To help you succeed in this path, we have designed a two part practical guide based on the experience of 5 developers who were among the first employees of their company.
This first part is devoted to the questions you should ask yourself to make sure you are choosing the right project. What for? To give yourself the best chance of joining a project that will live up to your ambitions!
🕐 10 min reading
What you will learn in this article:
- The good (and not so good) reasons for wanting to be an early employee
- How to assess the viability of a project
- How to evaluate the founding team
- How to agree on remuneration
The developers we interviewed:
- Gabriel Klein was the first developer of the online bank Qonto, which he joined in March 2016. He became VP of Engineering of this unicorn and in September 2021 became Chief Tech & Product Officer of the scale-up Masteos, specialised in rental investment.
- Marie Terrier, who has ten years of experience in software engineering, is since 2018 the first developer and CTO of Yelda (6 employees), a platform that deploys voice applications for companies. Her colleague Naomi Paulmin, the second developer hired by the company, was also interviewed.
- Since 2020, Adrien Siami has been the first developer and CTO of Ecotable, a service with around 15 employees that helps restaurants to adopt eco-responsible practices. Previously, he was Engineering Manager of Drivy(car rental between individuals), which became Getaround following their acquisition.
- Vladimir de Turckheim joined Sqreen, a security management platform, in 2016 as the fourth developer. He is now Staff Software Engineer at Datadog, which was acquired in February 2021.
Choosing a company is always a strategic decision for your career. But the stakes are much higher when you are one of the first developers, because of the level of risk involved. Indeed, if the company doesn't take off :
- You won't evolve. No growth = no recruitment = no promotions.
- Your salary will stagnate and the value of your shares will not compensate for the loss of income.
- When you go looking for a new job, your CV will be less "marketable" than if you had been working for a well-known company.
In other words, being a first developer means choosing the entrepreneurial adventure and gambling on the future. If you win, the reward will be commensurate with the risk taken. But if you lose, all you'll have left is to learn from your experience - which is still valuable! But don’t forget the opportunity cost (what you gave up to take on this project).
We have put together a list of key questions you should consider to make sure you are betting on the right project. This is what investors call due diligence!
Introduction: becoming an early employee for the right reasons
Before we get to the heart of the matter, let's start with some introspection. The majority of the people we interviewed for this article underlined the importance of having a clear understanding of the reasons for wanting to join a start-up in its early stages. As we will see, this requires a strong commitment on a daily basis and for years to come.
"If your primary objective is to make a lot of money, there are other, much safer solutions"
- Marie Terrier (Yelda)
Not sure if you really want to go for it? Then the probability you will give up along the way is even greater!
"If your primary objective is to make a lot of money, I think there are other solutions that are much safer," explains Marie from Yelda. In the case of Adrien Siami, it was the quest for meaning that was most important. After more than four years with Drivy / Getaround, he was looking for another project where he could have a direct environmental impact. "I looked into these areas and that's how we met the founders of Ecotable," he says.
As for Vladimir de Turckheim, he remembers looking for an early position for the wrong reasons. "I was at an agency that wasn't looking to help you progress but just to place you with a client. And I didn't want to be subjected to other people's decisions and technical debt anymore..." Looking back, he realises that in fact, what motivates him in essence is having a front row seat to solving real-world problems. "I needed that adrenaline shot from customers with stars in their eyes," says Vladimir, who has been with Sqreen / Datadog for over six years now.
Gabriel Klein, on the other hand, saw his world shift in 2011, at the age of 28, when he went to work in the Silicon Valley for four years. "There I discovered how much value tech could bring to a business and the importance of having a product-centric culture.” On his return to Europe, he had only one objective: to create his own project, especially since with his background, he had the technical skills to do so. He was thinking about setting up a bank for small and medium-sized businesses... and crossed paths with the founders of Qonto, who had a similar idea! "It's also very much linked to my personality: if I don't learn and have new things to crack, I get bored and go elsewhere. So I'm very well suited to this type of early stage and growing company," he explains.
These different experiences illustrate two key motivations for joining an early stage start-up: the desire to have a strong individual impact and an appetite for creation.
1. Assess the viability of the project
If you are like most people, you will look for a project that is worthwhile and try to avoid wasting your time and energy. Here are some keys for evaluating a start-up.
