I used to work in a startup company.
It wasn’t a big company per se, but we did have a big dream. It is no secret that in this modern era, founding and nurturing a startup company that will eventually go boom in the market is like a proverbial rat race everyone should participate in. It was almost like the norm, even.
I still remember the day when I first set my foot inside the office, back in March 2014. I was still a total newbie and wet behind the ears. The office only occupied one medium-sized room inside a two stories office building in the heart of Jakarta. Having previously interned in a more “prestigious” office that perches on the 28th floor of a rather modern skyscraper, I had clearly thought that this company was a total joke.
Yet after I filled out my answer sheet for the mandatory test they require from every applicants, waited for almost ten minutes inside the meeting room, and met the CEO who—at the time—was the only one with enough authority and free time to interview me, I was mesmerized.
“You are smart,” I remember the CEO, clad in a casual red madras shirt, said. “But you lack confidence. You lack ambition. You lack desire.”
I remember getting rather offended by his comment. I was there to interview for a new job, and as far as I was concerned, I’d still had four more interview schedules if that one didn’t work out. So I asked him why did he said such thing, and prompted whether I should leave the room, since obviously we didn’t get along.
“You can always find a more stable job. A safer choice,” he replied without even taking his time to think, as if he already had this whole conversation scripted. “I won’t promise you to be the safer choice. Joining a startup company is a gamble. You can either win big—” he raised his left hand dramatically, as though he was grasping an invisible ladder in the air. And then he dropped the hand to his sides. “—or lose everything.”
I waited for him to continue, and he did.
“What I can promise you, is a chance to experiment, a chance to fail, and a chance to learn big time from your amateurish gambling decision.”
And just like that, I was sold. Looking back, my experience working in that startup company really had been a huge gamble for me. My ex-CEO was right; the escapade to be a startup company with a sustainable business model was really long and arduous, but along the way I had been given multiple chances to experiment, fail, and learn.
And perhaps that was what I needed the most: a chance to fail.
One day, after working in the same company for four years, we had simply grown too big to fit into the same medium-sized room that we rented from someone else’s office space. While the lack of space provided a quaint sense of camaraderie among the residents (probably because we are forced to see each other every single day), it was also apparent that we needed a new place.
The first to bring this up during our monthly recap meeting, was my COO. By that time, I was already working in the company for three and a half years. My CEO had resigned from the company, since he received a better job offering somewhere else. I wasn’t really surprised with his decision, however, since I thought the only thing that went in his mind when making the decision was that this would be a better gamble to lose in.
My COO, who was an expat from Japan, told us that he noticed we started to run out of cabinets to put our archives and documents in. This was clearly a problem, since we couldn’t just dispose of all the papers we have accumulated for 4 whole years. Moreover, with the annual audit going on at that moment, shredding some important document by mistake was a huge risk we didn’t want to take.
Another concern was that we were hiring even more people to add into our ever so growing family of web developers. The office could accommodate 30 people, but we already had 28 back then, with a hiring plan of recruiting another 10.
As the topic of moving became somewhat more frequently talked about, I stopped to think about it from time to time. It felt almost surreal, since the only office space I could associate with the company at the time was that medium-sized room where everyone could always spy on your computer screen from your back.
It was not too hard to fall in love with your working space if you’ve been working there five days a week, eight hours a day, and for 4 whole years. Hearing that it was time to move out and find a better space for our new team was like listening to some made-up fantasies; like I know someone is telling me that, but I wanted to believe that it was never going to become a reality.
And yet, it did.
On our designated moving day, I was the last person to leave the office. Of course, that wasn’t the only time I had been the last to leave, since in-between urgent assignments and a client roaring on the phone, demanding that I should work on their requests promptly, I had experienced overtime works a lot of time.
But as I stood at the door leading to the hallway, I paused for a moment.
There was a single rule that was not written on the company’s code of conduct, but everyone did anyway: the last person to leave the office should turn off the lights, and ensure that the door was locked before leaving.
So there was really no reason for me to pause, you see. I knew exactly what I needed to do: turn off the lights, lock the door, and go home. But instead of doing that, I turned around, and took in the scenery in front of me while taking a deep breath.
There was a meeting room in the corner of the office. We call it a meeting room, but it’s more of a corner bordered with two huge whiteboards that separated it from the rest of the room. The engineers (developers and designers) usually do their daily updates and scrum planning in that corner. Having had the opportunity to try my hands on project management myself, I recall there were times when I, too, would sit in that corner, patiently waiting for everyone’s updates, while making sure that nothing was missed.
