10 Lessons I Learned as the First Employee of an AI Startup
The good and the bad
I had just finished my bachelor’s in Aerospace Engineering when I decided to dive deep into the field of Artificial Intelligence.
I had read about it some months before and was very excited to learn more. Right after my thesis defense, I enrolled in two online courses: the popular “Machine Learning” by Andrew Ng, from Stanford University, and “Neural Nets for Machine Learning” by Geoffrey Hinton, from the University of Toronto.
I spent 3 entire months, day after day, learning AI online. After those courses, another one followed: “Deep Learning Specialization” also by Andrew Ng (He is the best!). While I was studying for this one I did some research to find out if the AI field was mature enough in Spain and began sending resumes online.
After some days of intense search, one position caught my attention. It was from a small startup based in Madrid. They were looking for a junior engineer with AI knowledge and no experience. “This is exactly what I’m looking for!” I was thrilled and applied without hesitation. They appointed an interview right away for the next day.
I had the interview with the project manager and it went incredibly well! I left very happy, feeling as if the job was mine already. I caused a very good first impression; maybe it was the “I’m an aerospace engineer” part (it works wonders!) or the fact that I had written an article about AI that ended up getting published (which I think showed pretty clearly my passion and interest in the topic).
The process was extremely fast (this is also one of the good things about a small startup). The day after they appointed an interview with the CTO and I was told they wanted me. Two weeks later I was officially the new (and first!) employee of the company.
Now, 3 years later, I want to share all the good and bad things I’ve learned and experienced by being the first employee at a small AI startup.
Let’s get into it!
1. I developed a better understanding of what a company is as a whole
From the very beginning, I had close contact with everyone in the company. From my direct bosses (the project manager and CTO) to the CEO and even the CCO and CMO (who had nothing to do with my specific area of expertise).
In a large company, the dynamic would have been living in my cubicle without any idea of what was happening two levels above or below mine. However, I had the invaluable opportunity to learn about what a startup is as a whole, what its parts are, and how they interrelate.
It helped me better understand that technological areas are closely related to areas that otherwise would have seem unrelated (such as finance, marketing, branding, public image, sales, etc.)
Now I know that a company is an ecosystem composed of complementary areas that serve key functions. Even if I’m an engineer it’s always a plus if I know some things about how marketing or sales work, how to talk to potential investors or how to find a compromise between development necessities and client requirements.
Use the opportunity to touch each and every part of the company to get the big picture. Give a little breadth to your depth.
2. I had the opportunity to learn how to do processes from other areas.
In larger companies when you have a position of “junior engineer” you actually do junior engineer work.
In a startup, one day you may be developing a new model and the following day you may have to prepare some documents for the next grant. And the day after that you may have a meeting with the CEO to receive information about where the next demo is going to take place and what they expect from you.
I learned a lot about different areas other than mine:
- I prepared documentation about the non-technical aspects of the project.
- I learned to defend the project in a concourse for financing.
- I participated in the process of hiring people and was asked to give my opinion on what profiles we needed or even on whether we actually needed more people or not.
- I was taught how the processes of grants and financing worked and how we were preparing the next steps to get a stable source of revenue.
- I learned how to decide which projects to develop and which ones to let go of.
Although my main job was still research and development, working at a small company helped me, not only to better understand the concept of a company but to better understand and learn to do processes that are essential for its proper functioning.
Learn about anything you can. Even if you don’t like it that much. It will help you to be a good fit in our increasingly interdisciplinary world.
3. I had the means to directly communicate with anyone at the company.
I worked daily, hand in hand with my two bosses. I also communicated weekly with other chief officers. It always made me feel that I was just one call away from anyone at the company. If I had a question or a doubt, there was no bureaucracy in between me and the solution. I loved that.
I could easily communicate many situations that resolved very fast:
- The co-working I was working on was not the best place when I was the only employee.
- The pros regarding full remote working (and I’m talking early 2018. I was a pre-pandemic remote worker!).
- My salary conditions.
- My preferences regarding the day of the paycheck.
- Small changes in the direction of the project.
- Whether we needed more workforce or other resources.
I felt extremely comfortable about my communication possibilities, and more importantly, I’ve developed a great toolkit of communication abilities, written and oral, that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
What we are to the rest of the world is what we are able to communicate. Get better at it to reach further within and outside your company.
4. I enjoyed a high degree of negotiating power about my working conditions.
I realized very early that being the only employee granted me a very solid position in negotiations with the business associates. I acknowledge that being the first employee was the main reason for my robust position in negotiations, but it may apply equally to a small group of colleagues, as it would be easy to agree.
Only 2 months had passed when I asked to work from home on Fridays. I was working at a co-working but, as the only employee, it would have been the same to work from home. And they would save the cost of the space for other things. I also argued that I could save two hours every day and even work outside my working hours if necessary, having my computer at home.