"When you're the first one, you're going to be so involved that you can't help but buy into the mission!"
- Adrien Siami (Ecotable)
"The number one question for me is: do you believe in the product?", Vladimir says straight away. "If you don't, you'll almost certainly be tempted to leave at the first sign of trouble.” This opinion is shared by Adrien Siami: "Personally, my motivation was the product and the environment in which I was going to work. You may be less concerned about these points when you join a team of more than 20 developers, but when you're the first one, you're going to be so involved that you can't help but buy into the mission!”
The business model
The CTO of Ecotable also recommends looking at the business model. "To fully understand what I was getting into, I did some research on my own to make sure the business looked viable," he explains. The best case scenario is obviously to join a project that already has customers, and which has therefore proved that it meets a need.”
"Yelda managed to land a contract with a large e-retailer in France to do voice purchasing via Google Assistant. This brings money, recognition... and makes you think that it's worth really going for it", recalls Marie Terrier.
The financing plan
Vladimir also encourages people to look at the company's financing plan. Does the founding team intend to raise funds? If so, when and how much? If not, why not? How many people will they hire in the next two years? What is their burn rate (the rate at which the company "burns" its cash)?
This will give you some indication of the speed of development expected and how likely the start-up is to fail in the short to medium term.
2. Envisioning yourself with the founding team
The second step in your detailed examination of the start-up is to make sure that you are a good fit with the people who started the project.
This is probably the most important step of all:
- These are the people you will work with on a daily basis and spend most of your time with
- Conflicts between partners are one of the primary reasons for the failure of a starting business
Let's look at some good practices in this area.
Analyse the team' s strengths
"We took the time to meet up several times. It was as much me interviewing the founders as they were interviewing me," recalls Adrien from Ecotable. For Vladimir, it was a much quicker process. At noon, he met the founders of Sqreen, and at 6pm he was signing his contract! "They got on well, had worked together in the past, they were not entering a field they didn't know anything about and were clearly on a mission. The stars were aligned!" he recalls.
"You have to make sure that the people involved are not acting like a bull in a china shop."
- Vladimir de Turckheim (Sqreen / Datadog)
According to him, the viability of a start-up, in the beginning, can indeed be measured mainly by the CV of the founding team. "You have to make sure that the people involved are not acting like a bull in a china shop. You see so many companies that don't work out because there is no strong added value in the area from the start" he says. His radical advice (which he didn't apply at the time): don't go to people who don’t have any entrepreneurship or expertise in the project sector!
In the case of Qonto, Gabriel Klein was soon reassured. The co-founders had already created and sold a company together and one of them was the son of a former BNP Paribas executive, so he wasn't starting from scratch in banking.
This is clearly a question of trust. "Unlike a traditional interview, the founders must also prove that they will be able to do their share of the work in the team, particularly in marketing, finance and sales, and that it is worth taking the risk to join them," summarises Marie Terrier.
"You don't start building an app based on a hunch" - Marie Terrier (Yelda)
One of the key criteria to look out for is the proven existence of a market need. Does the team have the evidence to support their model? Have they already launched a first version, in no-code for example, in order to gather user feedback? Have they managed to sell something to real people? In short, is the market need confirmed at this point? "You don't start building an application just on a hunch," confirms the CTO of Yelda.
So the first thing to look at is the ability of the original team to achieve its ambitions. In other words, it has to convince its first recruits by showing them that it can deliver.
Check that you are in tune with the team
Once you have ensured that the founding team is solid, you can move on to the second verification: are the team's values, work methods and ambitions aligned with yours?
"The challenge at the beginning is to remove as many doubts as possible to maximise the chances that the collaboration, and therefore the project, will succeed," says Adrien Siami. Here are some examples of points to address:
- What vision does the founding team have of tech? In which area do they see themselves spending most of their time?
In other words, will you be in a purely executive position or will you be involved in the development of the product roadmap? For instance, will you be able to talk to customers or will you spend your time coding? What will your scope be? What will your professional relationship be?
- How will you develop if the company is doing well?
If you want to be a manager in the medium term, will they give you that opportunity or will they recruit more senior profiles when structuring the team?
