Brain drain is the root of Nigeria’s fraud pandemic

After my last article about the hushed rape of the Nigerian financial ecosystem, which some call fraud, quite a number of people reached out to share their horror stories hoping I could step in and solve their problems and it got me thinking.


I started asking myself – what’s the foundation of this horrible thing called fraud?


I worked in banking for 16 years before they kicked me out and I remember the quick and decisive ways we dealt with fraud in those days. And I keep asking myself – what happened to the good old days when we tackled fraud without mercy? What changed?

I hate to break it to you, but it’s the people. It’s the people who have changed.

The machine is fine, the man is not

I recently started working with banks again and I’ve found myself comparing the quality of people I knew and left in banking with those I meet with now. Sadly, the latter have come up short. 

Most of my colleagues back then are now Executive Directors and Managing Directors in the banks and I still engage with them often. Their quality remains undisputed; they’re still as sharp as ever, driven and want to get things done. This is a far cry from my experience working with the middle managers who are charged with running these banks. The difference is clear as day. The sad reality is that the incompetence, apathy and poor outcomes from the financial sector are because there are no good hands to manage things effectively anymore.

We’re all busy crying that the working class are leaving the country in droves but that’s not the real problem. The main issue is not that people are japa-ing, it’s that the BEST brains are the ones leaving. Those who successfully migrate to Canada or the UK, especially via the education pathway, are not your average guys. These are the brainy bunch who passed the IELTS, got top grades and paved the way with their competence. Let’s be serious, not many people fall into this category. 

The truth is that only the best brains can go, at least the right way. I’ll save my ink and not bother diving into the other ridiculous pathways.

Banking’s greatest hits are throwbacks

Think about this: what hit product has come out of banking in the past five years during this latest wave of brain drain?

Nothing.

Bank Verification Number (BVN), Interbank transfers, mobile money and all the other cool stuff that have transformed the Nigerian finance space over the last few years? Those either started a long time ago or are the latest innovations of fintechs founded by people who bailed on traditional banking.

The best guys are long gone and there’s no covering up anymore; it’s showing, especially in the fight against fraud. Those with the intelligence and competence to deal with the fraud pandemic aren’t around anymore.

The two major impacts of the best brains leaving is that they’re no longer here to teach the rookies and even more importantly, they are not around to dilute the influence of the poor talent. And now the whole nation is suffering for it.

Today, customers of every bank complain about unauthorized transactions on their account and what do we hear in response? Crickets. The ease with which fraudsters are taking the money shows zero competence from those in charge of stopping this. And don’t even get me started on the Know Your Customer (KYC) process from the stone age the banks still use. 

Lack of tech is not the problem so more tech is not the solution

Some people have come around to suggest the use of Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) etc. But the use of ML and AI only makes sense if the banks acknowledge they have a problem in the first place. If you report fraud to your bank today, the response will most likely lack the urgency that shows an understanding of the seriousness of the issue from the jump. So is it really the tech that’s lacking? 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is only as good as the Human Intelligence (HI) using it.

The tools the banks need to tackle fraud are gathering dust in their already existing arsenal. They’re not being used. Technology is not the problem.

Why won’t the banks come together to solve the problem and create an effective deterrent to fraud? Because it requires competence and discipline. And those two guys seem to have colluded and left the building. 😔

What’s the plan?

We’re in a serious crisis, and I don’t have the answer, but brain drain is the root of this problem. I cannot be convinced otherwise. But you are welcome to try. Let’s lay it all on the table and look at it together.

The leadership in the banks is still pretty impressive but they need to address this problem urgently. It’s time to either upskill their current talent or bring some of those who have japa’d to come back to help. It goes without saying that they will pay through their noses for this; especially for those who’ve gotten their papers and aren’t hungry anymore.

Because if this continues, contrary to what we like to tell ourselves, we will not be alright, and nothing will be okay.