In another corner of the room, there was yet another meeting room. This one is a smaller kind, and we ended up using a third of its space as our makeshift warehouse, since all the cabinets and shelves were already full. It was in this room that I first saw a huge rat leaping from behind the bookshelf, hastily running away from our sights while having a torn beng-beng package on its mouth.
This room held so much memories for me, personally. I would even consider it legendary.
When I first came to this company, I was told to wait there, in a sad corner of a medium-sized room with only 6 inhabitants at the time. The meeting / makeshift warehouse room was a silent witness to me, who was getting bored waiting for the HR staff to come, started flipping through my copy of Agatha Christie’s Mystery at Styles. Come to think about it; that small room was where everything began for me.
And then there was my seat. Or what remained of my seat, since they already took the computer and chair away. During one of our overtime experiences, we would gather near my seat and do whatever work we had to do together, while enjoying a couple boxes of piping hot martabak telor. Or during the Ramadan period, when the work hours were shifted earlier, we would be enjoying a warm bowl of kolak together, while doing our best to try and forget about our work.
There was a time when this one division was having a huge event in South Jakarta on Saturday. It was already Friday evening, and the digital printing company we partnered with messed up. Instead of printing 5000 copies of coasters, they printed 5000 copies of circular stickers, and provided us with 5000 pieces of blank coasters. We were supposed to be distributing the coasters to everyone who visited our booth, and with less than 12 hours to fix everything, we did the only thing we could think of.
Everyone, be it our glorious CEO, the uptight Japanese COO, and our stoic CTO (also Japanese), the division heads, managers, and staffs, grabbed a portion of the coasters, and got into position. Some started trimming the stickers into actual circle shapes, since the printing company didn’t pre-cut the stickers, for whatever reason. Some other started gluing the stickers to the coasters, and the rest of us stormed the streets and bought food for everyone to eat.
It was a very exhausting night, but it was so fun. Especially witnessing how what seemed to be a mountain of messed-up coasters and stickers could be fixed when we all worked together. It was on this very office; the sad room with no actual meeting room or warehouse, that I first experienced a strong sense of selflessness and ownership, since everyone contributed to the success of the event.
It was then when my CEO’s words rang true and clear inside my head: he cannot promise me a safer choice. But this is the kind of things a startup will tend to have. It was a huge gamble alright, but I was so proud that our small team were able to pull it off, despite the adversity.
It had been a wonderful 4 years for me. A lot had happened: my CEO resigned, my COO was changed, I found some good friends, lost one, bid farewell to another, and I slowly climbed my career ladder, even though I think I still was the same ambition-less, desire-less, and unconfident self as I was many years ago.
But if there is one thing that had changed in the long span of those years, then it would be my courage to take another gamble.
I took on this gamble of joining a startup company. And as I had predicted, I experimented a lot. It goes without saying that I failed most of my experiments, and there were numerous times when I got scolded for not doing what I was asked for properly. But it was also through the act of trial and errors did I find that perseverance, not talent, was the true recipe for success.
After taking in the scenery inside the room that day, I turned off the lights. I stole a quick glance towards my seat before locking the door.
For all the good (and bad!) memories I’ve gained, perhaps that one stuck with me the most. That place, the very same shabby-looking room with all its quirks and memories, was the place that nurtured me.
I closed the door, let out a huge sigh, and walked home.
It’s true that on that day, we left our old office in favor for a newer, bigger one. But just like a child who refuses to move house to a new one, I share the same sentiment. Spending so much time inside the office had made it my second home. And sometime later, when I found out that they decided to demolish the building to build a new one, I was saddened.
There was nothing I could do about it, of course. And it’s not like having too strong of an attachment to a building would do me any good. But no matter where I am, no matter what new job I signed myself into, there would always be a part of my heart that I left there.
A heartprint, if I could name it that way, that will never go away. And although the building may be gone, my heartprint will live on as a vision of my younger self, working overtime in that room.
It’s as if I could always see my past self there, vigorously typing away at a worn-out, outdated laptop with too little RAM to compile a large Excel file. My hair—a mess. An empty box of martabak telor by my right side. A huge jug of water by my left, and a portable electric fan blowing cool air at my face, as the building management always turned off the AC at 6.
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