Find Yourself In The Wild West? Find Your True North
By Christina Vuleta (Founder, 40:20)
Editor’s note: This is an interview with a startup veteran on starting your career at a startup.
Tereza Nemessanyi, CEO and Co-Founder of Honestly Now, has seen both sides of the startup coin. Her career path took her from being employee number one at a new media venture in Eastern Europe to corporate America to launching her own Internet startup this past year.
Honestly Now, a Q&A social platform to help people make great personal decisions, recently received a round of seed funding led by Golden Seeds and Canrock Ventures, and is growing strong. It’s a digital “Dear Abby” for your vexing life dilemmas.
While fairly uncommon 20 years ago, her “startup first” career path is now being recommended by Internet entrepreneurs and advisors alike. The buzz is that young people should go the founder route straight out of college rather than first getting their entrepreneurial training wheels in the corporate world where they can build a foundation of business skills. The new thinking is that you will get all the training you need on your feet and faster.
Tereza is an advocate for entrepreneurism at any age, but knows first-hand that jumping headfirst into a startup is not without its challenges. One thing she knows now is that you need an anchor to tell you what is “normal when you have no professional experience to guide you. When you go the corporate route, it’s often provided for you, through mentorship, training programs and HR resources. If you go the startup route… You need to find it.”
Web 1.0 was just gearing up in 1994 when she became the first employee of NOVA TV, a new media startup in post-Communist Europe. If the startup world in the early 90s was the Wild West, unbound by traditional rules of engagement then she was in true cowboy country.
She was one of the many young Americans drawn to Prague in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was an exciting era in history and ripe with startup opportunities, but it was also a time of massive political change and cultural upheaval.
“There was a ton of creativity and brilliant people but also a fair amount of unchecked bad behavior. People were offering bribes, there were power plays, and it was a real mashup of cultures”.
She left Prague with strong startup skills and her entrepreneurial spirit intact, but battle-hardened and longing for more structure.
“I yearned to know what a ‘real’ company functioned like as a basis for comparison. Without a formal training program or ‘protocol’ it’s hard to know what is normal or not. It was an environment where there were no rules and I was unprotected. It was tough.”
Not normal and you know it: Moving to Prague to find that your employer actually has no salary for you but will “take care of you”.
She high-tailed it out of there, knowing what he meant, and found another job. But it would have been helpful to have someone to turn to who could say, “You are so right. That is not normal. And don’t for a second think that his actions mean you are not bright and qualified and capable.”
Not normal and you don’t know it: Taking a report off someone else’s desk without permission when you are burning the midnight oil trying to get a big research project done.
“I didn’t know that you couldn’t do that. I almost got fired. Someone said to me, ‘We’re not a family here. That’s his property’, even if it’s company property. It was completely not for me to go take it off of his desk. I didn’t have anyone to give me the passwords to know that.”
She survived both experiences but believes any young person starting out needs a point of reference.
“I think that if you have no experience, you need someone giving you air cover and helping you identify and leverage your strengths. If you have no experience and no mentors, it’s really hard for you to have any sense of how much you don’t know. And there’s a lot that you don’t know! Established experience can make a huge difference by providing you a point of reference.”
Startups require extreme confidence and self-knowledge. When you are just starting your career, Tereza cautions that you may not be emotionally prepared to deal with the uncertainty that’s a way of life at a startup.
“At a startup, you constantly deal with hyper trade-offs. You don’t have a true north…an anchor to compare the trade-offs to and help guide your decisions. Everything flies so fast at a startup — it can be extreme.
My industry experience gave me confidence I wasn’t quite able to latch onto on my own in the startup world. When things around you are changing so fast, and you’re just getting to know yourself, too, it’s a massive amount of pressure. You have no context and everything feels like the end of the world. Experience helps you know “it’ll be okay”.
A few years in a more established environment can provide a foothold to that confidence that is not at odds with nurturing your entrepreneurial backbone.
“To me, startups are ‘home’ so I fully understand the lure. However I wouldn’t recommend it carte blanche as the right career path for everyone. Working in an established, ‘best practices’ environment for a couple of years can provide a strong base of experience for starting a business. You can learn a lot from the best people at a big company. They are entrepreneur-IAL. That’s why they get promoted.
Also, most startups make money by selling to larger established companies in one way or another. It really helps to know how they operate, what their decision vectors and cycles are, and so on.”
Tereza’s final words of wisdom… Follow your heart!
“But don’t stay longer than two years if your heart is in entrepreneurism. Transitions take time and inertia can be your enemy. Once you know you’re ready, take the plunge and don’t over-think it. Stay tuned in to your heart and the time line you want to take.”
Thank you Tereza for your 40:20 Vision.
Links to support buzz is about starting in startup first:
 Albert Wenger at USV says consulting and Investment Banking are generally not good preparations for being either an entrepreneur or joining a startup. Most large companies are only marginally better. If you want to be an entrepreneur or work at a startup, get out of that consulting, banking or big company job as fast as you can!
 PayPal founder paying kids to skip college and go to startup.
 Michael Arrington saying saying entrepreneurs peak at 25.
Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
About the guest blogger: Christina Vuleta is a strategic consultant and creator of 40:20 Vision, a blog that provides advice from 40-something women to 20-something women. Most recently a director at The Futures Company, a strategic marketing and trend consultancy, Christina has made a career out of understanding insights that drive women’s aspirations and life decisions.