Where I come from we have this expression, “getting in through the window”, referring to achieving something via wildly alternative means. You can make it into a team, get hired, pass an exam, or be elected president by “getting in through the window”. This accomplishment normally requires significant hustling, accompanied by a non-negligible amount of luck.
My startup journey is not without its fair lot of windows, and a couple of doors.
In order for this story to be told properly, we should begin before “startup” was part of my vocabulary, back to my University times in Argentina. Don’t worry, I’ll be brief, and I truly consider this stage to be window number 1.
Half-way through my 5-year computing degree, the topic of Artificial Intelligence caught my eye. There wasn’t any AI course in my curriculum so I decided to take two extra courses: Logics for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence itself. Fun stuff. The additional study load made my academic path slightly more winding but opened up interesting opportunities, like taking part in a team of humans in charge of Lego-building and coding an autonomous football team of robots. Actual fun stuff. My involvement in that project, plus having expanded my studies burger to a full AI-based meal, put me in line to become a teaching assistant on these topics and get a PhD scholarship. As a side note, I not only got 17 years of World-class free education but got paid for my doctorate. Deviating from my studies to learn what I wanted to learn ended up being the first window I jumped through. And happily so.
After my PhD, I wanted two things: to stay in academia, work in applied research, and move abroad. Those are three things. Following the usual process, I applied to a few positions abroad, eventually got hired, and moved to the UK. This door opened smoothly and I strolled in without thinking twice. The role itself matched my wishes: I became part of a multidisciplinary research project whose goal was to tackle real-world problems via AI solutions. Shifting from slideshow presentations to actual running software was indeed an exciting promise, but after two years of never getting past rudimentary prototypes, I decided I had had enough. I needed fewer “brilliant” ideas and more execution; less abstraction and more impact. So I decided to quit academia and jump ship to the private sector.
Easier. Said. Than. Done.
Around that time, a couple of my friends were working for a startup, and that was the first time the concept of embryo-level companies caught my attention. It sounded a lot like the kind of impactful innovation I had been longing for. My friends and I started a little project (side project for them, life-changing all-in bet for me) using some concepts from my doctorate together with sentiment analysis applied to hotel reviews. It never amounted to much but it was enough for me to realise what my next step was going to be: I would join a startup. Being an ex-researcher whose main coding skill was in logic programming (i.e. the kind that in all likelihood won’t get you a job in the industry) the goal sounded far-fetched, to say the least. No windows, no doors, just walls and awful wallpaper.
Once back home in Argentina, I started honing my coding skills in technologies that would be actually useful if I were to make it into a startup. Python was a clear choice at that time (and I’m still happy about it), and I also coded a tablet game (not so happy). As I embarked myself in this improvised tech training course, I began sending applications to tech startups in Europe, mainly Spain, as the intention was to move there. I had roughly four months to get a job. Sometimes four months is a small eternity; some other times, though…
The steady flow of rejections was only overshadowed by the number of non-responses. Getting both an eclipse and total star misalignment may be seen as an achievement, but I was not amused. After months of failing to find a job, I found a window that seemed to be slightly ajar: an expired internship in a tech startup that loosely mentioned my former research topic. This is the email I sent:
I was wondering whether the internship published <here> has been covered. I know we are well within the July-September period but found this opportunity very interesting and couldn’t refrain myself from asking. Please find attached my CV in case there is an opportunity available.
Should you require further information, please don’t hesitate in contacting me.
Long story short, after a few interviews I managed to sell my skills (past and future) and got hired. Luckily it happened a few weeks before the booked-for-months flight. In this case, the window was small and narrow, coincidentally, just like an aeroplane’s.
My two years in that company were a crash course on all-things-startup: a mix of coding, business development, demoing to prospects, interviewing candidates, hiring candidates (one of them through Couchsurfing), mocking up user interfaces, synchronising with remote colleagues, writing white papers, and coding a bit more. I managed to build, fail, think, redo, plan, fail, re-plan, and make two friends.
Now with new tricks in my book of magic (?) I started looking at opportunities with an improved notion of what I wanted to do next. This time I found a regular door, which I opened via the traditional means (LinkedIn) and slid in. Again in a tech startup, but this time with a seemingly stronger tech team. While negotiating, I recall the HR person telling me “look, we don’t pay low salaries here”. Little did I know that that would turn out to mean that they paid no salary, neither high nor low. There were red flags I should’ve detected, such as having the final interview in the shape of an awkward conversation with the CEO and the CTO while the latter was driving a car a couple of countries away, and the call kept breaking up. Main takeaway: if you get the impression that your application is going too smoothly and that you have undergone too little scrutiny, think it twice before signing anything. Also: ask lots of questions, interviews go both ways.
The sad part of entering through that cliff-concealing door is that I didn’t have a job lined up. Around this time I was already aiming my applications also towards Finland, with mixed results. Out of the many interviews, I remember doing one of them shirtless (over Skype, in the Argentinian summer, with over 40ºC and no air conditioning); bombing a record-your-video application by not knowing stuff like “why are manholes round?”; being flown to another country for a full-day interview and missing the flight back (not my fault); and more wholesome good-good rejection times.
Suddenly an expert in getting flights before jobs, the move to Finland happened. I decided to re-connect with a company that had ticked all my boxes (team, mission, tech, horrible commute) when applying half a year before. During the original interviewing process I had finished fifth out of six candidates but worked my way up to the second spot: it turned out that the problem-solving task they handed to me had at least two interpretations. I didn’t get the job at that point but now I was ready for a second attempt. The fact that the company had recently raised a funding round gave me extra hope. I had a few chats with the head of tech about my potential fit, but there was no opening for my preferred role in Data Analytics, and instead got offered a Support Engineer position. The mental image of me sitting in a call centre wasn’t exactly delightful so I managed to strike a deal: I would start working in support to then transition into engineering. And that is exactly what happened. In about two months I was working in the engineering team. Once again I managed to get in. Through the window. (And of course, there was no call centre!)
My three years in that company were truly fulfilling. The engineering team was amazing and taught me a lot, the mission was the kind that you want to tell your friends about, the tech was innovative and impactful, and the commute got way better after only a few months. However, a journey wouldn’t be a journey without a constant will to move forward and progress.
The tech scene being a venue for talent circulation rather than acquisition and permanence, I heard from one of my colleagues that a couple of guys were looking for a CTO to launch a PropTech startup. I contacted them, had a few long conversations, and finally agreed to join the (ad)venture. Once I started working in this new company I was told that, before I contacted my new partners, they were just a few days away from using an agency to fill the role. Yet again, the window was closing, but I got in just in time.
Okay. I should stop now. I will be kind and spare you the usual motivational discourse, as I am sure you already got the point. Let me just mention that there were two doors in my startup journey and their outcome wasn’t exactly as expected. The windows, though tough to go through, were totally rewarding. One could argue that the very decision of attempting to get in through the window speaks of one’s focus and sheer willpower to make things happen. Others could argue that doors are there to be used and window-goers are just trying their luck, sometimes successfully. I won’t argue. All that matters is finding out what you really want to do, which is already an exhausting challenge. Sorry, couldn’t help to be a bit motivational. Thanks.
By Nico Rotstein – September 03, 2019