The Goth Kids in Startup
Group of computer icon on the wooden table

Recently, a startup valued at around half a billion dollars laid off 10 of its Product Managers, leaving them with another 30. Just last year, the same startup hired Product guys at 20–30% premium from the market at average CTCs well over ₹20L. Even more intriguing, some of these guys were techie turned MBAs with less than four years’ experience. Having always been on the sales side of things, where one had to justify a minimum of 4x one’s salary to the company, I was fascinated by this lot. What did they do that was worth that much money?

One product guy I spoke to said he managed Paytm experience; which meant he had to ensure there were no drop-offs when the user chose to pay through Paytm. He also said he was mandated to prioritise payment through Paytm. And there were similar folks for each of the other alternate payment processes. “But, is Paytm the most competitive payment solution?”, I asked. He didn’t care, really. All that mattered was ‘mukesh23’ got through paying on the platform without, choosing to click on the refresh button. Even better if he came through one of the exclusive Paytm promotions that he had brokered with his counterpart from the other side.

What does one do to improve a third party payment experience?  Turns out, there isn’t much you can do. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t do nothing. So, if you notice a needless “improvement” in your experience, know that some Product Manager’s review is forthcoming. So when things take a turn for the worse, this lot is first in the line of fire. I was surprised, though, to understand that many of them were entirely at peace with the transitional nature of their employment.

This is not restricted to Product folks alone; although it does seem like in recent years it has become a “get rich scheme” of sorts for some techies with an above average capacity to verbalize technology for lay men. I see Marketing Managers who can’t / won’t write a line of copy or tweak keywords on their website. I see Designers who can’t / won’t code simple HTML or work on user personas and flow maps. I see Engineers who can’t / won’t test their code or learn how to write coherent software requirement specifications. This is manifestly due to the over-specialisation of roles and warped organisation structures in these startups..

It wasn’t always like this. It used to be that startups hired people to do just about everything, all at once.

Fresh out of college, I was hired as a ‘Management Trainee’, which I came to realize was code for will do whatever the hell it takes to move the needle. In the first year alone I did Sales, Product, Operations, and Marketing. I wasn’t alone; it seemed like everybody did everything. I remember our VP-Technology, managing client delivery for a new initiative, and doing a damn good job at that. I remember our Operations Manager writing bizarre VBA Macros for Excel that saved hours of effort. And it seemed everybody everywhere else, too, were running an arm and a leg short of the work that was on their plates. It was synonymous with startups.

It made tremendous business sense. First, it was easier to find (and afford) people at the median levels of overlapping skill sets than at the top 1% of their specializations. Second, people always had a macro view of the company’s goals and everybody, more or less, aligned their personal work accordingly. Third, it had unexpected, yet, massive pay-offs for our chosen specializations: techies wrote better code because they understood business and sales guys were more effective because they knew the real implications of that code. It wasn’t easy, but those years probably had the greatest impact in my life. It schooled my thoughts and perspectives.

When people ask me what changed over the years, I give them the following analogy: a startup, back in the day, was like a goth band. It attracted the misfits, those of us who just happened to stumble into the mosh pit. There was a ton of work to do and very little real money to be made. You belonged to somewhat of a cult and expected unreasonable things of yourself and your brethren. What we lacked in resources we made up for with ingenuity and perseverance. Over the years, however, the goth band got a makeover. We couldn’t have been more thrilled at that time. It seemed like the world was finally giving us our due. We didn’t have to explain to mothers, uncles and landlords, what we did for a living. We could finally afford EMIs.

But, gradually, the goth kids turned cool. The makeup, now, seemed superficial and the cult constantly disowned its own.  The law of diminishing marginal returns applied: increasing number of new members caused the marginal product of others to be smaller than the marginal product of the previous members at this point. And that’s how we got ‘Product Manager of Paytm Experience’.

But, what of the goth kids? They do lurk around. You won’t find them in conferences or hackathons or by the vending machines mooching off’ the free stuff. They’re likely in an intimate corner, head immersed in the laptop, being productive and maybe checking on Twitter once a while. If you’re ever in the position of hiring for your startup, my suggestion is for you to find and hire the goth kid. They’ll remind you why you started up in the first place.


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