Fraudsters are raping the Nigerian fintech space to death

Rape and financial fraud share a common thread: the silence of victims, often due to shame. In Nigeria, banks and fintechs suffer a N12 billion loss to fraud, yet remain silent, fearing the stigma. This silence hampers justice and perpetuates the cycle of crime.

Rape is the absolutely worst thing that could happen to anyone. It’s so horrible that if rapists are caught and sentenced to death, many people won’t even bat an eye and simply believe it’s justified. It’s so horrible that some rape victims commit suicide. 

But if it’s such a terrible offense with severe consequences, why do rapists often get away without consequences? The answer is pretty straightforward, albeit very sad: Most rape victims would rather keep mum than expose these bastards. 

Naturally, the next question could be why are victims so reluctant to step forward to the extent that many accept that they may never get justice but stay silent all the same? 

The answer to this, much like the former, is also quite straightforward. 

Shame. 

Nigerian banks and fintechs have been shamed into a N12 billion silence

It’s no secret that victims are often shamed into silence and even merely the thought of being shamed is enough of a deterrent for those who may want to speak up. Many times, people even forget about the guilty party and focus on grasping at straws to blame the victim and try to convince them that they were complicit in their attack.

Similarly, shame is what makes it difficult for financial providers whose businesses have been defrauded to speak up even when they can get justice from the authorities.

Would you believe that since the start of the year, there has been a systematic rape of banks and fintech? I’ve personally tallied ~N12 billion lost to frauds and hack. Every bank and fintech hit has been groaning in silence but no one is ready to speak up. 

And I’m not just talking about small or new banks, I’m talking about from the big 5 banks all the way down to the smallest ones; fintechs included. Business Day recently mentioned Fidelity, Access Bank, and others who have lost billions to fraud over the last few months

The discussions about fraud are happening behind closed doors, Telegram channels, WhatsApp groups and the groans are growing louder but still, no one is ready to break this costly silence.

And that, fellow Nigeria, is what the fraudsters are banking on.

Why is fraud running so rampant?

A major cause for concern is sloppy APIs and weak security infrastructure that allows bad actors to gain access to financial systems and move money out. However, despite the more sophisticated systems and security measures with the large banks, people are often the weak links in the system. 

Generally, humans will be careless but it also happens that bank staff are bribed to  bring in compromised devices to work, etc. which makes it possible for fraudsters to access the banks’ database externally and use private APIs to perpetuate all sorts of crimes. 

Of course, we can’t leave out the fraud committed using debit/credit cards and POS machines.  Chargeback fraud is so rife you could write an entire book around it. Chargeback destroyed Union54, a once promising African card processor

What happens to the stolen funds? 

Well, the stolen funds take quite the journey. First, the money is sent to another bank,  split and passed through even more banks before it then moves through some certain new generation banks; some of which are foreign-owned.

Nigerian banks protect themselves. When cases of unauthorized transactions are reported, it usually triggers a flurry of emails and calls between the banks and the accounts suspected to be involved are restricted pending further investigation. There’s a legal agreement between banks to do this. Albeit, not sanctioned by CBN. 

Unfortunately, the new generation banks and fintechs don’t comply with this rule and so the stolen funds simply disappear. Poof!

What’s the implication if this continues? 

The reality is that the traditional commercial banks make enough profit to cover getting hacked by APIs so while we should be concerned about them, they’re not the ones most affected by this menace. 

The real problem is with the everyday Nigerian who loses their hard-earned money. If the banks are unable to trace where the money went, there’s nothing they can do and their money is simply gone. 

The ability of the financial sector to play its role effectively is rooted in trust. Even the strongest economy will crumble if end users lose faith in the financial system. This is what’s at stake while fraudsters continue to destroy decades of work that the CBN, banks, and fintechs put in to build the system we currently have. 

For all its many woes, Nigeria is actually ahead of quite  a number of  its counterparts in terms of the capabilities in the financial sector; especially with electronic transactions.

Therefore, if Nigerians lose in electronic transactions, that sets us back significantly and all hopes of growing the economy vanish.

