Friday, March 21, 2008

To start-up, or not to start-up?

So after 11 months of a fruitless job search, I'm being approached by a small renewable energy start-up to do a job I am grossly unqualified for. As some may know, I worked for another start-up for three years, after which we swore in our wrath we would never do so again due to the unpredictability of the paychecks (They still owe us $12,000). But all this time of being turned down for traditional jobs in my field of choice (physics research in a laboratory) with regular paychecks has taken its toll, and gotten us to the point of actually considering the start-up.

Its a company with, as far as I can tell, just one employee- the CEO. She has managed to obtain funding from a Texas oil-man, and is licensing some new technologies from various government labs and companies, planning on building some power plants that turn garbage into electricity, emission-free (which, if it really works as claimed, would be the holy-grail of energy). She wants me to basically be her chief technical officer- the guy that coordinates and directs all of the different scientists and engineers at these various labs and companies that she is licensing technology from, and to put all the pieces together into a 50 megawatt power plant. Grossly unqualified is an understatement. I've even told her that using words like: "I believe I am grossly unqualified for this position". She didn't seem to care, saying: "Oh, you'll learn!"

So here we are: she's going to call tonight and make an offer. Jenny and I have sat down and worked though some numbers, taking into account the risk factor, the fact that this is not what I had planned on doing, and what this position should pay if filled by a well qualified person. If she offers a salary below that we'll turn her down. But if our salary threshold is met, what should we do? Its risky. Riskyyyyyyyy! But on the other hand, its a job. Johhhhhhhhb! If I turn this down, how many more months will we have to wait for another offer?

When I think about it, a job like this is actually what I've always wanted. I mean, doing research is ok and all, and it pays well, but lab work gets kind of tedious, and if I work for a fairchild or a micron or an intel, its not like I'm doing my own research and get to go off on whatever tangent I like as if I were a professor doing research, you have to research what the company tells you to. And if its incredibly boring, oh well. But with this job I'd be in charge of organizing and coordinating a huge project. Even though I've gone to school to do research, I always envisioned myself running an organization as opposed to researching in a lab (in the long term). I thought I'd have to "do my time" as a lower level scientist before breaking out and starting my own company or something. But here is the opportunity right now, years ahead of when I thought I'd have it. Maybe that is what is contributing to the sense of riskiness about this whole thing: by all rights I should have to wait years for this opportunity, but here's the shortcut. Risky. What if the company goes down in flames in two years? That's two years I'd have to explain to a hiring manager as I try to come crawling back to a research lab somewhere. I can just hear him say: "Well its says here you were the CTO of company x for two years, but it ended up going bankrupt and sued by the shareholders. And you've been indicted. Why should that make me want to hire you?" Risky.

What I can't sort out is if the feelings of uneasiness I have are just the usual feelings of fear that accompany a new job that one is underqualified for, or are they trying to tell me not to touch this with 10 foot carbon nano-tube. But then I see all these 27 year old CEO millionaires in silicon valley and wonder what makes them so...... able to be successful. I suppose they took the risk. I just worry that the following scenario will happen to me:

Reporter: Uh, question for the barbeque chef. Don't you think there is
an inherent danger in sending underqualified civilians into
Homer: I'll field this one. The only danger is if they send us to
[ominous] that terrible Planet of the Apes. Wait a minute...
Statue of Liberty...that was _our_ planet! You maniacs! You
blew it up! Damn you! Damn you all to hell! [weeps]
Barney: [burps] Oh -- [falls over]
Scientist: Thank you, that's all we have time for.

Or this:

Nerd 2: Oh, man, I can't believe you failed.
Homer: [whining] Oh, I'm going to lose my job just 'cause I'm
dangerously unqualified!
Nerd 2: Mr. Simpson, there is a way. We could -- well, use a computer
to change your grade.
Homer: [surprised] Computers can do that?
Nerd 2: Well, yes...the only problem is the moral dilemma it raises,
which requires --
[Homer kisses one of the computers]
Homer: Oh, I love -- moral whuzzah?


JonnyF said...

Some observations and things to consider:

1. Would you have to move? If not, that's a definite plus because if it doesn't work out you have only lost time - at least you're still in Sandy and not Bismarck, ND or something. If you would have to move, make sure it's somewhere where you would want to be anyway or where there are other job prospects.

2. Find out more, more, more about the business plan. Find out how much funding there is, how many employees she plans to have, etc. You obviously can't learn everything without actually taking the job first, but make sure this woman more visionary than delusional.

3. How do you know her? Why does she want you to do it? Is it the sort of thing that no one is really qualified for and that's why she doesn't care that you're not qualified? Does she maybe think you're young and inexperienced enough that she will be able to pay you less than you're worth?

4. Insist that you will need some time to consider her offer once she makes it. I know you're already considering, but it is common practice to take a week (give or take) to consider a job offer. It especially makes sense when you don't have a good idea of what the salary will be until the offer is made.

