Mahesh Neelakantan
Sep 15, 2014

5 lessons from life in a startup

Thinking of leaving a comfortable big-agency job to join a startup? Here's some factors that may discourage or encourage you, depending on your point of view.

Mahesh Neelakantan
Mahesh Neelakantan

I joined Advocacy Asia a little under a year ago, moving from Ogilvy & Mather—a network where I spent more than 17 years across countries—to join a startup agency in Malaysia. We've all heard about how difficult, fun and challenging it can be to work at any startup. It can be even more challenging if you are trying to set up that startup. From learning how to register the company in Malaysia, to finding office-space, designing it, choosing the office furniture, recruiting the team, Internet, Telephone—you name it. It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of it you are probably doing it the first time.

The truth is, joining a startup kind of feels like joining a crazed gang. You aren’t entirely sure what’s going to happen next and how you’re going to pull off the job you just pitched, but gosh, there is so much excitement.

But startup life is not for everyone, and that’s OK. It can be completely ridiculous, risky, and often not what you expected. But if you’re willing to work hard and go the extra mile to get noticed, it can be extremely rewarding and fulfilling—even financially.

Over the last few months I have learned some important lessons. A few are things that I think people should know about before leaving their comfortable jobs to live the startup life, and a few are things that might encourage others to take the leap. I'm hoping it’s more of the latter.

1. Collaboration is survival

The one thing you quickly learn to realize about working in a startup team is that everyone is in it together. Startups don’t have the luxury of big teams and access to network resources. You make do with what you have. And for what you can’t do, you ask for help and collaborate with complementary teams. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it’s the smarter way to do business.

In fact quite early on, in our first 100 days, we landed a plum assignment, which required a lot of creative work and quick turnaround. We didn’t have any full-time creative resources back then. We took the assignment and worked along with another creative boutique agency, which had creative resources to spare. Together we delivered the project on time. Collaboration for us is not a nice-to-have skillset but a way of working and at times a means of survival.

2. Fail faster

In a large 4A agency, everybody has clearly defined roles and responsibilities. And everybody is tasked to do what is asked of them. If you don’t, you fail. Typically in large-matrix organizations, your mistakes tend to alter your career—not your successes. And as a result you are tuned and wired not to fail. Net result: You end up only doing things that you're comfortable with, and you don’t end up pushing yourself hard enough.

But in a startup, things are very different. To start with you are most probably out of your depth and overstepping your comfort zone every single day. It’s quite human to make mistakes when you do something new. Failure only means that you've tried, not that you're bad at what you're doing.

Failing the first time will give you that much more strength for the next round. I’d much rather have a team that’s trying, learning, failing and improving faster every day than a team that’s complacent with ‘fear of failing’ written all over it.

3. Pull your weight in the boat

In a startup agency, quite often the resources barely meet the requirements and everybody has to pull their weight in the boat. There are no ‘floating resources’ or regional teams to access in times of need. As a result there is heavy dependence on each other and everybody has to play their part. If they don’t, the entire boat comes to a halt.

The biggest benefit of this is the fantastic teamwork and seamless collaboration that happens between the team members. They quite naturally rely on each other for help and support, and the teams are always supporting each other—sometimes without being told to do so. Which is exactly the culture and the spirit that makes startup businesses thrive and survive.

4. Avoid sit-down meetings

Meetings. They're the thing that I probably filled in the most in my timesheets in my earlier role. There was a meeting for everything. And most meetings tend to top and tail with discussions that are sometimes irrelevant to the agenda at hand. Everybody after a while seems comfortable just sitting around, waiting for the meeting to start, sipping their coffees and snacking.

While I am not against meetings, at Advocacy we have adopted a ‘stand only’ version in case we need to have one.

Standing forces the meeting to be short. It provides focus, prevents people from settling in and becoming comfortable. The longest our daily standoff has lasted was about 14 minutes.

5. Never-ending learning

Being in a large agency often leads to your roles and responsibilities being boxed in and strictly defined. However, in a startup agency the most exciting aspect of the adventure is the learning.

Whether it's about new skills, yourself, your limits, or meeting and collaborating with new people, you never stop learning in a startup. And it’s across the board. Just as this startup adventure is new for me, it’s also new for the team. Everyday someone in my team is probably doing something new. Yes, you need to be prepared for a bumpy ride as the processes and structure take time to fall into place. But usually on the second or third attempt its starts becoming smoother.

So for all my friends in the non-startup world, ask yourself this question: When’s the last time you learned something or did something for the first time? And if you are struggling for an answer, it means you have stopped learning and are stagnating in your learning curve.

As I look back at the past year or so, I seem to be working a lot more than I used to, meeting a lot more clients, working on more briefs. Yet surprisingly, I get to spend more time with my family. If there ever was one regret: I wish I had done this earlier.

Mahesh Neelakantan is the chief operating officer of Advocacy Asia


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