By law and regulations,  banks and fintechs are required to declare to the CBN whenever there is fraud; either hacks or just the everyday “Nigerian Prince” scenarios.  But we have to be pragmatic for a minute here. Remember the shame we spoke about earlier? Well, this is where it comes in. The shame associated with declaring a successful fraud attack to the CBN prevents affected organizations from doing so. 

If you have had the misfortune of CBN having you to explain your mistakes, then you would understand while sometimes when you kids get bullied in school, (or even more dastardly, raped) then you would know why no bank sings to the CBN when they are taken advantage of. 

To make it worse, when customers hear a bank has been hacked, it immediately reflects poorly on the business and suggests incompetence and an inability to meet expectations. 

It’s almost like the fraudsters responsible for these terrible acts don’t even exist at all.

But who is to blame here?

The short answer is everyone!. 

Quality of human resources within the banking and fintech ecosystems have taken the hit as every smart one of them has “japa“. Some of us may claim to “love” Naija but the truth is, the best and brightest have gone leaving us at the mercy of digital night marauders. 

Poor quality has led to poorer platforms. We now have very powerful APIs and other technical capabilities with sub-par resources to monitor and secure them. We are all dead men walking.

Banks and fintechs are sloppy with their Know Your Customer (KYC) and Customer Due Diligence (CDD). Or how do you explain Adedeji with N100k inflow over 24 months suddenly getting N10m and immediately moving that money out?

Super agents aren’t able to explain how sudden cash flies through some agents as cash and there are no ways to hold anyone accountable.

CBN is also not on top of these fraud issues. They don’t need someone to report themselves to know that all isn’t right with the system.

Enough of victim blaming and shaming.

How do we restore the trust that lines the financial system 

We’ve already established that everyone has dropped the ball but irrespective of who’s to blame, this issue must be addressed urgently. If not, once the trust in the system is destroyed, the center wouldn’t hold. Fintechs and digital financial services is one great thing Nigeria does well. It shouldn’t die.

CBN and banks should lead a tougher chargeback regime, similar to what happens with cards, for interbank frauds. This will force every bank to take KYC and CDD seriously.

Any bank on the chain found not to have done proper fraud profiling for transactions should be held responsible for the amount that passed through them. Enough of end-customers holding the bag when everything goes south. Let’s hold banks accountable for a change.

CBN, Banks and NIBSS should make it easier for anyone to report fraud. The current process is broken and doesn’t help anyone. They need to collaborate with the Nigerian Communications Commision (NCC) to make fraud so expensive for fraudsters so they reconsider their career choice. 

For instance, once implicated, a fraudster should be banned from all electronic transaction channels from 1 year to forever. Good luck to this individual.

The issue here is consequence management. When the authorities make the consequence for fraud expensive and damning, fraudsters will begin to borrow some sense. 

Until then, welcome to the league of the onlookers. Because everyday is like Christmas for these fraudsters while the rest of us are wondering when this comic episode will end.

10 reasons why I’ve fired my staff

Being a boss isn’t easy, especially when it comes to letting people go. Here are some absurd reasons I’ve had to say goodbye to employees. Or maybe not?

Being a boss is hard. But the hardest part may be letting people off when they don’t fit in. What constitutes “fit-in” is neither here nor there.

Here are 10 of the common “get the hell out of my office” lines I’ve ever used:

#1 I need to find myself

At some point in my life, I was so tired of being the boss. I didn’t want to keep being responsible for people and giving instructions. Everyone was so dependent on me, and I couldn’t keep doing that. It was suffocating. I needed some time to figure out what I wanted to do next and just catch a breath, so naturally, someone had to get fired. 

No, they didn’t do anything wrong. Their presence was just stifling me, and I couldn’t think. I was simply wrong for them at that time. It really was just a me problem but it’s too bad they had to pay the price. I hope they’re okay wherever they are now.

#2 My girlfriend doesn’t like you

Relationships are way more important than work and I would rather spend all my time with those I love than spend a few hours of my day with some people trying to do big things and solve problems. Work was taking up too much of my time. 

