Being an entrepreneur changed my life as an employee

Back in 2014 I co-founded a startup. It failed like 90% of them tend to do but the experience of changed my career perspective forever.

The idea

At a high level, the idea was to create an app that would allow people to use their phone instead of the public transportation ticket. The business model was to get a small cut when people conveniently buy their tickets on their phone.

I live in Stockholm which has a popular public transport system. The so called “SL” card uses NFC as the ticket. My phone had an NFC reader. I worked at an online payment company at the time which implemented the SMS ticket: an alternative to the SL card. My co-funder had a PhD in logistics and had connections to fund the company.

You can see how the dots connect! 🥳

The thing we didn’t know at the time was that for NFC to fulfill our requirements, it needed the so-called “secure element”. After 3 months of prototyping we learned that we were too early to the market — a classic startup pitfall. I wasn’t sure what my co-founder was up to. He would go silent for days only to call and ask about the prototype progress.

So I decided to call it off instead of using this time to get a headstart in the market.

Today Stockholm is using that exact app idea and I was an avid user of it until they made it even simpler: today you can use your contactless credit card to directly pay at the bus or train station!

Nonetheless this post is not about the actual idea. It’s about how being in charge of my income changed my perspective when I went back to being an employee.

The experience

It occured to me that if we do a fantastic job, sign a contract with the public transport, handle payments to banks, dominate the market share and grow to other cities around the world and defeat the competition, we’re still talking about years of investment for this prototype to grow to that level. That was a level of commitment I wasn’t comfortable for me. Amazed with learning new things I had consistently changed jobs throughout my career. I didn’t want to be that “mobile ticket guy” no matter how much money or pride was at stake.

I was expecting my first child around this time and towards the end my wife really needed my help. I caught myself stealing family time for the startup. Reading other people’s startup stories that seems to be a theme. I wasn’t ok with that. Spending time with the loved ones is people’s biggest regret on their deathbed.

For the 3 months I worked on my own startup, I didn’t get paid. I didn’t want to depend on VC money who would practically be our bosses. I lived on live on a budget. It may sound counter-intuitive but as an employee I had more freedom:

  • I could change company, technology and product whenever I felt like it, no strings attached
  • I could focus on the interesting subproblems without having to worry too much about all the other aspects because there are other experts on the job
  • I had all the standard benefits (most importantly stress-free vacation) without all the drawbacks of overall business responsibility

In the end, it boils down to priorities and potentials. The fact that I pursued my BSc and MSc in computer engineering and not MBA or marketing is a historic indication where my interests are.

Employee FTW

You need to keep in mind the environment I’m operating in. I’m in Sweden where the more money you make, the more tax you pay. The healthcare, education system and unemployment benefits are all paid by that tax whether you use it or not. Had I been in another country (like the US) where you are in charge of most of those my choice could have been different.

The spin off story

I joined a radiotherapy planning company. They made a Windows desktop app for doctors to plan the radiotherapy. That plan had to somehow be transferred to the radiotherapy machines made by another company. Patient booking, doctor scheduling and everything else around it was either done manually or by some 3rd party vendor. Despite all of that, each copy sold for about a million USD.

They identified the need for a unified piece of software which connected their cach caw Windows app to the actual radiotherapy machines, doctors and patients. This class of software is called Oncology Information System or IOS for short.

So for 18 months a small group of their top engineers including CTO have been working on this new initiative. When I joined I kid you not, all they had was a login screen!

To their credit they were a bunch of .NET developers trapped in the Microsoft ecosystem. For them to dip their toe into the crazy world of web development was quite a courageous act! Microsoft ecosystem, eliminates the choice to a large extent. It has an answer for everything. You want a database? SQL server. You want an IDE? Visual Studio. You want a cloud provider? Azure. Not that Microsoft limits your choice (in some cases they do) but they lower the barrier of entry for their own product so much so that a loyal Microsoft developer is not even willing to try the wild world outside plagued with choices and making different technologies work with each other. JavaScript is the opposite. There’s no single company behind it and the official name of the language “ECMAScript” has a non-profit organization behind it. JS doesn’t even have a proper official standard lib that works across the wide range of runtimes it supports: browser, IoT, backend, edge computing, etc. You want a build tool? There’s gulp, webpack, babel, etc. You want an IDE? Anything from Vim to Visual Studio code works! Database? Most of them work and some are even built around the JavaScript Object Notation (JSON).

Anyway, they decided that they’ve reached a point when they need to hire a proper frontend developer. That’s when I came to the picture.

They wanted me to help implement the software that nobody knew how it looks like. There was no mockups. Just a Bootstrap login screen!

“I don’t start coding”, I told myself decisively, “until I clarify the problem we’re solving”.

Coming out of entrepreneurship recently, I went straight into asking the important questions: What problems are you going to solve? Why is it a problem now? Have we validated the problem? How is it different from what’s already in the market? Who are the users? What’s an acceptable time to market? What’s a realistic one? etc.

I didn’t ask a single question about the tech stack or set premature deadlines. In a few weeks, I made the first hi-fi prototype and a year after we had our first beta rolled out to a hospital in the Netherlands.

Honestly I was personally surprised at my own performance and how it impacted the organization.

I was bolder, took more responsibilities and wasn’t limited by my title.

I was working on my personal brand. Instead of me applying for jobs, recruiters would chase me and I had the upper hand in the interviews. I learned all that mattered to me before starting my next journey.

My next gig was a technical product manager TPM. This followed with some more senior development roles, a tech lead position and a staff engineering position.

What I’m trying to say is that once you’re in charge of everything at a startup, it will leave a permanent impact in how you see a business. It gives you a new perspective about how to be an employee.

So far I’ve had the chance to work with telecom, fintech, medtech, robotic, media, online retail, streaming and a few other sectors. That startup experience marks a milestone in my career.

To distill the difference:

  1. I stopped working for others and start working for myself. I didn’t do things “because the boss said so”. I did it because it was the right thing. I was confident that if things stop to make sense, I can walk out without having to worry about shares and loans!
  2. I stopped working for money and start focusing on the business model and end user needs. This is a very empowering perspective. Turns out the more you care about the customer satistaction and ensure that the core of the business model is executed well, the more you get praise and promotion!
  3. I stopped solving large problems individually and started taking the lead and motivating others to work together. I love programming but for anything significant a team goes further. Equipped with this perspective I invested a lot into learning to work with people and leadership. It took a few years to get where I am today and I’m still learning but looking back and reflecting where I am coming from, the difference is huge.
  4. I stopped focusing on being rich and started focusing on being happy. I can’t emphasize this enough: there money and happiness loose relationship after a certain level. When you earn enough to live a comfortable life other things start to take priority.
  5. I stopped overworking and started working smartly. I still have a vulnerability to overwork when there’s something very interesting. But that risk is way lower and the stakes are much smaller when I’m just an employee. This reduced stress has really improve my quality of life.

Hope you enjoyed reading this. The internet is full of success and failure stories about startups. In the end if you decide that startup is something you want to do, make sure that you get your priorities right. If not, you can learn while going through the experience. Life is learning!

Knowledge Worker, MSc Systems Engineering, Tech Lead, Web Developer