- What is the co-founders' ambition?
There is a difference between joining a project whose initial ambition is to become a world leader in its sector and a start-up that wants to become a good SME to be bought out in 5 years!
- What is the company culture advocated by the project's creators?
What will the atmosphere and routines be like? What values are important to them? What type of people will be recruited?
"For example, we agreed from the start that diversity was an important element in a team and that we would not accept people with too much ego," illustrates Marie Terrier. "I asked if I could come to work in shorts. This may seem anecdotal but the response says a lot about the culture of a company," comments Vlad.
These questions allow you to get a better idea of the people you will be working with, the best possible outcome being of course to work with people who have been recommended to you or, better still, that you already know. This was the case for Marie Terrier, who followed the managers of the consulting firm she had been working for for 7 years. "If I was going to embark on an early adventure once in my life, it was definitely with them", she says.
3. Agreeing on your salary
We have now covered the most crucial steps, but we still need to discuss one very important element: your salary! Bear in mind that, with very few exceptions, a start-up cannot compete with the salaries of large technology companies. This is not however a reason to undersell yourself!
"If the company has no money to pay you, you have to make sure things are very clear: when will there be?" - Vladimir de Turckheim (Sqreen / Datadog)
First question to ask yourself: do you want to become a co-founder or the first employee of the company? In the first case, you will be on the same level as the other members of the founding team (in terms of number of shares in the company and salary... if there is a salary!).
In the second case, you will be a salaried employee and will therefore receive an income every month. This depends of course on your risk aversion but also on your current needs. Obviously, not everyone can afford to live without money coming in.
All the people interviewed in this article started with a salary. "The company had existed for a year and already had clients. Obviously, I knew that I could earn twice as much in a crypto company for example, but you have to know what you want in life," smiles Adrien Siami. Sqreen had already raised €3M when Vladimir joined, enough to ensure his salary for at least a year.
According to him, this question should not be taken lightly. "If the company has no money to pay you, you have to make sure things are very clear: when will there be? That is to say: at what level of turnover will you receive a salary? Are there any plans to raise funds? If so, when and how much will you be paid afterwards?,” he says before adding: “The main thing is to clarify things, not to make demands. Your main interest should remain the product.”
"Being an equity partner was non negotiable"
- Gabriel Klein (Qonto / Masteos)
Being one of the first developers means taking a risk... but it also means betting on a reward that matches this risk. In other words: having shares in the company. Getting a stake in the potential success should be non negotiable! "Being an equity partner was non negotiable", says Gabriel Klein at Qonto. The same goes for Vlad: "I'm not here to just be a developer like an adjustment variable, but to form a partnership and share a project," he says.
The question is: what percentage should you ask for? "That obviously depends on the stage of development of the company and the track record of the founding team. The negotiation is about this balance of power," replies Gabriel Klein. "Knowing that you have to know what you're fighting for: it's better to have 1% of a successful company than 20% of a start-up that's plateauing," says Klein, who generally advises his colleagues to constantly look for an incentive in the capital, "because it's not €10,000 a year that will make the difference over the course of 10 years.”
"If the founding team never wants to sell or go to the stock market or raise funds, in short, if there is no one to buy them from you, your shares will be worthless!" - Vladimir de Turckheim (Sqreen / Datadog)
One way of doing this is to estimate the shortfall in terms of salary during these years, together with a premium for the risk incurred, and then the expected value of the company within 3 to 5 years in order to determine the share to be reached in order to make the investment profitable. However, this remains very approximate and theoretical!
The unofficial figures vary from a little less than 1% to 5% which can be unlocked after 6 months or a year. Although Vladimir adds a rather radical nuance: "I don't recommend reducing your salary for stocks. If the founding team never wants to sell or go to the stock market or raise funds, in short, if there is no one to buy them from you, your shares will be worthless!"
What we learned from this article
- Becoming an early employee should be motivated by an appetite for the entrepreneurial adventure rather than by financial or career considerations
- Interest in the product, the viability of the business model, and the soundness of the financing plan are three recommended criteria for assessing the relevance of a project
- The inherent strength of the founding team and its alignment with your values and ambitions are two key elements to check before taking the plunge.
- You should start out with both equity and a decent salary!