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

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.

If your employer won’t give you a staff loan, ditch them!

Your employer is probably demanding your arm, legs, and probably one of your kidneys. All fine and good; aren’t we all family? Not so fast: if they can’t do what families do by giving you a decent access to loans when you need it instead of loan sharks swimming around the murky waters of Nigeria, then maybe time you got another job.

You want to know why? Here we go!

In Africa, and especially Nigeria, we practically save for everything important for our lives. Rent, getting a car, paying school fees. Woe betides you if a nasty medical issue arises. That could be the end of you, or even worse a loved one. After all, we know most of us have poor savings.

Even much more, because there is no access to loans, most Nigerians aren’t able to live their dreams. They can’t go to good schools or send their kids there. They can’t live in their own homes. They can’t get a decent car. They can’t even get a good laptop to start working remotely. Oh right, even if they get a new laptop, what about getting a generator or solar inverter to keep the light on when PHCN strikes?

Getting a loan is one of the fastest ways to get things done. But getting a loan in Nigeria is treacherous. The bank you have been banking with for years is suddenly airing you or making demands even an angel can barely meet. The lending companies, on the other hand, are asking for interest rates so high you don’t know if you would give them your soul instead. You have also heard stories of how lenders disgrace people who were late to make payments.

No wonder less than 2% of Nigerians have access to credit.

Looking at the challenges of getting a credit when needed, it’s even 200% harder if you are working because this would be distracting, and demoralizing. And if you are slacking at work because you’re trying to get a loan, you may as well lose your job. Triple jeopardy! 

But you know what, don’t we turn to family when things go awry? Didn’t your boss just say last Friday that you’re family, to justify making you work the weekend?

So why isn’t your company lending you money? 😵

Don’t look confused. Companies offering their staff loans have been a staple of professional life for centuries. It’s almost not a privilege; it’s a right.

You wouldn’t even believe it, most of the middle-class to upper-class people in Nigeria today got a leg up in life with decent or cheap loans from the companies. Ask your CEO, Chairman, founder, etc. how life started for them. None of them was that thrifty or better than you – they all got loans at ridiculous rates to build the beautiful lives everyone admires. 

I for one got a cheap mortgage when I worked at United Bank for Africa without any background check. Thanks UBA! My first cars were gotten with zero interest company loans, I got home appliances through partnerships with my employers. 

While lending can be scary because many people don’t pay back, companies don’t have the fear that lenders have – they know you 100% in character and in truth; if you don’t pay your loan, you would be sacked. Oh! They even deduct the money from your paycheck and give you the balance. 

And it’s not because companies are nice (some are indeed very nice, like Lendsqr). Giving loans to staff keeps them motivated, focused, and happy. Taking away the distractions of hunting for loans at the time of need is super important for productivity and employee happiness.

And what can companies do for you? 

In truth, asking for a mortgage in this economy is killing even for the fattest companies. But at the minimum, they can help with personal loans to sort out things you can’t tell HR. They can help with asset finance to get devices, new generators (hoping you have the fuel to power it), inverter and solar panels. They can even help with loans for holidays – send you to far places so that when you come back, you are full of inspiration and deliver amazing quarters.

So what should you do? Just ask your HR for a company today. If she airs you, ask your founder, MD, Chairman, whatever. 

If your best friends and family can’t come to your aid when you need them, are they still friends or family? If your employer can’t save your hide when you need them the most, ditch them!

Is proof of funds a fraud?

The proof of funds loans has allowed over 100,000 Nigerians to travel abroad for schools or immigration without having the funds demanded by the embassies. This is a fraud but even then, what are the implications for Nigerians?

The proof of funds loan is the most important financial product to have impacted almost 100,000 middle-class Nigerians over the last two years. It has been the foundation to enable most Nigerians that have achieved the “Nigerian dream” to japa

But could this be the biggest fraud of all time? 

What is proof of funds?

