Jumping from a luxury liner to leaky ship – Why you need to join startups

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So I’m sure you have heard about this now – Adnan (from Lootmaar.com), Jawwad, and I are playing tag on perhaps one of the most relevant debates of our times.

Why shouldn’t young graduates join MNCs? Why care about small startup companies?

To catch up, read Jawwad’s rant, Adnan’s comment and Jawwad’s Reply.

My turn.

The first real trouble so far with the debate is that we don’t have one definition for “success”. Adnan echoes what many kids I’ve seen have said — why not join MNCs when they give you global tours, access to high-level customers and execs, reputation and more?

The simplest answer is because these reasons are not enough reasons to consider working anywhere.

Did you decide to invest a lot of money in your education, picking a major and career and profession, swearing to uphold the civic responsibilities of that profession, just so you could tour Cape Town once in a while?

If you did, this thinking is likely to become career suicide for you when your skillsets become obsolete in 2 years and you realize you’re the last person to jump on the new curve of knowledge (even after an MBA). A quote for this:

Is it not strange that nights go by and I do not increase in knowledge, yet this time is counted as part of my life?” – Al-Sha’afi

You may survive this initial obsoleteness by convincing yourself that you’ve gained other “skills” that still makes you “safe” in the MNC — you tell yourself “Oh hey but I’ve learnt how to convincingly present the third draft of the production plan to the 2nd-tier steering committee for the annual review! That’s not an easy job, you know — committees aren’t known for their openness”.

This goes by for 30 odd years and then you face your second biggest crisis — one day you wake up to realize that the excuses you’ve been giving yourself don’t work anymore, and that you’ve actually amounted to someone who hasn’t made any significant contribution to the global society, or to the increase of the total set of knowledge in the world.

You realize that while you spent your life looking at other people and knowing that you’re going on more foreign tours than them, now you look at them and realize that they introduced more knowledge in the world for future generations, and hence ultimately have something that all of your MasterCards can’t buy – wisdom from a hands-on perspective of the world that has matured with age like a fine wine. You realize you don’t even have the age left to become a good blend yourself, and that time is the only truly scarce commodity in the world. Usually, you then decide to take on much simpler, smaller challenges (such as “categorizing the different shapes of leaves”) to make the best wine you can with the time you have left.

Psychologists in the west call this the “mid-life crisis” to simply brush it off and let capitalism run its course — entrepreneurs in college call this “the club”, which is usually prefixed with the phrase “Yeah, join the…”

Entrepreneurs are people who realize very early how they can avoid a mid-life breakdown. People like Mansoor have inner-voices that help them realize early enough that a different perspective is needed on how to define success for themselves. (P.S. Mansoor I’m glad to know your father is well)

That is the real debate: How do you define success?

Faisal Chohan says (BrightSpyre.com) that the key decision to make is whether your goal is to “Make Money or Make Meaning”

Jawwad says “When God finally takes me, I don’t want to look back at the life that could have been, I want to look death in the eyes and say, “You can take me now for I have been worthy of the fire.”

Asif Razzaque says that the Key Decision is to find out whether you are a Knight or a Wizard.

In more general terms, this is probably the general types of people you might meet:

1- There are people who have created enough veils of self-doubt that they gave up early enough in life – they never want to increase knowledge, change the world, make a difference or otherwise have no aspirations other than those of “getting by” through life “comfortably” without really working too hard.

Even when they try to question the status quo of their lives, they are immediately hammered back into place by caving to peer, family and societal pressure.

These are Jawwad’s pink-slip crowd.

2- There are people who want society to judge them as innovative people, but don’t actually have what it takes to be that. They want to be entrepreneurs but don’t want to work at it. You’ll find these people gravitating to actual entrepreneurs and speak to them like peers — discussing how that “recent blog entry by Scoble definitively describes startup strategy”, speaking like they understand value-chain-planning for new businesses, they they understand that “getting to market quickly” is important for success.

They’ll try to “fit in” by ranting in just the same way as their “host” entrepreneur rants by regurgitating cliched startup advice “Exactly… thats why I always say tech products that dont actually create business value are useless”. They will use complicated buzzwords to inflate everything they describe.

However, they will still want cushy jobs at market rates. Give them an actual value-chain problem and they choke. Tell them “ok great — so how about you lead this business unit and make it successful” and they disappear.

Even when they do start ventures, it is usually done as the 5th partner in a group of 6 where they are only playing a part-time or advisory role in a yet-another-outsourcing-business firm who only take on a projects that have been done 20 times successfully (e.g. HRM solutions).

They do have a role to play, however. Given an equivalent salary structure, they will be more willing to join a small team at a time when an entrepreneur needs it the most. However, these aren’t the people the entrepreneur can expect to stay in the office with till 11pm strategizing with him or her on how to move business forward.

3- Then there are people how cannot see a broken world. These are the types whose friends keep recommending them to OCD treatment centers. These people cannot stand 5-mins looking at a broken system / gap / hole-in-the-dam-and-water-pouring-out without feeling an overwhelming need to make a difference and fix the problem. This energy of making meaning in itself distorts the realities and risks of the situation from them.

These people go to any length to solve the problem, even if they have to invent solutions, insights, knowledge and more — to fix the issue at hand. They describe things by simplifying complex models into everyday analogies such as “Oh this is the same way Pizza is made” or “Computers are like the Bicycles for the Mind

These are the people who innovate on business models, on products, and on ideas; who take on insanely uphill challenges ; who wouldn’t even notice where they sit to work, even if its in a garage-sized office with cardboard boxes for tables, because all they are obsessed about is that problem.

The funny consequence of this obsession is that this razor-sharp focus in itself can make them succeed — they find other like-minded people obsessed about the same problem and build a team organically around them; they find customers waiting all their life for a solution like theirs.