“Madam” absolutely resented the people I work with, most of all, my team leads with whom I spent most of my time. You know the saying, “happy (almost) wife, happy life”? I chose to be happy. My team leads needed to go. I’m sure they understood. 

Life is too fleeting not to chase love, whatever the cost.

#3 You don’t respect my boundaries

I had employees who kept calling me whenever customers had issues that needed to be resolved urgently. They insisted these were emergencies and keeping the customers satisfied was vital to keeping the company alive. 

It’s my company after all, I know what’s best for it. The customers can always wait till tomorrow. But you know who I couldn’t make room for tomorrow? The employees who disturbed my peace. I would have done a great disservice to myself if I didn’t fire them. Of course, I care about my customers, but not enough to sacrifice my boundaries. 

#4 I’m not getting value for this role

From time to time, employees talk about an increase in their salaries for a cost of living adjustment. What about me? Well, I decided to do a ‘cost-of-employing-you’ adjustment and I adjusted that to zero. It wasn’t my fault. The economy backed me in a corner and they needed to go. 

#5 You’re boring

If I’m going to devote my life to working with people, the least they can do is be interesting. Do you get the ‘ick’ about some people? When you can’t really put your finger on it but you just know you don’t like being around them. It’s too tedious.

It doesn’t matter if we’re doing serious business at work, you need to loosen up and make it your priority to be lively at work before anything else. Is that too much to ask? Ugh! Well some people gave me the ‘ick’ and I gave them the boot. Good riddance!

#6 You work too hard

I’m well aware that the purpose of coming to work is to … well, work but some people take it too seriously. Why would they work for hours on end and expect me to do the same? I don’t appreciate being nudged or having discipline forced down my throat. I prefer to work on my own terms and no, I don’t care if anyone is waiting on me. 

It’s just work. It can wait. Sheesh. Relax and live a little.

#7 You’re not a good friend

A lot of people like to say work is impersonal and the people you meet there are just your colleagues. That’s a whole lot of cow dung. If I’m going to spend about 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for about 40 years of my life with a bunch of people, we are family. I don’t care what the DNA results say. 

I employed them and I expect them to be good friends and stick with me through thick and thin. I need to feel excited to talk to them and above all, they need to understand me when I’m having a bad day and not hold me accountable. 

I’ve fired anyone who has been the opposite of this. I don’t have time for nonsense. Get an attitude adjustment.

#8 You do exactly what the company needs

This one really does my head in. Do you know how frustrating it is to work with oversabi people? I employed them to do A, why would they add B even though it’s absolutely necessary? They’re just employees. It’s not their business if the company will suffer when they don’t pitch in. 

I don’t like people who don’t know how to stick to their lane. 

Ewww

It’s no surprise when I want them gone. 

#9 God told me to let you off

I didn’t create myself so life isn’t always all about what I want but rather, what my creator commands. A few times, something about an employee just didn’t sit right with me. I tried to ignore that feeling but it just wouldn’t quit and I knew what I had to do. 

I felt so strongly in my Spirit that they had to go and I did the only thing I could do and fired them.

Who am I to say no when God says yes?

#10 You get upset when I’m being a bad boss

So what if I don’t pay their salaries for 3 months? Or what if I ignore my executive duties or deliver mediocre results? Why do they get so upset? Life is not that hard and I’m not perfect. 

My advice to them is to grow thicker skin and be more tolerant. And of course to get the hell out of my office. 

They don’t have what it takes to be here.

————

I know I have an enviable amount of self control and some of you have even fired people for less. I like to give people time to do the right thing but I can’t wait forever. I’m running a business, not “Adedeji Olowe’s halfway house for lost staff”. 

If I haven’t made it clear enough, my ideal staff consists of fun, lively individuals who don’t take work too seriously; do the bare minimum; don’t bother me with customer issues no matter how urgent; cater to my every mood and emotion; are willing to work for free, and of course, are thoroughly liked by my girlfriend.

What do you think? 

Absolutely RIDICULOUS right?!