5. If you accept the offer, be specific about employment terms. Sign a contract. Make sure you get some ownership of the company, or at least a large bonus in the event of success/profitability, along with a regular salary. Find out how soon she'd be able to pay you. You will have to make concessions on some of these types of things. For example, she probably won't be able to gaurantee you a severence package if the company fails. But try to make sure she knows that you know you're taking a risk. In other words: protect yourself and try to make sure you will get an king-size reward if the company succeeds to compensate you for the king-size risk you are taking.

6. A stint at a failed company would not look any worse on your resume than substitute teaching.

7. Taking risks is indeed how those 27 year-old millionaires got where they are. But there are many 27 year old nobodies who took risks and were either lazy, lacking-in-judgement, or unlucky.

8. When I was in a similar situation, I ended up taking the first job that was offered to me. But in my case, the job wasn't much of a career risk.

Without knowing some more specifics, I don't know if I think you should take it. I am no expert, but I do know a few things from my Dad's experiences in working as a consultant or officer for several start-ups.

Nick said...

1. We could live anywhere.

2. I've read a ton of stuff she's sent me, and she seems mostly visionary, with a bit of naivete. The funding real, since she is being paid a salary and has assured me that I would also be paid as well.

3. She contacted my professor asking him if he had any grad students looking for work. There are plenty of people in the energy business who are qualified, but she hasn't been able to recruit any of them since this is so risky, and anyone who is qualified probably has a reputation they don't want to risk with a failed company.

4-5. We are definitely being very careful about contracts and having time to consider.

6. Well, subbing I can pass off as a temporary thing I did until I got a full time job. If this fails big after several years (partly because of me, since I would be the CTO), it seems like a much bigger blemish than having been a substitute.

7. I highly resent you insinuating that I am unlucky. (Just kidding- but I know what you mean)

apyknowzitall said...

When I first read your scenario, I thought it was really exciting and it's boggling my mind how um... well off you would be if you guys can turn trash to energy. We'd probably even come live with you guys and be your Cousin Eddie.

But... I just thought of when I was fresh out of school the first time, couldn't find a job then finally one came and I took it out of desparity. Miya went to a crap daycare and I was gone for 12 hours commuting to Seattle. The next week I got a call from Childrens Hospital. They wanted to hire me for a position that I interviewed for a month earlier. It would have been very cush and she would have been at their on site daycare.
Since then I've never taken the first job offered if I have any doubts at all about it. But I know you and Jen are not as dinky as I am so I'm going to get all spiritchal on you and suggest to fast and pray since it has the potential to make or break your career. If you get a no and she does end up making billions, just trust that it wasn't for you to get wealthly that way.

Ben and Shara said...

Hi, we are excited to hear about your decision. Be sure to let us know. Good luck!


Nick said...

The offer has been made. She somehow guessed the minimum amount we could accept, dang it. I was hoping she would either comically under-shoot (so it would be easy to say no), or drastically over-shoot (making it easier to accept). This woman has a degree in psychology and it is beginning to show.

Muriel said...

What's going to happen if, a few months down the road your dream job comes up? My theory is that it's always harder to find a job until you've got a job, or, it's easier to find a job once you have a job. There, did that help?

apyknowzitall said...

I still think that if you have any reserves at all not to do it.

The Shark said...

apyknowzitall, what made you keep from accepting the second job and just quit the first one? It seems that most people tend to hold themselves back in their career advancement because of "ethics" involved with accepting a job offer only to turn it down a few days later for another. But my point of view is that, as far as actually BEING employed, if a place wants to keep you then they should make you want to stay. If you find a place that works better for you and will make you happier, and they actually offer you a job, I think you should just take it. The work force is pretty big -- it's not difficult for a company to replace you. And I don't feel like it's dishonest to accept the job and then leave for another -- it's business. Sure, you may leave the employer a little frustrated, but in my experience most places are understanding of an employee leaving when a clearly-better employment opportunity comes along.

Alien Master said...

Nick, if the job allows you to live in Seattle area then take the job, if not then uh... it's too risky ;)

Nick said...

Well, I knew it was too good to be true. It turns out, after a good month of phrasing the question differently: "How/when will I be paid?", I finally got it out of her. Answer: "When the funding comes through". Hmmm, I'm trying to remember where I've heard that before...

So next steps:
1. Apply for more jobs.

2. Suggest that she double the offer to keep my attention at this point. And demand stock for any work I do prior to funding, I mean, my afternoons are currently still free.

If last week's meeting with the feds went as well as she claims, there could be funding as early as next month. But I've heard optimistic start-up CEOS before. They all sound the same: Funding is just around the corner.

The one thing that is still keeping me interested (albeit much less than before), is that the business model is really quite good- worlds better than the last startup I worked for. The government and other entities are pouring literally billions into renewable energy, and state and local governments across the country are beginning to mandate that some percentage of their energy is renewable. So the money is there, its just a matter of convincing the feds to give some of it to this small, unproven company.

apyknowzitall said...

Looking back I think it was out of a false sense of obligation (and not being very smart) as they had hired me right out of school out of the no experience rut. I've learned my lesson. If it were to happen now, I would have quit the first job no question.

Liz said...

i was thinking i was too dumb to comment, but then i see that april has given some advice, so i say go for it cause you could come and live in WA and it sounds like the job would make you sooper smahrt!