I had very strong arguments to enter the remote-working world. But I knew I wouldn’t stop there. Why? Because all those arguments applied equally well to working from home every day. We already had all our meetings online so it made no difference. And if given the case I had to go for an in-person meeting, I would gladly go.
It worked out extremely well, and the week after I defended my request I was granted full-time remote work.
Besides, I always enjoyed a very comfortable position regarding salary negotiations. I had shown my value and I had earned the confidence of my bosses because I was able to develop a close relationship with them, which takes me to the next point.
Learn to negotiate. Your ability to negotiate is of high importance in the business world. Seek opportunities and capitalize on them.
5. I developed a closer, more personal relationship with my bosses.
By interacting daily with my bosses we got to understand better each other and even appreciate each other. It was as if we were colleagues (except they were in charge!). We often had casual conversations about our interests and opinions concerning the project or AI in general.
It was a very nice environment. I could feel they genuinely cared for me and the work I was doing. They heard my opinions and we debated together about the best approaches to any challenge we faced.
They trusted me and I trusted them and that is something that makes working in a company all the better.
Your boss is a person. Build your relationship as you would with anyone else. Take your time to show who you are and get to know him/her. You will appreciate each other above and beyond the company.
6. I had a sense of being important within the company.
Many technical decisions passed through my hands. I had a voice in all steps we took. My opinion counted as much as that of my bosses. They listened to my advice and several times things changed (even radically) after I’d expressed my opinion over an issue. Even if it was contrary to what was thought as the best way to approach a problem or situation.
Often, in large companies, employees feel that their voices are not heard enough or simply ignored by their bosses. I always felt comfortable rising my voice to express disagreement with my bosses without the fear of starting a conflict.
Don’t be afraid to speak up if you have something to say you think is important. Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself, as it’s the only way we learn. If you are right, you already knew.
1. A small startup is inherently unstable.
One of the things I knew since I began working at this company was that anything could go wrong at any moment and I could lose my job.
I didn’t live with this fear, but I felt the instability of my situation. It was further increased because the field of AI was immersed in a bubble that could pop at any time.
In a larger company, I would have felt more secure (although 2020 taught us that we are never secure enough and that anything can go down overnight).
Also, some AI projects are simply too ambitious for a small startup to tackle. It was the case with this company. I knew it. My bosses knew it. We had hope. But hope doesn’t feed you. This takes me to the next point.
A startup is high-risk high-reward. Know what you are getting into and be ready for unforeseen consequences.
2. AI is not just for marketing.
There is good AI and there is bad AI. There are a lot more bad AIs than good, and this happens everywhere. AI is a term that has gained so much traction that is able by itself of attracting investors and clients (and readers!). And tech startups tend to take advantage of it.
Problems arise when the marketing strategy revolves around “AI”. The fact that so many startups, that promise incredible AI solutions, are not doing AI the right way is what is dirtying the name of the field.
We weren’t doing AI wrong, but neither right. There were a lot of things to improve and not everyone in the company was willing to do so.
Make sure to research intensely the mission and ways of doing of the company. Let’s not contribute to the next AI winter.
3. Grants are a necessity to stay alive.
For most of the time I spent there, we survived by earning government grants. We didn’t have a well-defined plan to get a stable set of clients or a constant flow of sales.
The inherent social component of the project could provide us institutional money but it wouldn’t last forever. We needed a long-term plan. We engaged in other side-projects in the meanwhile but none of them was effective enough to attract clients.
In the end, a crucial grant was not provided in time and the company had to fire its employees and close. It was very sad to see the effort of 3 years go because of it. Nevertheless, sometimes what you earn is more experiential than material, so I highly value it anyway.
Make sure you know the financing method your company relies on. Even if you don’t know about finance (which was my case), you can always ask for advice.
4. I had to work on tasks non-related to my area of expertise.
I put it also in the bad things because even if it is great to learn how to do things out of your field, sometimes it can be a handicap.
There were times when I had to single-handedly learn how to do processes that were out of my responsibilities. I never had a problem with it but I could have used a little bit of instruction.
Other times I simply didn’t like what I had to do. I know this happens at any company, but in a small startup this may take up to half your daily responsibilities.
Learning something new is worth it except if it prevents you from enjoying the process. Find time to do what you truly enjoy doing.
Overall I think that even if working at a startup has some drawbacks, I think it has helped me grow a lot and I would not change it for anything else.
It has helped me discover and learn many things that would have been impossible at a larger company. I value a lot the experience and I realize that many things I lived there were unique to the startup environment.
In the end, I’ll carry everything I learned to my next endeavors, which could lead me to the startup world again. Who knows!