I Worked For Free With A Startup For Three Years And I Have No Regrets

shani jay
Image owned by Shani Jay

Most people don’t know that I worked for free with a startup for three years before I started my own business. And I have no regrets about it.

Let me tell you what happened, and how it got me to where I am today:

Isn’t it strange how one email has the power to alter the entire direction of your life?

I still remember receiving an email like this in 2012, while at university, studying fashion design.

It was from a start-up fashion company, and they were scouting for untapped talent in universities across the U.K.

Over the course of my three years at uni, I learned that I was hungry for something more than just a 9–5 job and a steady paycheck. I also re-discovered my love for writing. But I still enjoyed fashion, too. And this opportunity appeared to be a perfect medley of all those things.

I spent about three hours completing the 13 questions they sent out, as part of their lengthy recruiting process. Checking, re-reading, checking again; to make sure I hadn’t made any silly spelling mistakes, and to make sure I’d shown them everything I had to offer.

They loved what I sent them - especially how obvious it was that I’d invested real time and care into it. University came to an end, and a month later I travelled two hours on a train to Birmingham to meet face to face with the founder in a coffee shop.

I arrived armed with my giant ring-binder folder of notes, and a stomach full of butterflies.

It ended up being pretty informal. I think they mostly wanted to check I wasn’t crazy, and I guess I wanted to check the same.

We chatted for about two hours, about the start-up, where they were at, and what they were looking for from me.

He liked me. I liked him.

I bought into their vision of creating a fashion empire on the web. But mostly, I bought into him.

He’d already started and sold a couple of businesses, and I knew I could learn a tonne from him, even from one conversation. I guess this was when it first dawned on me that the people we surround ourselves with have a bigger influence on us than we realise.

He opened my eyes to people who were out there doing really cool shit, and he made me believe I could do that too - if I wanted it enough.

He was clearly someone who had unplugged himself from the matrix.

This was my first exposure to people like Gary Vaynerchuck, and his early days talking about wine on YouTube. To Sophia Amoruso, and how she started with a small eBay store selling vintage clothes, which she’d scout thrift stores for. And how Ed Sheeran started out playing to crowds of three people in small pubs, and crashed on stranger’s sofas at night just to get by.

He never gave me the sugarcoated, overnight success story, without the 10 year back-story that preceded it. And I loved that. It was insanely inspiring, hearing about all these ordinary people who started out just like me, but put in the work, and managed to build empires.

Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.
Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter

I was all in. One hundred percent. I was willing to do the work. And for the next three years, that’s exactly what I did.

I joined a team of 15 hungry graduates, who were ready to be a part of something epic.

The guys didn’t have any investors or funding yet, apart from their own modest savings, which they were already pouring into the business. So we were all working part-time for free, based on the understanding that as soon as the business started to grow and bring money in, we’d get paid, and be brought in full-time.

And I knew this was a risk; for two obvious reasons.

Firstly, the chances of any startup succeeding are tiny. I knew that. But I believed in the company, and more importantly, I believed in the two guys running it.

And secondly, there was always the chance I’d get screwed over. I hadn’t signed a contract with them, and we had no more than a verbal agreement. But I chose to give them the benefit of the doubt. Rightly or wrongly, I trusted them.

And I’ll never know if that trust was misplaced or not.

But it wasn’t like a normal internship where you pick up coffees and dry cleaning for people; and the only thing you learn is that people who work in that company are assholes.

So, for the next three years, I poured my time and my heart into that startup.

Meanwhile, I flitted from day-jobs as a fashion designer, to a buyer, and back to a designer again. And when I wasn’t at work, my evenings and weekends were spent giving my feedback on branding and web design, writing articles, scheduling social media posts, and connecting with fashion bloggers across the U.K.

I was learning so much, and I was growing every day.

I learned all about the power of building one on one relationships with people; and doing the work that other people can’t be bothered to do. I got to see exactly what went into building a business from the ground, up, and birthing it into the world. I was exposed to business tools in their beta phases; like Basecamp, Pipedrive, Pocket, and Slack. And I got to be involved in all areas of the company, and be treated no differently to one of the founders.

I think that was what I loved most. Feeling like my opinions mattered. There was no bullshit hierarchy, or feeling like you were just another replaceable cog in a machine.

But it was fucking hard work towards the end.

I’d write about 15 mini articles each week, be in charge of scheduling them all to Facebook, and that was on top of an insane five hour commute I was doing five days a week, in and out of London.

My dad and older brother consistently ridiculed me, and made me feel like a fool.

Why are you working for free?

This is never going to go anywhere.

Stop wasting your time.

Some of you reading this might be thinking the same. But I didn’t see it that way.

Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.
Jim Rohn

As expected, team members began to drop like flies. At the beginning, it’s easy to talk the talk and say you’re all in, but when it comes to doing the actual work, most people won’t back it up with action.

By autumn 2015, everyone had drifted off and gone their separate ways, and I was the last woman standing.

But I was starting to get restless.

My job as a fashion buyer felt stale and unfulfilling, and I wanted to quit and do my own thing. The startup guys had shifted directions a few times at this point, and it was starting to feel less and less likely that there was a future for me with them. Plus, I wanted my own business. I now felt ready to create something, I just didn’t know what. And a Christmas vacation to India, with plenty of reflection time, confirmed that to me.

So in December 2015, we parted ways on good terms. They understood I wanted more than they were able to give me. The founder told me to stay in touch, and reach out anytime if I needed any advice or support on my own journey.

I spent three years, on and off, dedicated to this company. And I never earned a penny.

We’ve since lost touch, the business we were building together doesn’t exist anymore, and I’m sot sure what the guys moved on to next.

Was it a waste of time?

I don’t think so. I think it depends on how you choose to look at things. Most things in life depend on how you look at them.

Those three years taught me that it’s okay to want to live an unconventional life. It’s okay if most people think you’re crazy - and most people will. But whatever it is that you want, you have to be all chips in on it. And it’s okay if things don’t pan out how you expected them to. What matters is you are doing what you want to do. You’re doing what you came here in this lifetime to do, to build, and to experience. And the outcome doesn’t really matter, as long as you get to live in your heart like that.

Over the next year, I focused on my writing  –  in my spare time. After many early mornings and weekends spent on my craft and plotting an escape route, I was able to pay my way through my writing, and I managed to quit my job in fashion at the end of 2016.

What we really want to do is what we are really meant to do. When we do what we are meant to do, money comes to us, doors open for us, we feel useful, and the work we do feels like play to us.
Julia Cameron

Since then, I’ve started my own business, written and published several books, hosted retreats, and managed to travel the world at the same time.

But if it wasn’t for those three years, I’m not sure I would have ended up here, sharing this with all of you. So I have no regrets. Because those three years are what got me here.

Those three years changed my life, and helped me ultimately build my own business. I now get to wake up each day, excited about what lies ahead of me.

Those three years filled me with the belief that I had something more to offer the world than my time. The courage to break free from the system, and try and make it alone. And the spirit to - no matter what happens - never, ever give up on myself, and my dreams.

I hope you don’t give up on yours.

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