The ups and downs of a newbie to the startup lifestyle
Recently I hit the two-year mark of being a crew-member of the PayFit rocket. Much has happened since I made the transition From JetEngine to JetLang. Becoming a JetLang master in addition to adapting to changing environments and job descriptions has been an ongoing challenge for me. At this point, I’d like to tell the story of my professional progression and how PayFit has changed since my first interview.
Second time in Paris — Nutella and football
Here I am back to Paris in 2018 but now as an employee and not as a potential job candidate. The predefined goal was to meet the team and get up to speed as fast as I can so that we’re all ready to take the PayFit rocket to Germany in October.
But first things first, what was it like to jump right into a startup with around 100 employees at the time? It was pretty much meeting all stereotypes you’d expect from a typical startup office. There is table-football, table-tennis, a gym, a rooftop terrace with free beer and a big kitchen with drinks and food for free.
It was great. I remember the first time coming to the office picking up all my PayFit apparel. There was the mandatory blue PayFit sweater, a grey T-shirt with a blue logo, a notebook (paper) and my MacBook Pro. I had loads of onboarding meetings with other departments such as office management, HR, Sales, Marketing and so forth together with other people who just joined.
The official term for people “new to the rocket ship” is “PayBie” which is probably self-explanatory. My first eight weeks aboard the PayFit Rocket consisted of adjusting myself to the new company and french culture as well as learning JetLang.
Why would somebody refer to french culture as a new culture? Not everybody would do that I guess as it is a modern western country.
I was born and raised in the countryside of eastern Germany which was reunified with western Germany a year before I was born. I grew up in a small town in what people would probably refer to as a typical former German Democratic Republic (GDR) community. So you could say I’m somewhat of a typical “Ossi” (describing the meaning of this term would fill another article on this blog, let me know if you’re interested :).
Additionally, I travelled the world for a bit and have been living in Berlin for a while so I would consider myself a good mix of a city dweller and a countryside boy. Nevertheless, the following funny anecdotes might be normal for many people but, for me, they need to be told if I talk about PayFit culture.
I’ll just name a few things which are worth mentioning and might shed some light on German and French prejudices. The first thing I noticed was that the whole company starts late and finishes late. For me, 7 or 8 am would be a good time to start working but the office usually did not fill up before 9:15 AM. In contrast to this, 9:45 AM was written in stone as the latest you should show up at the office. To this day I’m trying to find the reason for this arbitrary time.
Second, there is Nutella. I apologize for the wider generalization here but French people do have a sweet tooth. The cabinets in the big kitchen were half-filled with huge Nutella glasses and the other half was filled with toast. And any time after lunch and before finishing work people would sneak into the kitchen and eat toast with Nutella. However, butter was nowhere to be seen. In Germany there are “fights” on whether Nutella should be spread not op of butter or not but, this might not be an ongoing discussion in France. (For more details, let me know in a comment :)
If Nutella is a cult then football is religion. Before joining PayFit I thought Germans are the craziest football advocates on the planet but the people I met and played with during Tuesday soccer sessions are even more passionate about it. I love sport and the people I met in the company who are sports enthusiasts are very competitive and serious when it comes to football. We even got a PayFit competition team playing against other startups. Our team has not been beaten as far as I remember.
For people who don’t like to play the traditional way, there is table-football or how my french colleagues call it: “babyfoot” (the origins of this term are still a mystery to me). Babyfoot might sound cute but it is as serious as the real thing for people at PayFit. I would consider myself an average table-football player but there was not a single French person who played regularly I would even have a chance of playing on the same level with. But the German team, which at this point consisted of 4 people (me included) had a good skill level to play in for an after-lunch-match.
Learning JetLang — back to school
What is JetLang? To this day we’re trying to find a good default definition for it. It is a coding toolset which was created by the PayFit founders to facilitate handling the huge complexity of payroll calculations. Additionally, it provides an easy to use framework for frontend creation which might be comparable to WordPress.
What is the best way to learn a new coding language? Anybody who ever started to code would probably give you a different answer. For me, it is learning by doing on real-world use cases. This is exactly how you start to learn JetLang when you first start at PayFit. There were eight exercises which had to be done during onboarding. After finishing all of them you would have a good basic knowledge of JetLang logic. Today in Germany the onboarding consists of twelve exercises as JetLang is evolving and becoming more complex.
Parallel to learning JetLang you need to learn more about the German payroll system. As PayFit aims at “making work a source of fulfilment for everyone” with a strong foundation on payroll it is core for every new product builder to understand the local payroll system in order to build exceptional products on top of it.
