Cersei Lannister. That’s what her team calls the 33-year-old co-founder of a Bengaluru-based startup behind her back. The Game of Thrones reference—Lannister is a cutthroat empress in the series—came about last year after she sacked a newly-hired marketing head on the spot following a difference of opinion during a meeting.
The manager had joined the five-year-old startup with much pomp, having spent over 15 years at multiple big multi-national companies (MNCs).
The firing was not a first at the startup, though, according to at least two current employees and a former one who spoke to Quartz of the firm’s many dictatorial policies.
At another Bengaluru-based business-to-consumer startup, employees have been prohibited from using the table tennis equipment during office hours. The founder felt the staff was spending way too much time playing. ”We can use it post-9pm only. Who’s going to stay back so late in the night to play?” an employee asked, requesting anonymity. “Now the table just stands in a corner gathering dust. When outsiders visit the office, they look at it and think we have a great culture in the office. But we know the reality.”
Indeed, behind the gloss and glamour of India’s booming startup ecosystem lies such an ugly truth: From unrealistic expectations, job insecurity, and constantly shifting goal posts to a lack of scope for growth, the reality of working at an Indian startup is far from fun.
With young companies now increasingly pivoting their businesses or bringing in investors who suggest significant changes, employees are the ones left unsettled the most. Starting off on a quest for great ideas, the sector is now all about execution, revenue, and profit—and work culture is taking a backseat.
“Chaos is what defines a startup,” said Vidur Gupta, director of staffing firm Spectrum Talent Management.
Shifting priorities and disillusionment
With the euphoria of the initial years waning and reality sinking in of late, it has become harder for young companies across the globe to raise funds. Investors are stressing on revenue generation and profitability like never before, and startups are under pressure to make money more than anything else.
So entrepreneurs have shifted from risk-taking innovations to sales. “India has been a startup hub for some years now and products are now out in the market. Now, the startup has to show market share and delivery. That’s what the promoters’ ask has been,” said Mayur Saraswat, head of sales at staffing firm TeamLease Services.
This shift has not gone down too well with employees, who joined with hopes of a back-slapping, dress-code free informal ambiance.
“It’s a sweatshop in there. You are not allowed to take tea breaks for more than 10 minutes,” a former employee of the Bengaluru firm mentioned above said, requesting anonymity. “If you take a third tea break in a day, ‘Cersei ‘ will pass a nasty comment in front of everyone. The co-founders sometimes even stand next to employees’ desks just to hear their conversations and check what windows are open on their computers.”
Past and present employees of other startups, too, lament similar restrictions and work cultures.
The often inexperienced entrepreneurs have failed to create a culture in their teams. And with these teams growing, this has become a very prominent problem.
At least 10 startup employees from across the country described their experience to Quartz as “chaotic” and “messy.” They felt stifled at work and were desperate for alternative opportunities, preferably at a traditional MNC.
“I have sworn to never work with another startup,” a 33-year-old marketing professional who quit another Bengaluru firm due to “a hostile work environment,” told Quartz. “I have been sitting at home for the last five months and looking for jobs with bigger companies. I could have easily found one at a startup by now. But I am more happy waiting it out rather than going back to that rut.”
In small teams, most employees are expected to do jobs beyond what is specified on paper. This implies working extra hours and effort for the same salary.
“The roles and responsibilities don’t get defined very well. The way performance is measured isn’t clearly defined,” said Aditya Narayan Mishra, CEO of Bengaluru-based human resources company CIEL HR Services. “Maybe an employee is a specialist and you try to make that person a generalist. It doesn’t work all the time”
The lopsided hierarchy
It is, of course, a given that entry-level professionals suffer under such circumstances. But even at the middle and top, though, serious hierarchical conflicts come into play.
After all, the ecosystem has attracted hundreds of professionals from legacy industries like retail, consumer goods, insurance, and banking over the past decade. These professionals left behind cushy jobs, hoping to create instant wealth through stock options, seek more challenging roles, and to build solutions from the ground-up.
But this shift itself has now become the premise of conflict. For instance, in smaller teams, the highly experienced professionals often have inexperienced bosses. And the seniors are often simply unable to adjust.
“The disconnect is that a lot of these people who work in startups have previously worked with large multinationals (where) the processes are clearly defined,” said Gupta of Spectrum Talent Management. Whereas, in addition to an ambiguous work structure at startups, employees also have to handle multiple roles and stomach considerably higher pressure, he added.
The tension also heightens when a founder’s passion is in conflict with a professional’s knowledge and experience.”There are some startups which are backed by big investors because of the power of the idea. But the management is not experienced,” said Mishra of CIEL HR Services.
Such conflicts have already added to a serious attrition problem for Indian startups and may make it hard for the sector to attract talent in the future.