Well that’s exactly how it sounds when employees quit their jobs AKA fire their bosses because they need to go “find themselves” or work isn’t “fun” or they get critical feedback for a poorly done job.

It’s work, not Disneyland. 

The reasons I’ve shared with you are actual real life reasons (some paraphrased, of course) that my staff have quit. Although I’ve seen this happen quite a number of times, it still shocks me everytime. It takes grit and discipline to build something valuable that will stand the test of time. It’s no easy feat and it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted. 

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been left high and dry for reasons I still can’t make sense till today. Employees tend to be so focused on what’s going on with them that they forget that their employers are human beings too.

If I acted on my every whim, where would we even be?

Delights, dangers, and disappointments of remote work

Remote work transformed the professional landscape, offering flexibility. Some prefer it, while others opt for traditional offices. Each approach has merits and drawbacks; choose what suits your needs.

Remote work or Work From home (WFM) is either the biggest blessing or the craziest curse to hit the professional landscape in the last 50 years. Before you scream your opinion, just know that views depend on who is making an opinion.

The impact of remote work on the global work culture has been undeniable. I think it’s just as transformative as the advent of cloud computing which allowed startups to work their magic. Who would have known Stripe, Paystack, Moniepoint without the ease of launching scrappy startups from the cloud?

Then the COVID-19 worldwide lockdown happened. 

And then individuals and organizations came to realize they could do so much more from their homes– the world unlocked a new realm of possibilities that had been hiding just under our noses.

There are only two kinds of people left in this world

It’s been three years since remote work became as normal as working from the office and now there are two kinds of people left in this world: those who want to work from home and those who want to return to their offices. A subset under those who want to work from the office is those who can’t even work from home to start with because they don’t have the means.This is prevalent in Africa where constant power and affordable stable-internet access is a daily miracle.

Some even pray for this 😞. 

The argument of whether or not it’s time to return to the office or if life can continue with remote work is one in which there’s some merit on all sides. Remote work introduces a much appreciated flexibility and, in many cases, boosts productivity, especially in cities like Lagos where long commutes are a norm. There’s no such thing as a 9-5 job in Lagos. 5-9 is a more accurate description for the average Lagosian when one considers travel time to and from work and traffic conditions. Personally, there are some places I dread going to in Lagos for fear of growing old and missing the birth of my grandchildren because I’m stuck in traffic. 

Alternatively, for those pushing to go back to the office, they’ve probably measured their productivity in both situations and determined they’re better off with traditional office-based work. Access to power, internet and no screaming family members or daytime chores? Can we really blame them?

Don’t even start with annoying parents who send their grown kids on errands during work hours.

Hybrid work presents a middle ground and has its own benefits. Sometimes, being able to meet up with colleagues physically just makes sense. Teams are able to balance virtual interactions with occasional in-person collaboration.

As much as there are merits to all sides of the arguments, some professions don’t have the luxury of choice. For instance, pilots, air hostesses, logistics agents, etc. Try being a dispatch rider from home and see how that works out for you. 

If remote work met the love of its life and had a poster child, it’ll be me

There are people like me for whom remote work has done wonders and fueled innovation and growth. Without the opportunity to remote work, my Lending-as-a-Service (LaaS) startup, Lendsqr, wouldn’t exist and I probably wouldn’t be configured the way I am right now.

Obviously, I had to do Lendsqr by the side when I had a corporate job but it wasn’t scaling. I barely had time to check on it and it stayed a tiny operation on the road to who knows where not. Then the COVID-19 lockdown happened and suddenly I could do it all. I could tap into a diverse pool of talent across Nigeria, work from home and work for as long as possible. Additionally, I didn’t have to hide what I was doing in the office. 

That was how Lendsqr grew. 

This isn’t unique to Lendsqr alone. That’s how a lot of companies flourished between 2020 and now. Of course, some others had been working remotely even before then but it was a relatively new development to much of the world.

