After ten years of working in startups and product companies, Paweł decided to try his hand at his own company. What does a developer need to start a business? What experience is worth gaining before deciding to go take this step? We asked Paweł Dyląg about it.
’Now it’s time to follow my dreams, to build something of my own’ – this is a fragment of your post on LinkedIn, in which you also announced you were leaving Revolut. Let’s go back to when this decision was made. What made you choose to quit a full-time position in favor of your own company?
Let’s start with the fact that both career paths (employment or own company) have their advantages and disadvantages, and the choice between them should be made in accordance with one’s own nature, and not because of the pressure of the environment. I have devoted the last ten years to work for startups and corporations, although since high school I dreamed of a career as an entrepreneur.
So why didn’t you 'follow your dreams’ then?
For two reasons: firstly, I didn’t have the financial conditions to take the risk and I’m a very defensive player by nature. Secondly, because I was opportunistically trying to make the best decisions at the time. Hence, the choice fell on a full-time employment: because money was certain, because I needed to gain experience, because I got to know people, because I had to write a master’s degree, because I had to furnish my apartment. Looking back I admit that I do not regret these decisions.
What did you gain from working for other companies?
During that period, I acquired an abundance of knowledge from all the brilliant people with whom I had the opportunity to work. Working in many companies allowed me to soak in the startup aura, experience hard times in a declining company, undergo a shock while working on a contract abroad, and finally experience euphoria after cashing in part of my shares at Revolut (paid with exhausting overtime work, antidepressants and therapy, which is a topic for a separate article). Now I found myself in an ideal situation: I have financial security in the form of invested money, I have a lot of knowledge about building mobile applications (in Revolut I wrote code that works for 25 million users), and most importantly I have a great network of contacts all around the world.
Let’s go back to the first question: when did you realize it was worth doing something else?
Six months ago I asked myself if I wanted to keep working my arse off chasing promotions (however convenient it might sound financially), or take advantage of my ideal life situation to fulfill myself creatively and use my full range of skills (not only programming). You know my choice: it won’t be easy, but I know I can do it!
I guess that in such a situation there are many thoughts like: why do you need it, a warm full-time job is better. How did you fight them?
In fact, now (October 2022) may be the worst time to start an IT business. There is a crisis around, we have Russia’s shocking military aggression against Ukraine, a weakening situation on the Venture Capital market (already fewer and fewer start-ups get financing), huge drops on the stock exchanges, and, to make things worse, raging inflation. ‘Paweł, are you crazy?!’ my parents asked me. They have both been entrepreneurs for years already, and they tried to convince me that it was good to have a full-time position, because in Poland entrepreneurs’ life is really difficult. 'Not really’ I replied. It seems to me that if I manage to build a business in such a bad environment (and my plan is to build a value company, not a growth company, which will be discussed later in the conversation), then I will manage to survive in all conditions. I have thrown myself into deep water very often in my life and this tactic has always paid off (although sometimes not in the way I imagined).
If you notice you have a tendency to complain a lot about your work environment, then know that something wrong is going on. Just imagine: how much of that wasted energy could be spent building creative things!
My innate curiosity, which is stronger than the fear, was also a reason to leave. My late grandfather always said that the biggest regrets in life were the things he didn’t do, not the things he did. I decided to listen to his wisdom.
How did you prepare to open a new chapter? Did you first inform your superiors that you were leaving soon, or did you do it in some other way?
The ideal situation is when you work full-time in one company, and you build and validate your own project after hours. If it grows enough and you’re able to get decent money from it, then you give up your job and go on your own. Sounds like an effective plan, but not everyone has such favorable conditions and enough energy to pull these two things at once. When to have time for your loved ones? For your family? For your hobbies? In my case it couldn’t work and I think quite a few people working full-time have a similar problem.
Do you mean formal constraints?
First of all, I had a non-competition agreement signed with Revolut, which made any 'after-hours jobs’ difficult, and secondly, after 10-12 hours of coding and context-switching, the programmer’s brain turns into a sponge. I decided to approach the problem in a zero-one way: either a full-time job or something of my own. I did some small projects during weekends, but stress about unfinished things at Revolut effectively stopped me from working on my own stuff. I decided to devote the entire Q2 2022 to the fight for promotion and achievements for a good performance review, but I still didn’t get a strong enough grade. Maybe I just burned out, because I haven’t had any fun doing typical day-to-day tasks, and I tried to deceive myself.
Immediately after the Q2 results, I scheduled an interview with my Line Manager, then with the Functional Manager, and finally with the Head of Engineering. I was pretty firm in my decision, I wasn’t open to negotiate my salary, I just wanted to leave and try my hand at my own business.
We parted on a positive note and I know that they will welcome me back with open arms if needed (it’s not worth burning bridges). We also agreed to shorten the notice period to 1 month (after three years of full-time work in Poland you have a three-month long notice period, remember!), and at the end of September I was finally a 'free man’. Still, during the notice period, I managed to get a small client with whom I signed a contract three days after leaving Revolut.
You have worked in many organizations, which probably brought you a lot of experience. What’s on the 'I don’t want things to happen in my company…’ list? Or is there no such list?
Of course there is such a list! However, you need to remember that not every company is for everyone, and probably mine will not be either. This is normal, it reflects our tribal nature and we need to accept it. Let’s face it – although people are very important to me, there will always be someone who is a fan of the 'authoritarian’ approach, which I do not like and simply cannot enforce. I really like what Steve Jobs had said: ‘there is no point in hiring smart people and telling them what to do. We hire smart people to tell us what to do’ – and I will stick to that.
