By Frances Advincula
I subscribed to Inc. Magazine when I was 10. I bought the domain name BuyConvectionOvens.com because I saw an infomercial on internet businesses that said you should start a business that resonate with what you love. At the time, my dad and I spent a lot of time baking on the weekends, so to my 10-year old self, an online business selling ovens made complete total sense. (Please don’t laugh.)
That’s when I first started playing with HTML, which unfortunately didn’t get restarted until I was in undergrad.
So I always knew I wanted to be part of the startup world from a very early age, even before I was aware of the word “startup.” And even though I found myself with an amazing job as a software engineer in Corporate America, I still tried to be involved with startups (contributing to and voraciously reading Femgineer, Women2.com, etc.).
Poornima has always tried to convince me to move to the Bay, but the timing was never right. I was enjoying my job building enterprise software with smart and amazing people. In fact, we were so close that as a young female living alone in the city, I referred to my coworkers as my family.
However, last January, in a surprisingly serendipitous turn of events (like life never turning out how you planned), I decided maybe it was time for a big, risky change, and I asked Poornima to help me find opportunities in Silicon Valley. Amazingly, Poornima introduced me to several startups, and the next week, I already had interviews lined up. Poornima advised me to really take the time to get to know these companies. As an engineer, she said, the odds are in my favor, and I should really be careful about picking one that is well-aligned with my culture and values.
And then the most magical thing happened: nousDECOR — an amazing startup revolutionizing the way we curate, create, and consume interior design and household goods — offered me the opportunity to join their team.
So, like the luckiest damsel in distress, I know had a huge problem. Do I leave a very safe, prestigious job that I loved to pursue my entrepreneurial dreams?
It definitely was not an easy choice. I was definitely my company’s baby — I had started my career there as an intern, and they hired me right out of undergrad. I was on their fast-track; they were molding me be part of the next generation of leaders. And yet, and yet, although a lot of startups have courted me in the past, something with this specific one tugged at my heart strings — I believed in the product’s potential and I wanted to be part of it.
Like Sheryl Sandberg said, ‘If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, get on…”
So just like any career-minded young professional, I decided to talk to my mentors. My mentor at the big company, a celebrated software architect, who of course wanted me to stay, said that I should do what will make me happy, because only happy people perform. The astronaut told me that he has known me for a long time and this position is the very epitome of what I would want. My best friend told me I that I never shut up about startups, and this one is THE ONE.
Poornima encouraged me to think through things. She specifically told me to ponder the following:
1. Why is this a unique opportunity?
2. Do you think the founders are a good leaders?
3. Are there other engineers you can learn from?
4. Is the compensation fair?
5. What do you want to learn and how do you want to grow?
Why is this a unique opportunity?
Like Poornima mentioned, we need to be really careful about how we fit in the company’s culture. Skills can always be learned, but fit cannot. I’ve been at the position of choosing Corporate America + grad school versus a startup plenty of times. About a year ago, I wrote to Jen Dziura who started multiple business as well, (yes, that article is me), and below is her advice:
“There will be a lot of other startups. How hard would it be to get hired as a software engineer at another startup, later? Especially once you’ve finished your degree, and have even more full-time experience? What makes this the startup?”
So if you find yourself in a similar situation, think to yourself, “What makes this the startup?” For me, I’ve always, always loved interior design. I have always been looking for something that is in the intersection of the arts and technology, and anything that had a hint of democratizing something originally thought of as elite. I have tried interior design blogging back in undergrad and even had a short stint as a contributor to the first iPad Fashion Magazine, JSNQ. In fact, my favorite column at Vogue is APT with LSD.
Again, the bottom line is you really have to ask yourself if you believe in the product and if you are a good culture fit.
Do you think the founders are good leaders?
I’ve always subscribed to the idea that you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with, so always, always strive to be surrounded by great people that know more than you! The founders of nousDecor, both Heather and Dorothee, have over 30 years combined of experience in both the startup world and the Fortune 500 world. Heather was the 8th employee at Youtube, where she helped the site scale to what we know it now during its rapid growth, advising startups for the last 15 years. Dorothee, on the other hand, has vast experience with strategy and marketing from prestigious organizations such as PowerBar/Nestle, Visa, The Home Depot.
Most of my professional life has been staring at leadership boards where there are only a couple of women, so now that I am about to join a startup founded by exceptional leaders who happen to be female, I am beyond ecstatic.
Are there engineers you can learn from?
This is a no brainer. Software development is a team sport. To be a superstar engineer, be part of a superstar team. This is best summarized by the article
“Focus on building 10x teams, not on hiring 10x developers” by Avichal Garg.
“Software development, however, is more like rowing. It’s a team sport that requires skill and synchronization. This applies at all scales. On a three-person boat, one person out of sync will stall your boat. As you get bigger, no single developer can impact your team’s performance, so again synchronization is key.
Making your team as efficient as possible is what determines long-term success. ”
Fortunately, for me, this has never been an issue with either company. However, if you are fielding offers, especially now that it is almost graduation season, keep this in mind.
Is the compensation fair?
Obviously, you would want to get paid at least market share, but I want to take this opportunity talk more about equity, which is still a fuzzy concept to me. I will just go ahead and quote Poornima’s excellent advice directly:
“Given that you are a startup you MUST ask for equity and be careful of dilution. Dilution is basically your equity percentage shrinking with subsequent rounds of funding, so your ownership percentage goes down, but the value of it goes up because the value of the company should go up with additional funding rounds. I say should because some companies will have what’s known as a down round where they take money but the valuation goes down. There should also be ways for you to receive additional equity. Typically you receive some at the beginning and it vests over 4 years, but many companies give additional equity to their veteran employees who have been there usually after 2 years. There is of course a new 4-year vesting cycle that goes with that new equity. For someone of your caliber I wouldn’t expect anything less than 2-3% equity, given your level. ”
Bottom line: know your worth and negotiate.
What do you want to learn and how do you want to grow?
I had to really think about how I would want to learn. As you can imagine, Corporate America is very different — there are more formal processes, channels, and even mentorship programs. In fact, I have grown tremendously as an engineer and as a leader because of my company’s formal mentorship program. But a startup won’t have that. You have to get things done that you don’t always know how to do. Fortunately, Poornima said everyone in the Bay is very helpful, and just because your team doesn’t know how to do it, doesn’t mean you can’t ask help from outside community.
Also, I had to think about if I wanted to focus solely on how to build great software. In the end, I knew that I not only wanted to know how to build great software end-to-end, I also wanted to know how great software teams and great software companies are built from the ground up — and that is exactly the opportunity that nousDECOR was offering me.
This has been quite a wordy, albeit personal, post. In summary, if you too are at a crossroads, I encourage you to do the hardest thing, but don’t just jump to decisions. Safe is not always better, and be smart about the risks you decide to take. Not every opportunity is a path that should be followed.
Most importantly, if you are a young female engineer like I am, you will be most likely be scared. But that fear is a good thing; it means you are growing not just as an engineer, but as a person. It means you are doing something important and outside of your comfort zone. And as Poornima closed her email, I too encourage you by ending with this thought: “No matter what happens, know you are capable.”