Remote work is a great color on my company, Lendsqr

During one of my recent travels, I met a bunch of founders and business owners who all had offices in Nigeria at one time but had to shut them all down because the cost of running those spaces was unreasonable. That’s just the reality of trying to run a business from physical offices. In the last few years, the price of everything has gone up: diesel, petrol, rent, etc. For large organizations with big business and cash flow, perhaps the price hikes have been manageable. But not so much for small operations. 

Lendsqr isn’t profitable yet (sadly) but if we had decided to operate from a physical office, we probably wouldn’t exist anymore. 

Last year, I considered using one of my apartments as Lendsqr’s office and after looking at what it would cost to set the place up into a really nice office, I just didn’t think it was worth it. That money would have been better spent on salaries for the next few months. The opportunity to work remotely has allowed us to significantly reduce operational costs and redirect our funds towards growth and employee wellness.

One of the blessings I’m most grateful for operating remotely hasn’t even been the cost savings. It’s the opportunity to have discovered a few young people that have been extremely amazing.

In Lendsqr, access to quality talent is one of the benefits we enjoy from operating remotely. If we weren’t operating remotely, we would need to have an office and by extension, only be able to employ only people who could easily get to the office. This would limit our recruitment to a very narrow geographical area.

Some of the best people that have worked in Lendsqr have been from all over Nigeria: Abuja, Kaduna, Port Harcourt, Benin, etc. These are people who would have never been able to come work with us if we didn’t operate remotely and Lendsqr would have been forced to compete in a very narrow space.

I’m sure we can all agree that the flexibility from working remotely is also unmatched. My staff can jump on different projects throughout the day and take a nap to recharge as well. Yes, we sleep at work … but with sense. They don’t need to sit in traffic for hours or think about getting robbed on the way to work. They also don’t need to worry about getting to work tired or coming to the office smelling like petrol and fumes (sorry guys, but it’s true) from commuting. Uber is out of the question of course, that’s expensive for most and not sustainable for all.

If Lendsqr had a voice, it’ll probably curse remote work sometimes too

Operating remotely also comes with its own significant pains, of course. The most obvious one is that employee retention becomes a concern. Wait. Don’t jump to the conclusion that it’s because I’m impossible to work with. Those who’ve stuck with me the longest are actually the ones who’ve seen even the worst of me. 

Virtual meetings are a pain; video meetings are a curse. They drain you so deeply you are more tired than a 70 year old running a marathon the first time. It never ends well.  

The real reason is that with remote work, the ease of exploring alternative employment opportunities is frictionless. They can jump on calls, take interviews, and close new jobs without breaking a sweat. This would have been incredibly difficult to do if they were working out of an office. If you don’t agree, do your next interview in your current company open-plan office and then let me know how unemployment is treating you.

Also, there are some issues with the quality of work. It takes longer to get some things done with the communication barriers and longer review cycles. These are things that would probably only take a couple of minutes to refine if we could just stroll into each other’s offices. Don’t even mention how difficult it is to have decent conversations via chat when your colleague takes 57 minutes to reply to each message.

It’s not the common view but working remotely actually demands more discipline and not a lot of people have it. People can tell you they’re working on something already meanwhile they haven’t even opened the brief. Guess what? There’s nothing one can do about it. 

I see the lack of discipline a lot with young people who usually have a hard time fitting in. But you can’t blame them at all! 

You have green talent, fresh out of school, have never worked before and they come into a remote job. How do they make themselves sit at a desk everyday and do the work without being pushed? Many get distracted with domestic responsibilities, seeing friends, playing games, binge-watching series, etc. You can get on a call and ask people to turn on their videos only to discover someone has been on the road somewhere doing something completely unrelated to work. 

Everyone knows this can’t happen when you work physically and no one gets to go home until the day’s work is actually done. With remote work, someone says their internet isn’t working and poof everyone disappears. 

To each his own. I know my own.

Hybrid work seems to be the best and we’d have the chance to bond and connect more when we see each other physically. However, it’s not always practical. I can’t always get my designer in Kaduna, developer in Abuja or support person in Port Harcourt to come down to Lagos to work. 

