Being an entrepreneur changed my life as an employee

Alex Ewerlöf (moved to substack)
8 min readJan 14, 2022


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

The idea

In our 2-man startup, my official title was the CTO! I was responsible for developing the first prototype for product/market fit.

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.

  • In Stockholm people used “SL kort” (Stockholm Local Traffic Card) at the time. SL Kort was based on NFC technology.
  • My phone had an NFC reader.
  • I worked at an online payment company which implemented an alternative to SL Kort: SMS ticket!
  • 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.

So I was faced with a choice:

  • Show we continue the development until enough phones with Secure Element show up in the market?
  • Or should we call it off and move on to another idea?
  • Or should I go back to being an employee?

I chose the last one because:

  • As it turned out my co-founder (ehem, CEO) didn’t spend as much time as me. He would go for days and when he showed up, it was basically to check how far the prototype has progressed.
  • We had some serious misalignment about how we talk about our startups. My co-founder was in the camp where the idea should not be spoken about to anyone. 🤐 I was heavily influenced by the product books that I read at the time promoting to get feedback as early as possible. We had an awkward fight over it when I spilled the beans, but I failed to convince him that the startup is not only about the idea, but it’s about team and execution.

Today Stockholm is using that exact app idea. I was an avid user of it until something even better showed up: now you can use your ordinary contactless credit card to directly pay at the bus or train station! It couldn’t be simpler than that (and would totally crush our little startup if we went ahead with it).

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. It wasn’t the first time. I actually started my career as a free lancer and consultant. What was different was the pressure:

  • Back when I started, I was still living with my parents
  • This time around I had a family to feed

The experience

Although my main task was to work on the prototype, in practice a big part of my time went to market research, reading books about startups, attending meetups about starting a business, usability tests and learning about the law.

For me, the technical aspects of the job was the most interesting part. Anything else was the chore I had to endure at that stage. This experience helped me know my own interests and strengths better.

It occured to me that if we do a fantastic job, sign a contract with the public transportation company, handle payments to banks, dominate the market share and grow to other cities around the world and defeat the competition, we’re talking about years of comittment. I wasn’t ready for that. I still wanted to go out in the wild and see how other companies operate.

My last job before this was a disaster. The CEO had no meaningful experience from other companies and ran the company like a little kingdom. Honestly, I didn’t want to be that guy. I wanted more experience.

I didn’t want to be the “mobile ticket guy” either. Nothing wrong with it, but I felt I have more potential in technology, regardless of the business domain.

I was expecting my first child around this time. My wife really needed me. I caught myself stealing family time for the startup. Reading other people’s startup stories, that seems to be a norm. 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 either. Rich bosses are worst than corporate bosses. They own the startup and by extension me. It may sound counter-intuitive but as an employee I had more freedom:

  • Working as an employee will rarely make someone rich. To begin with, I’d be losing a big chunk of my salary in the name of tax before I even see my money. But there are other perks.
  • I could change company, technology and product whenever I felt like it, no strings attached. No shares, options or dreams to sweat for.
  • I could focus on the interesting subproblems without having to worry too much about all the other aspects. There would be other experts in the room.
  • I had all the standard benefits (most importantly stress-free vacation) without all the drawbacks of overall business responsibility
  • The fact that I pursued my BSc and MSc in computer engineering and not MBA or marketing is a historic indication where my priorities are.
  • I get to choose where I work, how many hours per day and when to switch.

The spin off story

So I decided to go back to being an employee but this time with more awareness and confidence about my priorities.

I joined a radiotherapy planning company. Their main cash cow was a Windows desktop application 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 had identified the need for a unified piece of software which connected the doctors, patients and the machines to their cash cow. 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. 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. When I joined I kid you not, all they had was a login screen!

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 trying 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? How would their user journeys look like?
  • What’s an acceptable time to market?
  • What’s a realistic time we can make it to the market?
  • And [now] my favourite: is the technology ready for what you’re trying to solve? 😄

I didn’t ask a single question about the tech stack or 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.

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

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

What I’m trying to say is:

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 optimizing my career for money and started focusing on my personal branding and growth. Being through the startup journey helped me recognize my priorities. My first prio was to learn and the second was to use what I’ve learned.
  2. I stopped working for others and started doing what I though was right. I didn’t do things “because the boss said so”. I did it because it was the right thing to do. I was confident that if things stop making sense, I can walk out without having to worry about shares and loans!
  3. I stopped focusing on the lines of code and started focusing on the business model and end user needs. This is a very empowering shift in 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, pay and promotion!
  4. 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 faster. 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, that failed startup was the start of a new journey.
  5. I stopped focusing on being rich and started focusing on being happy. The money and happiness loose corelation after a certain threshold. That threshold depends on personal spending habits, life expenses, obligations, etc. But there’s a threshold. When you earn enough to live a comfortable life, other things start to take priority to guarantee happiness.
  6. I stopped overworking and started improving my work/life balance. I still have a vulnerability to overwork when there’s something very interesting. But that risk and the stakes are much lower when I’m “just an employee”. This reduced stress has really improve my quality of life.
  7. I stopped taking shit from others because at the end of the day, they were just another employee. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an employee too. But I know if push comes to shove, I can start fresh. As a mental exercise I think about how I would react a person in a non-professional setting like in the streets or at a party. If that person is interesting out of the constructs of a job, they have my respect.

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!

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