Like Jawwad says, “Dont follow the money, the money will follow you”.

Like Guy Kawasaki says “The theory goes: If you make meaning, you will automatically make money.”

4- Finally, there are entrepreneurs who do it solely because they want to be rich. While people disagree on whether this is the right incentive to be an entrepreneur, these people are still mature enough to understand that it does not matter what I earn tomorrow immediately after graduating from college, as long as 5 years from now I am better off. These people make well-judged long-term bets and as such are still less likely to start the yet-another-business-outsourcing firm.

How does all this help the MNC vs Startup debate?

Understand which of the above you are will help you realize where you want to be.

My take on success is one of the craziest you’re likely to hear today, but it’s the simplest analogy I can think of for a complex model.

With explosive growth in the abilty of children to have access to knowledge and information, you will face a time of embarrassment in your future life.

It will be when you sit down with your grandkids and are beaming with pride when you’re about to teach them “the hard lessons” that you’ve learnt in life over 30 years of fighting corporate redtape. It will be when your grandkids will slam you shut saying “Duh! Google said that already granddad— geesh you live in stone ages eh?”

It will be when you heart sinks to the bottom of this mid-age crisis.

To tell your grandkids something that they wont know already by that time, Google must not know about it. For that to happen, your insight must be something that you created by yourself. Your life must be defined by knowledge that you defined and proved and introduced in the world.

My take on success is: Do something that you will be proud of telling your grandkids. Dont tell them you made shampoo all your life.

To get started on that today, consider that no other environment but a startup or small product company empowers you to be able to do this (atleast in PK).

No other environment but product-based startups will give you the direct hands-on exposure to cutting-edge knowledge and concepts that go behind the innovations in the product.

No other environment will make your ideas and insights matter — where the executive team actually takes you seriously, deliberates and consider your ideas; where everyone nurtures and grooms each other on the concepts that are required for success (e.g. program management, value-chain planning, usability, etc.)

No other environment will give you an equivalent amount of rewards for making insight. If your ideas makes the startup successful, you face an obscene amount of growth in salary and position as the company grows, and can just as easily start dealing with CxO level people.

Finally, no other environment will give you so much breathing room — flexible timings ; working on your own terms ; bosses that are friends more than managers ; having control of your own future, etc.

No other boat but a leaky ship will get so much of your creative juices flowing as you all figure out how to make it stop leaking.

If you do this, you’ll find that a few thousand rupees here and there stop mattering to you, and a few thousand rupees here and there becomes easy for your small-company bosses to give you.

How do you get started?

I dont recommend people fresh out of college to go straight into building their own startup. The reason for this is that the world has become so complex and sophisticated — business models have been refined so much; technology solutions vertically integrated to such an extent — that you actually need to get some actual hands-on experience in the industry you want to address and solve, before you jump into your own thing.

In other words, Scrybe couldn’t be scrybe without the proprietary insight on usability that the founders learnt in their careers. PixSense couldn’t be PixSense without their experiences on Mobile Video Compression they got from Clickmarks and Nokia.

I recommend that straight out of college you should join a product-development startup rather than starting your own and rather than looking for MNC work. This will give you deep experience in an industry, leadership, business strategy as well let you see the entire lifecycle of products. This will let you build relationships with industry seniors who will support you happily when you start your own venture, or which will be priceless even if later you want to join an MNC.

But I recommend staying with product-oriented startup companies for 4-5 years first, gain the experience, help them (and yourself) grow, and then build your own leaky raft for your own journey.

Fahd (Amaana), Salman (RadicalHire), Kashif (Chowrangi), Asif Razzaque: Tag, you’re it.

Facebook comments:


  • Thankyou osama. Very good insight.

    This is one of the battles i keep fighting in my life as well. I decided to join a startup, Business Beam, right out of college. My reasons at that point were simply because it was doing the work i wanted to get into, and i hated the corporate thing.

    Over time, i’ve had tremendous pressure from peers (who say i should’ve joined systems, kalsoft or 360 degreez as an s/w engineer) and my parents (who are skeptical of the small start-up idea and now want to see me into the ‘big leagues’, very valid for them, not so much for me).

    Over time, all the justifications you presented of joining a startup, from fixing leaking holes to getting rewarded with recognition to getting your ideas being implemented as corporate strategy have all been true, and while for a time in the middle i was skeptical myself of if this would be the “right way” to continue, i’ve decided MNC’s or even large corporations are not my thing. I’d rather MAKE one than JOIN one.

  • Asif Mateen

    Osama, great article. Interestingly, today i read another article on the same topic here:



  • Osama,
    Thanks for the link as well as your thoughts. I wish your ideas could get disseminated more. While I could harp on the lack of confidence of new grads to risk getting into a startup…I would rather talk about what startups can do, to attract talent. We need to build success stories, to build excitement and demonstrations of people making it big. I honestly don’t think such a thing can happen with a me-too-outsourcing company…startup or MNC.
    Startups are not for every body. You have to be a little bit crazy and way too optimistic to even want to get in. When I graduated from Caltech, I spurned offers from Xilinx, Sony and Oracle to join a 6 person startup. Two years, lots of headaches, heartaches, trials and tribulations later it had downsized to a 4 person company. I still have nightmares about those 2 crazy years…but I couldn’t learn that much in 5 years!
    I made lots of money from stock options (and patents) from my next company, which grew from a 16 person to 3500 company in my 7 years there. Ceased to be fun when it became so big and I quit for my own startup.
    I don’t think my path was necessarily better than others who just went to Oracle by default(for instance). Its just that I enjoyed the ride and wouldn’t have it any other way….

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