How to save yourself from getting laid off from a startup

Image: Reuters/Sivaram V
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The lure of higher salaries and a meteoric career growth has pulled thousands of professionals into the world of startups in India. Around 80,000-85,000 professionals are currently employed in the Indian startup space, according to estimates by industry body Nasscom. But, in the last six months at least 1,500 employees have been laid off from some of the most high-profile startups in India, sounding alarm bells for job seekers.

On Dec. 29, Berlin-based Foodpanda, a food delivery startup backed by Rocket Internet, retrenched 300 in India. This is the latest in a slew of layoffs at technology startups in the country. Last October, restaurant exploration platform Zomato let go of roughly 10% of its workforce—another 300—to focus on more profitable areas. Mumbai-based real estate portal fired around 800 of its employees in two tranches in 2015.

The bloodbath is unlikely to end anytime soon. Sector analysts say there may be more downsizing at other startups in 2016. Yet, if you get it right, a job with a startup could help create wealth through equity, and offer several growth opportunities.

So, here are a few things to keep in mind before applying for a job at a startup:

Misplaced expectations

Professionals working with large businesses often decide to move to startups without fully understanding what this career change could mean, said Kunal Sen, senior vice-president at staffing & recruitment firm TeamLease, who regularly meets people eager to switch to startups.

“Working with a startup is certainly not the same as working at a large company. For example, people who are looking for standard job descriptions for a role may not fit into a startup culture ever because jobs in young companies are not limited to doing one thing. It can often be unstructured and you may need to handle multiple roles at the same time,” Sen told Quartz. “If someone is unable to cope with such a job, he or she will not be able to survive in a startup.”

Saurabh Garg, an angel investor and chief mentor at Bengaluru-based NoBroker, also frequently interviews candidates unaware of what they are getting into. “I always tell candidates that no matter what your offer letter says, you will almost always handle more than just what is specified there. And that holds for every startup,” Garg explained.

In comparison to old-school companies that mostly follow strict processes, startups are “action-oriented”, Garg said. “So things that a large company may take a week to decide on or execute, a startup may do in a few hours. And that could make employees who are not prepared for this culture very uncomfortable.”

Choose wisely

Professionals are at times attracted by the work culture at startups. For instance, something as simple as wearing T-shirts and jeans to work appeals to many. But job seekers should look beyond such perks and instead focus on the said startup’s goals and ambitions.

“You must believe in a startup if you wish to join it,” Garg of NoBrokers said. “In fact, you should join a startup only if you personally believe that the problem that the company is solving needs a solution.”

The candidate must consider the founders’ backgrounds, business model and the firm’s track record. Information on the investors backing it also helps. ”Joining a startup that has already raised two or three rounds of funding could be better than working at a very young startup, because many companies don’t get past an angel investment round. And then they fail,” Sen said.

Evolution is key

Startups are far more agile and experiment with various ideas that may or may not become a reality. Often employees could face situations where targets change overnight or business models are tweaked in days—effectively rendering hitherto important teams redundant overnight.

In early 2015, for instance, food delivery startup TinyOwl aggressively hired employees. But by November, it had to let go of over  100 people to cut cost. “The elimination of certain positions in the company have been made on a strategic level, to increase efficiency, productivity, and re-direct our diverse talent to focused departments, providing the best innovative offerings to our customers,” Tanuj Khandelwal, co-founder of TinyOwl, told YourStory. “We see this development as a positive move towards growth.”

In such an environment, experts say, every team at a startup is at the risk of getting downsized. But someone working at a startup can protect his or her job by evolving and learning what’s still relevant for the employer.

Re-skilling and being open to learning new things could go a long way in saving jobs, or even in finding another employer if needed.

“The beauty of the Indian startup ecosystem currently is that good talent is very high in demand,” Garg said. ”So, if you lose one job, but are good at what you do, there is no shortage of opportunities.”