How I Survived My First Tech Startup Job, That Failed Within A Year

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As an aspiring software developer, I always dreamt of working for a good company that would teach me everything about programming and the nuances of how a software company worked. When I got a job at a startup based in Kolkata, India, I was elated, believing that now I would be earning and I didn’t have to rely on my parents’ money. Little did I know that I was in for a ride.

I have made many mistakes in my life. One was selecting a comparatively newer college that promised campus placements. Big mistake. I learned nothing new from college. For those who don’t know, in India, fresh grads are hired by companies after rigorous interviews in the 3rd or 4th year of the Bachelor’s programme. I know for a fact that in Germany, there are no concepts of campus placements.

The second major mistake was working for this startup. Exploitation is the word that comes to my mind whenever I think of the employees who worked there. There were a total of 11 people working when I joined, including the HR, the CTO, and the CEO. Most of them were not paid, and I was one of them.

Excuses were given for not getting paid.

After joining the company, I was told that the company would get funding and they were in talks with several investors. Hence, they would not be able to pay the new employees as per our joining contracts. When they get an investment, they will compensate every employee with major benefits. 

Although I consider myself good at recognizing if a person is lying or not, I was deceived by the CEO. He was like Tyrion Lannister from the Game of Thrones series, who had a way with words. He was able to convince experienced software developers and I was just a new employee. I bought whatever he said.

I and some of the other new developers were working more than 12 to 14 hours a day, 6 days a week. At the end of every month, instead of getting paid, we were given a free lunch at a big-ass restaurant. I was only paid in the first month, by the way. Whenever I used to ask for my salary, he would show me the mail from the investors, which was legit (at least that’s what I thought) about their funding details. But I assume some of them were getting paid. 

Focus on learning and not earning.

When I realized that there was no way I could earn until the funding was received, I dedicated my time to learning the business of the company, which was to create websites for major businesses from all over the world. The company specialized in building eCommerce websites. The programming language used for creating these websites was PHP and the front-end tech stack was HTML, CSS, JavaScript and jQuery. The CTO used to proudly say that Facebook was written in PHP and that’s the reason they were using it. I believe they wanted to use Content Management Systems like WordPress, Joomla, Magento, and Drupal for their projects. They had a person who would bid on projects for major websites like Freelancer, Upwork, Fiverr, and others. 

I understood the skill and realized, as an individual, I myself could do this on my own. Yes, the initial clients would be difficult, but it was possible. I also thought that I would give it a try. I even talked with some of the other colleagues who were also not getting paid to collaborate on projects. I only did one freelance project. 

I caught him lying by seeing his new car.

The CTO claimed that he was also not paying himself. He used to come to the rented office with his old Honda car. But then, I saw him in his brand new luxury car with his girlfriend in a mall. Guess what? Although the company got initial funding which was to be used for the business and its employees, the CTO used it to buy things that had nothing to do with the company.

I confronted him about this and this time, Tyrian Lannister just couldn’t lie. He was shocked and ashamed. I also came to know that he was paying the female developers but not the male counterparts. I wasted 4 months in his company working like a slave and this is what I got. I was so angry at myself for wasting my time there. I should have realized the shadiness of the whole situation. I gave my resignation on the same day.

A happy ending for me and a disaster for the startup.

When I was resigning, he would plead with me to stay for some more days, as we were in the middle of a project. He would pay 4 times the salary I was promised. But I had had enough by that time. Moreover, lies and dishonesty can not be tolerated in the workplace. I took my chance and came to Bangalore, India, which is often termed as the “Silicon Valley of India”. I prepared intensely for interviews and got a job with a US-based multi-national company in 2 months.

After I left, at least 4 other developers also resigned. Then the senior developers also realized that the junior developers were not being paid. They too left. The investor also came to know about this and sued the CEO (and CTO, who was also involved). Even some developers also filed as the salary contract was breached. The startup shut down after a few months. 

I promised myself that I would never face a situation like this again. There were days when my bank balance during work was nil (since they were not paying, all the expenses were borne by me) and I didn’t have any money to spend. It was really embarrassing to ask for help from my family or friends. 

The whole experience changed my perception of startups. I always fancied working for a startup. I am not sure if startups in the US or European countries would fall this low, but yeah, I had a hell of an experience that I don’t wish any developer to have.