The Global Payroll Complexity Index (GPCL) mentioned Germany in the fourth place just behind France, Italy and Belgium. You might be wondering why there is an index for this and I was too, but it actually gives you a good indication of what PayFit is dealing with. Four out of the top six are countries PayFit currently operates in.
German payroll is always evolving and becoming more complex year after year. Everybody who ever received money for labour in a legal way has had a payslip in her hands at some point. You usually take a quick look and afterwards store it away somewhere. At least that is what I always did. But now I needed to truly understand what is written on my payslip and where all these values come from.
At first, it was hard as there was no formal education planned on payroll and I did not know where to start. Again it had to be learnt by practicing on real-world use cases and by learning from other people in the team. Additionally, there was and still is Robin our, at that time, freelance payroll specialist. He has a lot of experience with payroll and accounting and he proved to be invaluable for the whole German team. I’m still learning a lot from him.
After more than two years of working at PayFit, my knowledge of JetLang has grown significantly. My payroll knowledge is very extensive and I know the basics of tax and social security legislation. But, there are endless specificities and corner cases on top of changing laws which make payroll specialist a profession of itself. In my opinion, and after extensive talks with other product builders and Robin, it is not possible to reach a professional level at being a Product Builder and a payroll specialist at the same time.
Unfortunately, my time in Paris was limited to 8 weeks and by mid-October 2018 it was time for the German team which by then consisted of 6 people, to officially launch PayFit Germany in Berlin.
Moving to Berlin — WeWork all-day
Finally, we’ve arrived in the German capital to launch the PayFit rocket at WeWork Potsdamer Platz. I was excited not only because we had the opportunity to build a company from scratch but to start off in a high profile startup environment at WeWork. At least that was the expectation which existed in my head at that time about the big coworking company.
We rented a room for a maximum of ten people on the 22nd floor which had a great view. There was free coffee freshly made by a barista in the big kitchen, table football and chill-out areas. The rooftop terrace was stunning and we had a great view on top of free beer every day from 3 pm to 10 pm. I was enthusiastic about the benefits of the WeWork network, learning from other companies and having loads of fun along the way.
The team was small; Stephan, Niklas and myself made up the product team with Erik as Customer Support and Sales, Samira for HR and Michal as our Country Manager. Being small was a major advantage in that early stage of the company as communication could be direct, literally over the table and we did not have to wrestle with extensive corporate policies.
It was great to work this closely with Stephan and Niklas as I still had much to learn about the app, payroll and JetLang. I got many insights into how Sales, Customer Support and international communication with the parent company in Paris was functioning. We always had the support of the French Team as they wanted us to succeed. We had regular visits from various colleagues from Paris, London and Barcelona. Fi our CEO and Flo our CPO took frequent trips to the German office to support our first steps on the German market.
There were small kitchens on every level of the WeWork part of the building. Each equipped with basic kitchen tools and a big coffee machine we used frequently. I still remember a conversation I had with Fi while he was waiting for his coffee. We compared our coffee consumption. At the time I was having 3–5 coffees a day which I’d consider to be average. But Fi told me that he is drinking up to 12 coffees a day the majority being double espressos. I was shocked and impressed at the same time as 12 espressos would probably kill me.
The days and weeks passed as we added more people to the team and acquired new customers. It was exciting and fulfilling but demanding as well. Pressure for success was high and we worked many hours. Paris wanted to see results and we wanted to give back on everything the founders and PayFit made possible for us.
The compensation was and is above average. We enjoyed plenty of benefits like an Urban Sports Club subscription, free public transport, meal vouchers and some free fruit and drinks. We had frequent get-togethers with colleagues from the Paris office, a PayFit summit in rural France and many great parties along the way.
PayFit is a great place to work on that side but, if you’re looking for a regular 9–5 job it might not be a good fit. In a Start-Up or small company in general with a high sense of ownership and pressure to deliver you can’t expect every workweek to be the same and finish work at the same time every day. The environment and challenges were changing constantly especially in the first year. I think it has to be a conscious decision to join a young venture-capital financed company and there is a high risk but the potential for making exceptional life and work experiences are even higher.
With more PayFiters joining we knew we’d outgrow the current bunker quickly so Samira started to look for another office. I became tired of WeWork as it did not meet my expectations of a vibrant start-up and talent hub. The small room we rented hidden in a corner was very expensive and we did not have frequent contact with other companies. There were great parties and the public areas were perfect for work and chill time but at that stage we needed something we could call “our office”.
Next Stop Kreuzberg-more than hipsters and mate-tea
Finally in December 2018 after 10 weeks at WeWork, we moved to our new office into the “Umspannwerk Kreuzberg”. This building used to be a transformer station and got refurbished to accommodate small and medium-sized companies like PayFit.
