Reflections on startup life: Week 72

The value of free.

Despite the fact that they are hard work, stressful, at times soul destroying, frequently the worst financial decision you’ll ever make in your life and never end, people still think that working for a startup could be fun! OK, it can actually be that too, but it’s not all fun. If your startup is interesting, people will start contacting you out of the blue for jobs, but sometimes just to volunteer their time.

The jobs question is easy to answer (if you’ve got funding, a role and their the best A-grader going, hire them if you really need them, if not, don’t), but it’s the volunteers that are more challenging. It’s happened to us on a number of occasions, with mixed success. While the immediate reaction is one of “Yes! We’ve got more work than 10 people can do, come help us out…” the reality is that it doesn’t always go smoothly and that there are a series of things to consider.

Here’s a list of things we’ve learnt from practice:

  1. Motivation: Generally, people don’t really want to work for you for free. There is some transaction here, just make sure you really understand what it is. For example, it might be that the person wants exposure and you’re getting a lot of buzz, so by associating themselves with you they can showcase their talents too. Or maybe they are thinking of running away to join the circus, I mean a startup, themselves and this is a practice run before they quit their day job. Be really careful if there is an expectation this could lead to a job, for them and yourselves, don’t make unintended commitments here. Takeaway — does the motivation make sense, do you know what their time is really costing you and can you meet that expense (can you give them the experience they want or can you publicize their efforts on your behalf).
  2. Time Sink — In reality unskilled people could be costing you your MOST valuable resource, Time. Can you afford to support this person with your time? Are they mature, independent and skilled enough that you don’t have to handhold them. Our experience of talking with interns at this stage of our business has been that they are never a match, they need mentoring, something we can’t adequately give at the moment. Takeaway — you need help, not more responsibilities.
  3. Timing — Do you need what they are offering at the time they are offering. We had a great designer volunteer to help us out, but we were changing and implementing ideas so fast that by the time he’d have a concept for us, we’d changed the feature set. Although we thought we needed his help, we couldn’t adequately use the resource (his time and skill) he wanted to give us at that time. We stopped this quickly, not because of his work, but because we were wasting his time, we couldn’t use his skills right then. Takeaway — don’t just take a resource because it’s offered, be sure there is meaningful work for them and you.
  4. Pace / Commitment — Are there reasonable expectations on both sides about how much of their time and effort you’ll get — it’s really important to be very clear on this up front, your typical volunteer will have a day job. Your startup is not their life. Equally, you’re moving very quickly, you can’t slow down just to “be fair”. Takeway: Make sure you can align the timelines.
  5. IP — What are you exposing to this volunteer. If they are doing technical work for you, do you own the IP? Takeaway: You don’t want a useful volunteer to turn into a damages claim later on.
  6. Exit — Do you know how and when this relationship will terminate. Takeaway — Know when it’s over and how to cap it. You need help, but you should never abuse someones generosity, and equally, you don’t want an unintended “third founder” either.

There are probably even more things to consider depending on where they work for you and so forth (OHS?). I think the point at this early stage is not to get too hooked up in bureaucracy, but you do need to make sure that the big ticket items (IP and your time) are covered and that it’s actually a worthwhile exercise.

For us, the most successful have been when we are able to wrap up a task which isn’t time constrained — it’s a nice to have for us that we’d eventually do, but right now just don’t have the time. There’s a defined beginning and end, and the speed at which it gets executed (while faster is typically better) is not going to road block us; in fact we probably wouldn’t have got to it anyway. We’ve addressed IP either up front, or in some instances having the component be open sourced.

There’s other benefits too — another perspective and pair of eyes can be really great to kick around ideas with and provide feedback on what you’re missing.

As a final note — love this quote from Alex “I’m amused by how optimistic we were 16 months ago when we thought we were being really pessimistic”.


  • Huge progress on the new version — looks like we can set a release date now (10 days away).
  • Major progress on the vision for and the next feature set beyond the current one cooking.
  • Back to pushing code again.

Lessons Learnt

  • Don’t let medium term plans get in the way of the short term tasks — or don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. “I’ll just wait for the next release before implementing this feature” sounds a lot like common sense but looks a lot like nothing is being done on the site!

Goals this week

  • Complete the user testing and get a user council setup to help review and provide feedback.