I was 23 and hungry for a job. Unemployment was high and the economy was only beginning to recover from the Great Recession. But the city was buzzing, not with traditional jobs from corporations per se but with digital marketing jobs from startups, specifically those around the Flatiron neighborhood of Manhattan (also known as Silicon Alley). It wasn’t obvious to me at the time but it became obvious within a short few months on my job hunt just how much technology was revolutionizing the job force.
Everywhere I looked I came across job titles like “Content Marketing Extraordinaire” and “Social Media Specialist”; I was shocked to see they were becoming increasingly abundant on job boards. I remember thinking to myself, “Wait, people actually get paid by companies to write content and run campaigns on social media?”
Up until this point – if one can remember – social media was still an exclusive resource for millennials; companies, advertisements and ad agencies (and older people) were not welcome. It was meant for the youth and it was led by the youth. However, it seemed that a tide of technology-based marketing jobs tying in social media was coming, and it was not only going to change social media, but it was going to change how we see business and market businesses.
I recall telling my parents that I applied to a Social Media Specialist Intern position at a few startups in the city and as I expected, I was met with a mix between excitement and disbelief. Between two generations, both my parents and I were perplexed by how in the world social media was going to be integrated into actual jobs.
Luckily I had the good fortune of becoming an intern at an interesting event-based startup similar to EventBrite (I didn’t have much work experience so to me it was a solid opportunity). The startup used proprietary technology to scour the internet for events in New York City and their corresponding dates and times. The technology was designed to scrape data and insights of nearby events and showcase these aspects in an intuitive and sleek interface.
We were doing well, growth hacking our way to the top of what I like to call the “Events Race” in the tristate area: a competition between the startup I worked at and EventBrite, LivingSocial, Groupon, and other publication-based websites like TimeOut and Thrillist.
Despite my incredibly low salary, I was giving it my all. I didn’t care about the money because I felt like I was part of something bigger than me. I was close with my coworkers, attending weekly happy hours and sharing our respective dreams. But it was much easier than one would expect thanks to the fact that one of our dreams was something we all had in common: growing our startup and making a positive impact on the world.
I know it might sound like typical startup jargon (HBO’s Silicon Valley nails this), but it really was what drove us, day in and day out. We worked so hard, wearing infinite hats, meeting insane deadlines – and we did it together, so it felt less like work and more like enjoyable, riveting collaboration. And the rewards came. Again, not significant monetary rewards, but rewards in “name” nonetheless, i.e., title changes and other perks.
I started off as intern. Three months later I was put on full-time.
Three months after that, I was promoted to a senior coordinator position.
And at last, I became a manager shortly afterwards. I was ecstatic.
With so many promotions, and such phenomenal collaboration between me and my colleagues, it’s no surprise that I (along with my colleagues who were also on similar trajectories) fell in love with our startup. We felt like we – the employees, the human capital of the company – were the focus of the startup. Through team-building activities, company BBQ’s, weekly happy hours, ad a focus on people development with help from outside consulting (including the Myers-Briggs Indicator), I felt at peace because there wasn’t a single thing I disliked about the company or my place in it.
But as with all red flags, they eventually presented themselves, one by one.
First, our growth required more resources, but instead of investing in more resources, as in additional staff or interns, our leadership requested more time from its current group of employees. At first we didn’t mind; working an additional 1-2 hours per day didn’t seem like much since we were all together having fun. Still, 1-2 hours slowly crept up into 3-4 additional hours a day, to the point where we found ourselves working 12 total hours a day. And right when we felt the onslaught of demands became unbearable, leadership held meetings where they let us know they would need us to work on the weekends, too. They said it’d only be temporary, and we believed them – and we were wrong.
Second, with the increased workload, including multiple hours of weekend work, raises were expected – and more importantly they were promised. Spoiler alert: they never came. Instead, we were all given senior titles and equity. The leadership team’s explanation was that these considerations were given in lieu of pay raises. To us, the employees, the issue was that the senior titles were insignificant in that we knew they didn’t mean anything, and the equity could not be activated unless you were at the company for three additional years. We were genuinely hurt, thinking “Had we not proven our commitment to the company already? Did we really need to wait three years to fully possess equity in a company we were helping to build?” It didn’t feel fair or reassuring to us; we were at a loss.
Third, innovations from other companies (not to mention Google’s own rich snippet that displayed event times and dates) started putting pressure on our team to come up with creative hacks to outpace the competition. Rather than focusing on developing our own set of innovations, our team was instructed to focus on finding more partners, which was fair in some ways insomuch as that if we scaled our volume of partners we could get more people accustomed to our site over the other sites in the market. But we weren’t salespeople by any stretch of the imagination. Then again, overnight we shifted from a content team to an outreach and sales team – because it was what the company needed – which made logical sense from a business perspective but absolutely no sense from a logistics perspective: How were we supposed to deploy tactics we weren’t familiar with, with skills we didn’t have? Don’t get me wrong, we did it, and we did a fair job, mainly because we were told it was in the company’s best interest, but it didn’t sit right with us at all. Not to mention the equity threshold remained at three years.
Long story short, these red flags became dense blinders, and sadly we never saw the company or our company’s leadership the same way ever again.
And it was at this moment when I realized I needed to leave the startup I loved. I took a weekend to myself and thought long and hard about my options, and I felt this was a dire choice because I truly loved the startup, though, I knew there wasn’t a future at the startup that made me feel safe or made me feel fulfilled in terms of my long-term needs. In addition, the following four thoughts continued to fuel my realization:
- I was promised a raise; I never got one.
- I was promised the weekend work was temporary; it was indefinite and it never ceased.
Lack of Faith
- I don’t have faith in this company if they’re willing to pivot impulsively and not think about long-term success.
- I don’t have faith in this company if it’s not willing to do whatever it takes to keep its best employees, and that includes me.
What’s sad about working at a startup you love is that you give it your all and make sure you approach everything with a “we” mentality, as opposed to an “I” mentality.
But when the “we” crumbles and you realize it was manufactured to lure you into stay at a company that didn’t have the wherewithal to pay you what you deserve or give you the leadership threshold you need to feel as if you can definitively impact the startup you love, you have to focus on you and start embodying an “I” mentality whether you like it or not.
It’s like belonging to a dysfunctional and abusive family that just isn’t healthy for you – and that’s because it takes advantage of you. It thinks you’ll stick around forever because of your emotional attachment to it, but sooner or later you have to come to grips with what you want, and you have to put yourself first. You have to draw the line and tell your family (or company) what you will accept and what you will not, and if they’re not willing to do what’s imperative to work on their flaws then what are you left to do? You have to leave and move on.
You have to build yourself up from your learnings and experiences and see to it that you build the life and career you deserve, even if that means completely changing your job.
That’s what I learned along this journey. I can gladly say that leaving the startup I loved, however painful, was the best decision I ever made in my career. It was tough, and while the next company was certainly no family, it at least didn’t try to contain me – it gave me the space I needed to focus on propelling myself, and that made all the difference.
About Guest Contributor Alex Sal
Alex Sal is a business journalist, startup entrepreneur, and market researcher. He is also a frequent contributing writer for Markitors.com and Cake.HR, and a recent graduate of economics from Queens College.