The building is owned by Google and they wanted to turn it into a Google-Campus for start-ups. In the end, it turned out that this was not a good idea. In Berlin Kreuzberg people are very sensitive to gentrification and started to protest immediately. The building even got occupied and eventually, Google resigned and supported an effort to turn it into a building for social engagement and projects.
Now that we had space for 50 people we could to hire more colleagues who were enthusiastic and motivated. I don’t remember the exact order of events and hires as so many people where joining month after month. The team grew to eleven people in 2018 and up to 40 at the end of 2019.
The average age in the company at that time was under 30 in Germany and if I remember correctly even less in France and the other countries. This imposed another challenge for all of us as many people where junior and PayFit was their first job. To be honest this includes me as well as I started right after my master degree in 2018. I think we managed this well as people had a steep learning curve while taking many ownerships and much responsibility.
Our customer base grew steadily and as all of our teams scaled up we needed to put processes in place to cope with the rising complexities. Hierarchies started to manifest, new job titles were created and I started to feel that we’d stepped out of the start-up spirit. It was a challenge to keep up the French PayFit culture but as it turned out we just needed to create our German version of it.
It was different from the atmosphere in the Paris office but nowhere better or worse. Culture is made by people and we took a number of Paris traditions with us. We were running “BBQ-Tests” which we called “Meet the Team” Events and we bought our own table football. If you’re wondering what exactly a BBQ-Test is you can read about the one I had during the interview process in my previous story: From JetEngine to JetLang.
Another ritual we took with us was the double-tap which is like a high five but you just do it twice. As I started to work for PayFit I thought of it to be a bit odd and had a flashback of my high-school basketball times were we had a similar greeting ritual. After a while, it stuck and it was always amusing to watch people joining us being a little bit confused when they were first greeted with a double-tap.
Our product team and my responsibilities grew as well. Back at WeWork we had interviews with Ellen and she eventually joined our team as a Product Builder in January 2019. We decided to rename the position of JetLang Master to Product Builder as “JL-Master” turned out not to be a position easy to hire for.
Ellen was and still is a great addition to the team. As Stephan, Niklas and I have an engineering background it is great to have more diversity within the team. Not just diversity in gender but mainly in opinion, viewpoint and personal as well as academic background. In my opinion teams and companies with a homogenous workforce suffer from a lack of innovation and massive confirmation bias.
If you only have similar people on the team they will end up slapping each other on the back at each decision made because diverse opinions are not heard or existing. Especially when it comes to creative pursuits like programming payroll software in JetLang different working styles and opinions are beneficial.
The product team quickly grew to eight Product Builders in 2019. We did get another woman on the team with Lena who had studied math previously. André, who used to be a social worker for ten years, and Thomas, who did a coding Bootcamp at LeWagon before joining us. Additionally, we extended the team by two happiness managers on four legs. Kira and Tess are the two dogs André brought to the office to further fuel our team dynamics and constantly make us smile.
At the end of the year 2019 after many ups and downs with many people joining PayFit Germany and the first people leaving we needed to change. We had to become more professional in our communication, processes and managing people. Ellen and I took on the challenge to become team leads within the product team to support and grow the talents who joined us.
It was great and I learned so much from my first 1 to 1s and performance reviews. Before joining PayFit I did many student jobs in different fields with a variety of characters being in charge. With all that experience at hand, I knew exactly what kind of manager I’d never want to be. I‘m an avid reader and wanted to establish my own style of empowering and growing people out of the experience I already had and the vast wisdom I took out of the books I had already read.
I’m well aware of the fact that books can only educate you to a certain extent and that I had to get some practice on managing team members on a day to day basis. I can not emphasize enough that anybody who aspires to manage people at some point of her career to at least get a minimum of formal knowledge from books. I’m not talking about books written by professors of high profile universities but about books from people with proven management experience in the field or industry you want to work in.
In the end, books are just written experience made by other people and why should I or anybody else make the same mistakes people already did and have written about? Obviously, you will always keep on making mistakes even if you read all the material there is but in my opinion you’re less likely to repeat them.
We finished the turbulent year 2019 with an awesome Christmas Party for the whole team. Everybody had a great time with some funny and sometimes silly games on top of very tasty food and many drinks. I got the impression that everybody needed a break to spend time with their family and friends and some time off work. Nevertheless, there was a lot of excitement in the air for next year to come.
As Fi would say: “This is just the beginning.”
-- Roy Sonntag, PM Germany @PayFit