Lendsqr will probably continue to operate remotely for a long time. However, I can’t ignore what I’m missing out on from not having a physical office. I wish we could be more stable. The attrition rate is atrocious and we, myself included, could all benefit from being even more disciplined than we are now. Although, I do recognize that some people who work physically just pretend to be busy while they misuse theirs and company time gisting and doing other irrelevant things.

The reality is that remote work comes with many blessings and many curses. It’s up to you to decide which works best for you. I won’t recommend any approach to anyone because it depends on what you have the capacity to make work.

Just like cloud computing created the opportunity for startups to build things without having to actually build things, remote work has created the opportunity for serious-minded people to build beautiful careers. 

Above all, do what works best for you. I know I am.

Look before you leap: A practical guide for those who want to work in startups

Startups are hailed for their transformative potential, yet the reality of their challenges often remains overlooked. Joining one demands immense dedication, resilience, and a readiness for relentless hard work. It’s not for everyone.

Startups have undeniably fueled global economic growth over the last 30 years. In Africa, success stories like Paystack, Moniepoint, and Piggyvest have demonstrated the value startups can create. The irresistible allure of startups, driven by their achievements, entices many to join their ranks.

However, here’s the question, “is everyone truly cut out to work in a startup?”

Focusing on successful startups alone is like admiring a pretty, healthy child without acknowledging the traumatizing birthing experience for the mother and the challenging journey that led to their growth. Startups can be likened to sperm cells; billions of them are produced but only very few are fertilized and end up becoming children. In the same vein, startups emerge from a myriad of ideas, yet only a fraction possess the potential to flourish and only a handful of passionate individuals believe so deeply in their viability that they bring these ideas to life as companies. 

Startups are built on rocky ground

Building a startup is extremely hard and the odds of success are strikingly low . Statistics show that 90% of startups fail. The stories we hear of successful startups are compelling, but the incredibly painful journey and exhaustive effort behind their success often remain untold — after all, these stories don’t exactly fit the glamorous narrative. 

For job aspirants, it’s easy to romanticize startups, envisioning young people like them accomplishing remarkable things. They believe in their own potential and aspire to contribute meaningfully to the cause. Or it could even be that their pastor told them they’re destined for greatness and they want in on that ASAP. 

Work-life balance who? Sorry, she doesn’t work here!

Reality check: over 95% of individuals who join a startup without a clear understanding of the demands end up regretting their decision. Note, this doesn’t imply that 95% of startup employees experience regret, but rather those who plunge into the startup world unaware. So, a word of advice— people, do your research! However, since you’re already here, let me be nice and give you a glimpse into what lies ahead. 

Imagine running up a moving escalator that’s heading down.

Yes, that’s exactly what building and working in a startup feels like —exhilarating if you make it to the top, yet spectators don’t understand your struggles and some may even think you’re crazy for trying.

Now, back to my analogy on startups and child-rearing. Working in a startup is a lot like raising a baby; they’re cute and they coo, and people love to look at them and pinch their cheeks but the reality behind closed doors is far from ideal. They pee, poo whenever, scream like banshees, fall ill a lot and don’t grow fast enough.They demand an enormous amount of effort but most of that stuff, however, isn’t visible to outsiders.

Working in a startup is immensely challenging. Work-life balance? That idea might need to take a backseat, at least in the initial stages. If you try to balance work and personal life in a startup, you won’t be successful in either; you’ll struggle at work and your life won’t be balanced. And that’s not a curse.

Hold on, before you come for me, I’m not discrediting the importance of work-life balance. Eventually, the “child” will grow up and maybe even end up taking care of the parent; but there’s an initial stage of dedication that’s necessary for the future well-being of all involved. That’s the same way it is with a startup. There’s no work-life balance at the early stages; not until the startup achieves stability and success and grows enough to accommodate it. 

Much like parenting, a startup becomes your life, but only temporarily.  If you grind hard at it and the start up becomes successful, then you have the chance to be recompensed for all you put in. Ask any parent who sacrificed for their children’s future—their sacrifice pays off over time.