This is a signed official statement of a bank account that a student or an immigrant has the funds to settle or take care of themselves in a foreign country. Embassies have been demanding this for centuries, especially the UK, Canadian and Australian embassies. 

What’s the genesis?

Let’s understand that to say our economy is battered and the country itself is messed up is an understatement. It’s expected for anyone with a shred of sense to run for their lives. Maybe if I didn’t think staying in cold weather too long would kill me, I would be running too.

The hitch is with a bad economy; people don’t have the money to provide proof of funds. Let’s think about it; If they had thousands of pounds stashed away somewhere, they might not be so desperate to run off to a foreign land in search of milk and honey. 

This is where the smart lenders entered the game. 

How does it work?

Lenders saw an opportunity to provide those with migration plans with a profitable loan product. Tons of lenders do this. They give individuals the large loan needed to show proof of funds to the embassies.

You’re probably wondering what’s stopping Nigerians from simply taking this loan and using the money to japa, never to be seen again, the same way they treat other loans. Well, the bank account containing the loan is controlled by an internal bank friend collaborating with the lender. The account is locked, so the borrower has no access to the funds. The money only belongs to you on paper.

If you take out a loan like this, you pay monthly interest in the region of 3%. So proof of funds of £20,000 means ₦20 million (yeah, a pound is about ₦1,000) and ₦600 thousand per month for six months. Good luck to all who set out on this journey.

Is proof of fund fraud?

Now let’s do a quick English language class. What exactly is fraud? The answer: a false representation of facts. The embassy has requested confirmation that you have funds to support yourself when you make the big move to their country. But you borrowed money that you definitely don’t have to prove, deceiving the authorities. 

It’s a fraud. No two names.

Take it easy; I’m not here to judge. I, too, did this when a family member was going for a post-graduate program. I used my boss’ account as a guarantee of funds. Don’t quote me; I will deny you. 

What would probably happen? 

As everything is abused by Nigerians, this would probably unravel soon. The outcry has already begun. Nigerians have started arriving in these countries with only little to their name and may soon become destitute. Many have already found themselves in less-than-ideal conditions; some have been asked to withdraw from universities because they couldn’t pay the balance of their fees. Others are homeless and forced just to lay their heads anywhere they find. 

These countries will soon find out that these guys never had the money in the first place. 

Would they ban us as the UAE did? Maybe not. But they could start doing what CBN did to those who asked for licenses (that’s a story for another day) by forcing them to either open an account in a foreign country or pay school fees and accommodation costs 100% ahead of visa application.
Although things are undeniably tough in Nigeria and many of us understand and maybe even sympathize with the japa craze, the sad reality about cutting corners like this is that those coming behind you will probably have to pay for your sins too.

The bold will always boss the smart around

Recently, I was enduring a never-ending stream of ranting from one of my mentees (why don’t I ever get paid for this?) about how he gives solid business propositions, but the founder and chief executive of his company doesn’t take his advice. But then when the so call CEO made a mess, my mentee had to do the cleanup.

Of course, my mentee is super smart. First class engineering from a top Nigerian school with IQ as many as floors in the Shanghai Tower. But then, here is a broken man who obviously deserves more and yet isn’t fulfilled. He works in a company that isn’t doing too well because it’s probably poorly managed by the CEO who tells him that if he was that good, he should have started something better.

Does this scene resonate with you? Probably yes.

His story forced me to look around, assess my own life and that of many friends, families, mentees, and random agberos around me. Why do apparently smart people get stalled in poor careers and [some] dumb people become successful? Was it luck? Or business smarts?

Of course, luck plays a role, but statistically, luck should smile on as many smart people as average jones. But empirically, I see most intelligent people working for those less smart. Meanwhile, you would expect the most successful people to be smart since they can use their intelligence to exploit opportunities more but alas, probably around me, this ain’t the case.

Sometimes we talk about hard work. Yes, working hard pays and working smarter pays better. But of what benefit is that if you are working smartly for your dumb bosses and you don’t get any of the upsides and only all the downsides? Most of the hardest working smart people I know work for less-smart bosses, and they rant about it so much my ears bleed. I need to see an ENT.

