship and onto the rocky startup dinghy, there are a few points of difference you should consider first.
Fast initial learning curve vs never ending curve
At Tesco I was working in a team of about 30 maths/physics/engineering graduates from top UK universities, we had access to one of the largest datawarehouses in the world. We were using it to optimize algorithms that order food into Tesco stores. I sat beside highly intelligent people who became my friends, together we built cool things that had an immediate impact by saving money and reducing waste.
Being surrounded by people who are expert in exactly the tools I needed for the job (SQL, Excel, VBA) meant I rapidly learnt to use those tools and was soon almost expert in them. But just in those tools, and what’s more: it was not in the business’s interest to move me to new types of problem where I’d need to learn new things, there were already people solving those problems and they were experts. So after learning a lot very quickly, things became quite boring.
When I started working with my friends I hadn’t done any mobile programming and neither had they. This meant the learning process was initially a lot slower than at Tesco. Although the curve is shallower, I’ve found that I haven’t stopped learning new tools – from Google Maps, to R, to the dark art of writing blog posts that capture the interest of HackerNews. Startups are not the best way to learn something new quickly, nor are they the best way to become expert at something highly specific, but they are ideal for keeping your mind fed with a varied diet of new ideas and techniques.
The-Man-directed vs Self-directed
Some big companies do encourage self directed time. Google has it’s ‘20% time’ (which produced Gmail and Adsense). Game developer Valve, creator of Half-Life, proudly claims to have 100% time – employees only work on self-directed projects. Perhaps surprisingly to people unfamiliar with the company’s internal structure, it was 3M who first introduced self-directed time. And it’s not a new concept, they did it as long ago as 1948 when they were already a corporate behemoth. The most famous product to emerge from 3M’s 15% time was a small piece of paper pre-coated with an ineffective glue – the result of some failed experiments – but the Post-It Note caught on.
At Tesco no time was self-directed. At least not officially. The-Man (or rather a chain of The Men) directed it, some of my superiors were nice, clever and set me interesting things to do. The Man can be your friend and can teach you a lot. However, I often found it frustrating that I couldn’t pursue lines of enquiry that intrigued me and seemed like big opportunities for the business. I feel at my most efficient when I am doing something I love, that’s when I write or code quickest. This is a question of taste, if you like solving problems but don’t like setting them, maybe a big company is better for you.
At a startup even if there is no policy of self-directed time (even that concept seems too formal and structured for most startups) you will be encouraged to experiment, especially with the way you do things. It’s not that startups don’t have targets (behind this beautiful web-facade we have Gantt charts, and spreadsheets of KPIs) but working in a startup you will find yourself to be the expert in a few different fields: the thing you were hired for and then some other things you happen to know. There will be no-one else who knows much about these, no-one to tell you you’re wrong when you come up with a crazy idea. In a small team, an individual’s knowledge is naturally more valuable and as such their ideas carry more weight.
Rigid structure vs long but flexible hours
At Tesco I began working 9am-6pm, 5 days a week 47 weeks a year (yes US readers! 5 weeks of holiday is standard here). When I left work, my email stayed in the office, as did my computer and most importantly my thoughts of work. In my spare time I wrote a novel (unpublished, but fairly entertaining to those with an interest in the murky crossovers between Physics and Philosophy), I bought a 50 year old houseboat which I fitted out with half-a-tonne of batteries and a lot of solar panels. I did some fun stuff in my spare time. In my own opinion.
Now I do fun stuff in my work time but I don’t have much spare time. My computer travels with me almost everywhere, for the spots it can’t reach… there’s my Galaxy Nexus (and my Nexus One, my HTC Hero…) . Even if I turn these off it’s hard to stop thinking of the app that I’m building and the data analysis I’m running, it’s hard because these things are interesting to me. We work late, we work on weekends – though generally with less intensity – and unlike Harj Taggar our phones are always on and hooked up to email/Campfire. It can be tricky, but the paradox is this: I work more, but I feel freer. By way of illustration, we once went to lunch at Google’s Mountainview HQ to discuss OpenSignal, the lunch was a pleasure in itself, on the way back to the place we were working from in SF we stopped for an hour to fly a kite. If I had a penny for everytime that didn’t happen at Tesco …
I could still be at Tesco if they had given me the four day week I was asking for. I didn’t need much money living on the boat (no rent, no electricty bills) so I would have accepted a pay cut of a third for 50% longer weekends, I also figured I would be more than 80% as productive as formerly, indeed 37 Signals argue a 4 day week can be more productive than a 5 day week. I figured this had to make sense, but Tesco wouldn’t budge and that’s when I realised I was powerless. Tesco was a huge ship and I would never love it enough/work hard enough to budge it’s course more than a couple of degrees, and they would never love me enough to give me my 4 day week. Now I’m in a startup and it’s more like a dinghy.
This one never worried me much, but perhaps in a different stage of my life it would. A big ship like Tesco takes a while to sink, you have to do something pretty drastic to take it down quickly (e.g. iceberg), a dinghy can pop and go under in second. Fortunately, now our dinghy has thicker skin and we have the pleasure of being backed by top investors.
I’m confident about the future of OpenSignal, but even if I wasn’t I’d be happy with the choice I made. I’m also happy that I did work at Tesco. I appreciate more the freedom I have now, plus I got to write the novel, live on the boat, master Excel and make some great friends.
PS we’re hiring
If you feel the startup life is the life for you and you want to jump onto a robust – albeit small – vessel: join us.