Surviving a start-up’s bankruptcy

On a Tuesday almost two months ago, near the end of april, me and my coworkers received an email about an important meeting the next. We knew that something was going on, the look and feel of this email wasn’t the same as usual. This one seemed a bit darker, a bit more serious. On Friday you could feel the tension in the office, people were speculating a bit and just acting different than usual. But we all had jobs to do and we tried to do them just like we always did. But it turns out that this tension and the feeling we al had wasn’t wrong.

When the meeting actually went down we heard that an investor had backed out of our start-up. Resulting in an inability to pay the bills and sending all of us home until we would know more. What followed was a pretty strange, exhausting and tough period where I learned new things about myself, my work and how to keep busy. I would like to share this experience with you in this blogpost to try and explain how weird of a period bankruptcy can be from an employee’s perspective.

Stage one: registering the events that happened

Since the big announcement was made on a Friday, we actually had a few drinks afterward. It was different than usual, but we had fun, we laughed, talked about how much of a great time we had and that it wasn’t over just yet! We could still be bought, an investor might pop up soon and we’ll all be back to work in no time. Then Monday came along and I didn’t have to go to work. There really wasn’t much for me to do actually. So I started my week with just taking the day off. In the back of my mind I had this idea that I was getting payed anyway, so I might as well enjoy this time off.

At first I did pretty well, the first couple of days were pretty laid back, I started working on a side project called “Cijfer Hulp”. It’s a simple app for Dutch students to keep track of their grades and what grade they need to maintain a great average. But after a couple of days I realised that my job probably wasn’t going to come back. This was a pretty huge blow, I loved my job! I enjoyed going there every single day, and to realise that a 10 minute meeting was the last thing I’d ever do at this company was a pretty big blow.

Stage two: finding purpose, keep going

When I established with myself that I was probably going to be out of a job soon I started to look for a new job. This went pretty well at first, a few companies responded to my applications rather quick and I had set up some meetings in no time. However, I felt like I lacked a purpose. My side project was finished in about 8 days so there wasn’t much for me to do either. Staying in bed until 10:00AM, 11:00AM or later started to become easier and easier and falling asleep at night became harder and harder. I grew frustrated and irritable very quickly and while the meetings with potential employers were fun, they didn’t give me a sense of security.

The fact that I had no job, a few potential employers and the possibility of choosing one to work for and not knowing when I would know more about my current job was troubling me. One of the things that kept me thinking was the fact that my current employer still didn’t officially go bankrupt. We were all sitting at home, waiting for the court to pass a verdict. Three weeks went by with no news. It was just about time for us all to get payed, but the money wouldn’t come since there was no money. In The Netherlands there’s a company that will take over all of the salary payments from an employer if they can’t pay anymore, but this only happens after the court has declared bankruptcy. At this point it was clear that verdict would have to become bankruptcy. It was just a matter of when.

During this first month I had days where I was just frustrated, grumpy and tired all day. Keeping myself busy just felt pointless. I lacked purpose, everything I did was just filler to get through another day of not having to do anything. On other days I was motivated, I though about maybe going freelance or starting another side project. These days were quite fun actually because they had purpose and meaning. Whenever I’d go and have a cup of coffee at some company I always felt pretty satisfied, I was working towards something. However, my overall mood wasn’t too good. Having no responsibilities or purpose is taxing and I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. Doing small side projects is a smart idea. What also helped was to just head out of the house around 09:30 and go to the library to work there. Whenever I did this I was at least double as productive compared to staying at home all day.

Stage three: something look forward to

After a little longer than a month I found an employer that I wanted to work for. And they were excited to hire me as well! This felt like a huge win. No matter what was going on at my current job, I knew what was next. And the best part, just a few days after this I also got the news that me and my coworkers were now officially fired and the company had been declared bankrupt. However weird it may seem I was very relieved with this letter. Finally some closure, finally a timeline for it all. Just one more month and then I would start at my new employer, knowing that the current situation would be fully handled and I could finally start working towards getting the salary I still needed from the month of sitting at home. All of this had been so frustrating, especially not knowing what’s next and when it was coming. So for all of this to fall in place so short after one another was truly a blessing.

Tips for people who might find themselves in a similar situation

My most important tip is to try and keep up some sort of schedule. Your work rhythm probably provides some stability to you and your mind. Don’t break this, try to go to a public library or if you’re comfortable working from home, try to spend the day working on things. Maybe a side project, maybe some blog posts or maybe do some chores that you needed to get done anyway. You don’t have to spend your whole day programming, just make sure you’re busy.

