Choosing My Path

Alfred Lua / Written on 19 February 2021

Two weeks ago, I received a job opportunity that had checked many boxes for me. The startup is in an interesting problem space and working on an AI product; they were offering a product manager and product marketing hybrid role; I could help hire and manage a team; they essentially have no marketing at all, and I can go in and set things up. Oh, and the compensation is about 50% more than what I'm getting now.

When I saw my friends changing jobs and making more money in the past, I always felt a bit jealous. But when I got to the point where I had to choose whether I want to change jobs, I wasn't as excited as I thought I would be. Do I want to leave Buffer? I had never gotten this close to switching jobs, so I had never thought deeply about this.

Both my current job and the new opportunity felt good but in different ways. If one was outright better than the other, it would have been an easy decision. But they weren't. I discussed this with my wife and friends. They shared their opinions and asked tough questions. I knew ultimately I had to make the decision myself because I know myself the best.

What do I want to do in life?

I have always wanted to build a startup. It's a big part of why I chose to join Buffer instead of working at a bank or a big corporation (despite having an accounting and finance degree). Because I didn't, and still don't, have an idea I'm passionate about, working at a startup feels like a good option. I get most of what I'm looking for: working hard with like-minded people to solve interesting problems (and getting paid). The main exception is I don't get to set the direction.

It was also helpful to think through what I do not want in life. I had a contract job for eight months at a financial institution before university. The experience of sitting in a cubicle in formal attire every day and working through bureaucracy didn't appeal to me. It made me realise I don't want to climb the corporate ladder or work only for promotions.

Once I clarified that in my mind, it became a bit easier to make the decision. I should pick the option that will increase my chances of starting a startup. The main thing I think I need is time to find and pursue an idea that I would devote my life to. (It's good to also have "business" skills such as hiring and management but I think they can be learned while running a startup.)

Buffer offers the time and space I want. We are currently on a four-day workweek, so I have three full days every week to explore and work on other things. On the other hand, if I were to take up the job offer, I know I would devote more time, perhaps six to seven days a week, to the company to build up the marketing almost from scratch while also doing product management. Even now at Buffer, I check my emails and Slack on Fridays to make sure anything that needs to be done as soon as possible is done on Friday and not three days later, on the following Monday. Furthermore, my CEO Joel Gascoigne is supportive of employees having side projects and starting businesses. His vision for Buffer is to create a world with more small businesses that do good while doing well, and employees leaving to start a business is in line with that. He even jumped onto a call with me to give me advice on starting a startup. I don't imagine many people have such privileges.

(To be fair, though, starting Open Atlas last year has helped me understand our Buffer customers better.)

How to use my free time

As I was discussing this job opportunity with a friend, he suggested I be intentional about how I'm going to spend my free time and understand why I'm spending it that way. He has been teaching me AI on Saturdays. He said while learning new things like AI is great, I should know why I'm studying it. It could be because I have an interest or I want to build something with AI. But I shouldn't be trying to learn new things just because I feel I should be learning something. My takeaway is I should be doing things because I want to, not because I think I should be doing them. Otherwise, I would be doing "productive" things without making any progress towards my goal.

I'm not sure the best thing to do with my free time is to try and come up with startup ideas. It feels better to explore the world and my interests while looking out for problems I would want to solve. Even working at Buffer helps because I get a closeup view of how a business operates and the problems it and likely other businesses face.

Right now, I'm interested in software engineering, AI, and space exploration because they will have an increasingly bigger impact on humanity. I have recently built a notes app and the website you are looking at now and am looking for more fun things to build. I have also been reading books and papers and watching videos on AI. I should probably dive into the code to understand AI better. As for space exploration, I don't know how to approach it yet.

Having been a triathlete for about 10 years now, health and fitness is another area that interests me. Exercising regularly has made me happier, healthier, and more confident. Being able to live longer, reduce disabilities, and be more productive also seem to be sensible goals for humanity. For the foreseeable future, I know I'll continue to work out regularly but I also want to keep an eye out for problems worth solving.

Narrowing my options

When I was at university, most people around me were doing spring programmes and summer internships at banks and management consulting firms. I joined the hype once and attended a three-day management consulting programme at IBM. But I didn't want to work at a bank or management consulting firm. I wanted to work at a startup. So I didn't apply for any internships with. These firms usually hire graduates who have interned with them. By not interning with them, I reduced my chances of getting a job from them. My weird logic then was if I'm less likely to get a job at a bank or big corporation, I would more likely try and get a job at a startup. And it did play out that way. I went down a path different from what most of my friends took. Eventually, that path led me to Buffer where I have been for the past five and a half years.

One thing I am afraid of is becoming too comfortable with earning a much higher salary and not willing to give it up. I'm 28 now, and my wife and I will likely have a child in the next few years. It's possible I become too attached to the stable and high salary. The good thing is we are thrift and still living like college students. We have saved up some money so that I can afford not to do things just to maximise our income. Applying my weird logic, if I don't have a higher salary to get attached to, then perhaps I'll be more likely to start a startup.

In the end, I turned down the offer and the CEO was very gracious about it. I realised I probably shouldn't take up any job offers unless it is to cofound a startup or it will give me even more free time. This should keep me on the path to starting a startup.

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