Reality check: leave startups alone if this is you

Let’s pause and answer a brief questionnaire:

  • Do rigid boundaries and structured roles appeal to you? – If you were employed to do A, you must not be asked to do B.
  • Do you struggle with health issues like high blood pressure, etc.?
  • Can you work and adapt quickly to rapid changes?
  • Can you handle high-pressure situations?

If you answered yes to any of the first two questions and no to the last two, please go back home; working in a startup isn’t for you.

Startups aren’t for the faint-hearted

The glory of a successful startup is enviable but one has to be fully aware of what it takes to get there. It’s unfair, deceptive and downright reckless to enter a startup if you don’t have the mental fortitude required. You will definitely fail and maybe even endanger the entire company if you fail epically enough. 

It’s equally misguided to request a founder to slow down for the sake of your work-life balance. Doing so could spell doom for the startup. You either agree to do that mad job to raise the startup ‘child’ or don’t get into it. It can destroy you if you don’t have the fortitude to get through it. 

I’m not trying to glorify pain, I’m simply telling what it takes to build something great.

So what do you do if you get in and realize you can’t cope with it? Leave!  The nature of the startup won’t change to accommodate your preferences. If the startup slows down for you to give you that time you want, that startup will die a miserable death. You have to ask yourself: do you want to leave the job or do you want to destroy the company? There’s no other way. If an alternative exists other than full commitment, then it’s not a startup.

Startups aren’t the only fertile ground for greatness …

As much as I’ve spoken about how much strength and determination it takes to thrive in a startup, does this mean you can only achieve greatness in a startup? Not at all.

If you’re good at your job and are responsible with what you do, you can find yourself work in an established organization and build an awesome career. For instance, if you work in a bank, that means the possibility of getting promoted every two years with a salary bump and if you’re diligent, you move up faster. The same applies to opportunities for growth and advancement if you decide to work for the government.

The point is that you don’t need to contort yourself to fit in a startup or try to disrupt the workflow there, you can go somewhere else your talents are appreciated and you can truly shine. What is it they say, go where you’re loved (as you are)? Yes, do that.

… But here’s the greatness you can achieve in a startup

I do hope I’ve not tarnished the image of startups as modern-day boogeymen. Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s greatly rewarding. Now, let’s address the question: “What’s in it for me if I commit to a startup?” The short answer: fulfillment and financial success.

You know that feeling you get when you finally get that broken thing in your house to work again after trying for what felt like forever? Just hold on to that feeling and multiply it tenfold.That’s the bliss and pride that surfaces when a startup finally overcomes its challenges and breaks into success. 

In a startup, solving the problems might feel a lot like having to find the right key to unlock say 5 doors from a bowl containing 156 different keys. And no, the keys aren’t labeled or tagged. So it’s only fair those who are around long enough to make it work win and win big. 

For those who stay and decide to build a startup to success, no one can take away the satisfaction of conquering a million and one obstacles. Also, unlike most established organizations, startup employees handle huge amounts of responsibility and are able to see a more direct relationship between their decisions and the impact on the company and customer satisfaction.

If ever there was a “Jack of all trades, master of one, novice of none”, it’ll probably be in reference to startup employees. The solutions required in a “baby” company are varied and often require employees to know a lot about everything in addition to their core area of expertise.This presents a unique opportunity for both wider and deeper learning and what the younger employees may not have in years of experience, they make up for in depth of experience. It’s little wonder that startup employees are often rewarded with a stake in the company. 

Finally, for the million dollar question, “will I get my life back?” The answer is a big fat YES. Work-life balance will come naturally when the bulk of the work has been done and dusted and all that’s left is to watch the company flourish. The great thing is by this time, most of the stuff works on autopilot anyway but that’s only because you already poured blood, sweat and tears to make it great.

New beginnings are wonderful, but we can’t get carried away with the pretty stories and forget that it’s back-breaking labor that births greatness.