On the other hand, I keep in mind that people without pressure and with too many comforts may get lazy (including myself), so you have to find the perfect balance between drudgery and pleasure. If you tend to be lazy, and you want to do something about it, then for me it works well to make commitments to others. For example, if I want to go to the gym, but I’m struggling to wake up early, I make an appointment with a friend for a specific time. I don’t want to let my friend down, and this is how I have been able to exercise systematically for several years already.
Let’s go back to the list of things you don’t want in your team.
I divide them into two categories – ones that I know how to prevent, and those that I have no idea how to solve. Unfortunately, there are many more of the latter for now, but I have a few in the first category – let’s focus on them. At the beginning, a simple thing, which is the effect of my work in a well-known Krakow company employing mostly students. I don’t want to develop bad software on the shoulders of Junior Engineers and 'sell’ it to everyone interested. I aim for the premium software shelf, with client selection and a professional team. Sounds like a cheap text from a generic vendor, doesn’t it? Yes, but I actually know how to achieve it because I’ve worked in such an environment and I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t.
I am transferring the product approach that I gained at Revolut or Estimote to the services area. We follow the process of writing code with an emphasis on quality, i.e. a mandatory minimum set of unit and integration tests (where possible), plus screenshot tests to verify layout changes in UI components and application flow testing in the form of UI tests. I believe that creating reliable software is the responsibility of every programmer, and therefore we should write tests for our own code. As a result, I do not plan to cooperate with testers, and for the money saved it is better to pay programmers more and include testing time in their estimates.
This solution creates a great opportunity for inexperienced team members who will quickly learn the correct and safe approach to coding and will have an open career path to many other companies. Testing is just the tip of the iceberg, but there are still a whole lot of things: building system architecture, approach to the application release process, maintenance, beta testing, UI design, etc. For more, join my team, we will teach you everything!
Coding is not everything. What about the team?
Another thing on the list is how we treat the people we work with (I avoid the word ’employees’ because it implies a strict hierarchy. I want to work with people, not be their boss). I don’t recommend the style of some companies where you have to work overtime hours all the time. If you’re a tough person, you’ll be well rewarded of course, but if you don’t deliver your KPIs, you’ll be fired very quickly. This approach is not for everyone, but it works for the company because people can work hard. Continuous work at this pace, however, may cause burnout, depression, anxiety, stress-related health issues. Everyone feels it, yet hardly anyone talks about it, and it’s a very important topic because we are people, not machines.
Interestingly, I once worked in a company where it was so homely and comfortable that you almost didn’t want to work. I don’t like this approach either, the company still has to move forward, earn money and generate value for society. How to find a balance? You have to pick the right people. At Revolut, I was recruiting programmers and I have the experience in finding like-minded people. You need to have solid knowledge, but it’s not enough, because soft skills also count. Cooperation is based on mutual communication, so instead of a cocky genius, I will rather cooperate with a smiling, ambitious, but less experienced person. I think that a good starting point for me will be the justjoin.it portal, where I will be able to reach potential team members in a transparent way.
We covered almost everything. There is also the topic of financing. Can you tell me about your approach?
Every business has to get funds in some way to pay for your work. Only the sources differ – in a classic company, customers pay the money, in a startup – the investors (ideally only at the beginning, but may vary). Who do you think startups really make money from? In the vast majority of cases, these are investors who are promised big profits in the future in exchange for selling them 'pitches’, 'visions’, 'returns on investments’. It starts with the seed round, then round A, B, C and so on until the end of the alphabet (or company). It doesn’t make sense to me, I’ve worked in several startups and I don’t want to repeat this pattern. Don’t get me wrong – fundraising from investors is perfectly fine, but it can’t be the company’s main activity.
My idea is to start by bootstrapping: we’re building a traditional service business that will generate money from day one. Along with the development of the product and the team, I will consider the option of acquiring investors. I will make this decision only when I can guarantee them a solid profit and the money raised will significantly affect our expansion. If it turns out that I will not prove myself in building a company, then I will not promise anything to investors, it’s as simple as that.
What does an engineer actually need to start their own business? First client and what else? I am not asking about formal issues.
Let me point out that I am in the beginning of setting up a company, so I am not speaking from the position of a successful entrepreneur, but from the level of someone who is struggling along the way to the top. Nevertheless, I believe that such a voice is needed, because it is easy to read about successes, but we do not always see the whole process around. I have some observations that may be of use to you.
To open your own business, soft skills are the basis. Talking to people, good communication, ability to work in a team. I can already see that without communication skills we will not leave our programming caves. Of course, extroverts with business school degrees will be much better than us in this field, but hey, we know how things work underneath, we know the technology, we can assess the risk, find potential errors, we can enter the product’s source code, do a code review, understand what is going on in bits and bytes. This is a huge advantage! That’s why I recommend getting out of your comfort zone and going to a meetup. Don’t be shy about saying something stupid, because even if you do, it can all be turned into laughter, and people generally like to laugh.
For non-English speakers: English, English and again English. I am sure that the programmers reading us already understand the code in this language, watch tutorials and read the Internet. This is half the way, because it is the input, while the other half, the output from your brain, can be trained. Try to speak and write in English as much as you can, I am sure that the interlocutors will understand you anyway. My work is in English on a daily basis, I also conduct recruitment interviews, calls, or Slack messages in this language.