Also, i would recommend to start looking for jobs right away. Just go and have some cups of coffee with people. You don’t have to formally apply everywhere, just get to know some people. Expand your network. It might seem a bit pointless and hard at times, but it’s really worth it. The nice thing about being in this situation is that there’s no rush in finding a new job. You can take it easy, you can really browse around for a nice place to work at.

It’s okay to be sad or feel down about the situation. When I had a bad day sometimes I thought that I had messed up. I should have been able to see this coming or do something, or whatever. It’s tough to realise that it’s something you might not have been able to see coming, something that you lack control over and it’s okay to be bummed out. If you loved your job it will have huge impact on you when that suddenly disappears. This is also the reason why I recommend to try and keep up our rhythm. It will help to keep your mind from wondering and it will help you wit that feeling of having no purpose.

Consistency and discipline over motivation

One of the beautiful things about being a developer is that many of us actually have the opportunity to take an activity we enjoy, and make it our job. Many developers are happy to do some extra work or learn something when they’re at home or in the weekend just because they are so eager to learn and play. While this is pretty awesome, it won’t last forever. You won’t be motivated to learn every single day. Especially once you start doing development as a full-time job. I experience this as well, sometimes I have a couple of days or even weeks where my motivation is through the roof. I’ll get tons of work done and the days just fly by. On other days I just can’t seem to get started, everything is distracting and the motivation just doesn’t seem to be there. When I look at some of the more senior developers I know, it seems that they have moved past this phase. They always seem to be motivated and sometimes they just seem extra motivated. They just seem to have no shortage of the good stuff! How do they do this?

Is it motivation you should look for?

If you think about it, motivation isn’t worth much. It’s just not there all the time and you can’t build a solid career based on it. When I was looking for ways to improve motivation I came across posts like this, telling me that I should get disciplined. Some went even further and said that motivation just isn’t worth your time.

Because of these posts I started to realize that motivation is a great driver of productivity. But only when it’s there. When motivation isn’t there, every job seems like a chore. Have to adjust a form on a website? It sounds terrible when you’re not motivated. You’d have to create a new input field, maybe change a database table and more. You get tired just by thinking about it. But then consider doing that same thing when you’re motivated. You probably would get excited because you get to possibly improve the product and code base that you’re working on. This isn’t feasible in the long run though, when you want a job in development you’ll need to train yourself to become more consistent, more disciplined. Motivation will be the bonus, not the requirement.

Changing motivation into discipline

If you want to be more disciplined you’ll sometimes have to be pretty tough on yourself. There’s rarely a valid excuse to not do what you’re supposed to do. So instead of postponing things until you feel motivated or obliged to do them, just get started. If you do this, and are consistent about it, you’ll see that it helps. I often find that it helps to not jump in headfirst like you would when you’re super motivated but to just sit back first. Take 15-20 minutes to figure out what it is that you’re going to build, what code are you going to write. Figure out what sub tasks there are and split them up in blocks that will take about 40 minutes to complete. If you do this, you will have a great structured overview of what you’re going to do. You’ll know how busy you are for the day or week and you’ll be able to plan accordingly. During those 40 minute work cycles try to turn off notifications that might distract you. Discipline yourself to only check notifications in between your 40 minute cycles.

After a 40 minute cycle it’s time to take a quick break. And try to make it an actual break, get up and grab a drink. If there’s email or anything similar that requires your attention, take a peek. Reply if needed or add replying to your to-do list. Make it a part of a 40 minute cycle if the email requires you to figure something out in-depth. Otherwise, use the break or extend the break a little (but not too much, 10 minutes should be the maximum). In the beginning you might feel like you’re restricting yourself because everything has to be thought about or planned in, you can’t just start doing something and then do something else until you’re out of motivation. That’s fine, you are training yourself to have a consistent and disciplined workflow. If you find that 40 minutes is too long or too short for you you can always change the cycles. You could even do that on a day-to-day basis if you feel like it’s appropriate for the tasks you’re working on. I personally found after a few weeks that I prefer 50 minute cycles with 10-15 minute breaks.

The benefits are real

When I look at more senior developers I notice that many of them have a workflow similar to this. They take multiple short breaks throughout the day and between those breaks they tend to be very focused on the tasks they have to complete. They don’t have their Slack open all the time and they work on a single thing at a time. And they are consistent about that. Everyday they seem to be able to flick the switch and go into work mode. Of course they still have more and less motivated days, but a motivated day will just make them super productive instead of only productive because being productive is their default setting.

So let’s get out there and become consistently more disciplined!