One thing that seems to be consistent with many founders is that they are bold. Successful founders come in all intellectual shapes and sizes and in various forms of dedication to the hours. But what you won’t take from them is their ability to charge headlong into whatever they believe. They are bold enough to make the leap, not sometimes of faith but many times out of the sheer ballsiness of it. The bold veer towards the edge of insanity to the right, conmanship to the left, inability to access limits to the top, and sheer audacity to the bottom.

I have seen guys walk up and promise delivery of certain products and services without a shred of where and how they would do it, sign the contract and then scamper around to deliver. Sometimes they fail, but when they succeed, maga pays!

And what do the bold do? They employ the smart “you” and “me” to make their dreams come through.

We ain’t all born bold – either because we lost our balls somewhere or we never even came with them. Therefore, we compensate by reading, become thought leaders (whatever that means), get multiple degrees and useless certifications. And when things get really awry, we skip town like Andrew to the US as illegal aliens or to Canada to freeze dry our brains in the name of greener (and extremely cold) pastures.

By the way, it’s not a crime not to be bold; if you don’t have it, you can’t do anything about it. Or maybe you can. I once heard that pretending to be brave and being bold are the same.

But to my many friends and mentees, if you think you are smarter than your boss, just suck it up and spare me the rant. Either you grow your cojones or zip your lips.

Multitasking is Good, Focus is Even Better!

I almost freaked out when I found out that I could cut steel and concrete with just a bottle of water, or simply by shining a torch light. Wait, with my bottle of Nestlé PureLife, I could cut down the Eiffel Tower?
Ok, I know that sounds dramatic and impossible, but the real gist of this is that you can cut steel or concrete with a water jet or laser. It sounds like science fiction, but that’s the power of focus.
Taking it further, I remember a very razz proverb from my grandma that says that you can make your pee foam – if you aim it at just one spot.
Science fiction or razzness aside, there is so much you can achieve in life and your career – just by the power of focus. It allows you to put together your mental, financial, and professional energy on what is imperative. Hopefully, you can have the superlative success that nobody would have imagined you are capable of.
The power of focus also goes into the everyday things we see around us. Think about how a small push of the brake pedal can stop the humongous SUV we are using to harass innocent Fiat Punto drivers on the roads. The little force from our spindly legs is multiplied by focusing it on a small area of the brake mechanism.
So it boils down to this: if you are trying to do many things at the same time, you may be praised as the master of multi-tasking, but the chance is pretty high you won’t achieve anything.
How this affects your career and your life
I once mentored a young woman. Bright and intense nonetheless, she was never able to break into the big league because of a major problem – she wanted to do so many things. From project management certifications to doing ACCA (sorry, accounting sucks), to running a hair salon side gig. Ultimately, her attention, energy, and intensity stretched thin. It was simply not enough to achieve success.
So, if you need to have a transformation that lasts and gets you there, the first big question would be – what would you rather be successful in… if you had just one chance?
Unfortunately, it’s hard to find an answer to that deceptively simple question easily. No wonder it has been hard to be successful as well. Sad.
So let’s say you are one of the few who knows what they want to be, the next thing would be to focus on it like a religion. Act like your life depends on it. The focus does the magic!
Run the distance
Focus is magic; but every magician will tell you, if you don’t have the crowd, you don’t have the magic! You need to run the distance for the focus to show its effect.
This reminds me of the few times I did some sit ups, then I gingerly touched my pouch, feeling for anything that looks like the start of a six pack. Of course, once I fell off my schedule after a few days, only the one pack stayed behind.
Simplification is deceptive
Before sauntering into the evening, I need to warn you that simplification is a façade. Yes, you need focus, and then you need focus to run the distance to achieve anything. Errm, that isn’t all to succeed. You need to run smart; you need a dose of luck.
Gosh! We need many things just to get a chance to succeed.