I love coming across a post in which the author shares first-hand perspective from a personal experience that few go through but many wonder about. The other day I came across such a gem by Noam Bardin who describes his experience as a startup founder who sold to Google. It resonated with my own experience in selling two companies to BigCos and reverting to an employee through a combined seven years of acquisition earn outs. I hope many founders read Noam’s words so that they know what they’re in for.
Topping that post is out of the question, but I thought I might be able to share another inside experience of mine that many people ask about: Making the career jump from BigCo to Startup.
My first two career stops were BigCos: SunTrust Bank (3 years) and Procter & Gamble (6 years), with a MBA in between. I first became an entrepreneur and owner when some friends asked me to join their executive team at Bridge Worldwide, a small advertising agency that they were in the process of turning toward a digital focus in the early 2000s. We grew the business to over $40 million in revenue with nearly 400 employees and sold to WPP. Soon after leaving I co-founded Ahalogy, a tech-enabled influencer marketing product, which we sold to Quotient Technology. That business is over $60 million in annual revenue today. Now we’re starting up all over at Hearty.
Over the years I’ve been quizzed by friends and connections who have spent their careers on the BigCo side but are tempted to switch to a startup path. I’m one of a handful of founders they know and are eager to hear what life is like on the other side. My goal in this post is to share a summary of my oft-repeated advice.
Your Learning Curve is Vertical
When I left Procter & Gamble to join our agency, I went from managing a handful of direct reports to a fast-growing account services team of more than 25 people—most of which had been at the company less than a year. I went from running a CPG brand in a big company to running an agency services business where we were losing and gaining big clients weekly. We rolled out Blackberries for our team and I learned that after 10pm the dire warnings of threatening clients would be sent. Good luck sleeping!
My business partners didn’t warn me that things were so crazy in the three months of discussions we had about me joining them. I seem to recall an early “pep talk” that went something like this: “Tough shit. We gave you ownership so that we don’t have to coddle you. Grab a shovel and start digging.” I distinctly remember driving home the first few months, repeatedly listening to a Coldplay song, and seriously questioning my decision. But every morning I got back to work, put out the burning dumpster fires, and did a few things to prevent future ones.
I liked to joke that I got to keep half my brain when going from a big brand to an ad agency—the brain that understood business strategy and clients’ perspectives. But I had to grow the other half of my brain from zero. I was forced to learn how to manage a large group of people—everything from recruiting to reviews to training to handling harassment. And I had to learn how to build a service business in a new, fast-growing digital space where your “product” goes down the elevator every night.
It’s hard to put words down that describes how much you learn about business as an entrepreneur. You learn by seeing and doing—everything. You are constantly cycling through loops of observation, orientation, decision and action. Feedback on your choices is instant, and based on customer choice, not a committee.
If you truly love business, this is the ultimate game, played on expert level. And the longer you play the more clearly you see that no matter what your company does, people are the key to success—and that people are what makes the work rewarding. You also learn a lot more about yourself in this process.
Founders giggle when we see BigCo people invent titles and descriptions for their jobs as “entrepreneurial”. And no, “intrapreneurship” doesn’t count. You cannot understand what it feels like to swim by dangling your feet in at the edge of the pool. Jump in, guys! The water will be a cold shot of reality but you’ll learn how to swim. And “only” having to learn “half a brain” is a big reason why I strongly suggest that BigCo people go join an already-growing startup first, rather than founding on your own right out of the gate. Your career is a marathon, not a sprint, so go put in some training miles first.
Ownership is Everything
Imagine getting a hand in all of the decisions about your brand, company, team and culture—and spending zero percent of your time thinking about what your boss will approve. Sound good? But wait…Also imagine that you will be personally pegged with anything that goes wrong with your business. Welcome to the world of startups and extreme ownership!
The biggest landmine here for BigCo folks is their own ego traps. Your fancy degree, title, awards, and regular pace of promotions is immediately meaningless when you start a business. Say goodbye to the fawning vendors with their invites to fancy dinners and conference stages. Say hello to schlepping lunches through Manhattan streets for a group of junior clients who made that meal a requirement for hearing your sales pitch—which they walk out of before you’re done. You will do that, and learn to love it, or lose.
What you start to see on the startup side of business is that the people at BigCos are mainly minding the store that the company’s original founders created ten, fifty or over a hundred years ago. You will almost never personally feel failure at a BigCo because decisions are shared among many people, and the core business will tend to survive because of positive inertia. You will most likely fail at a startup, and must personally own that outcome. Can you handle that?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a BigCo lifer. It can be a very smart choice based on who you are and what it is important in your life. But if you really want to test yourself—and don’t want to look back years from now regretting what might have been—go build something with your bare hands.
Apply Strategy Skills to your Career
I find it interesting that many people spend vast money and time on learning the craft of business strategy, yet fail to think strategically about their own careers. Strategically, the biggest reason to leave the BigCo world is that you will advance your education and experience in business by 10x even in 1 year. You might even find it fun, and make enough money and new relationships to open many doors of possibility in the years to come.
When I was making the decision to leave my BigCo job, where I had a lot of success and potential to rise in the ranks, I gave myself a little strategic pep talk. It went something like this:
I’m going to quit this corporate job that can’t teach me much more, and throw myself into a situation that’s going to chew me up and spit me out. I will succeed or fail...most likely fail...but even failure is a win, as I will open up new understanding and possibilities. And I can always get another corporate job if I need to, armed with knowledge and skills that my peers won’t have.
A good friend of mine hosts a podcast in which he interviews senior corporate executives. I listen because I like him and personally know some of his guests from my BigCo days. It’s interesting to compare these interviews with my usual podcast fare, which is mainly interviews with startup founders. The former tend to be more scripted and follow similar paths of people who have climbed a ladder. The latter sound more like knowing survivors who have stared into the darkness, tested their mettle, and come out changed by the experience.
I certainly changed by making the startup leap, and the farther away I am from a corporate path the happier I am in life—which is probably why I tend not to stay long after an acquisition earn out. But that’s me. Is it you? You’ll never know until you try.
The world needs more dreamers and explorers. Let someone else can take a turn steering the cruise ship. Life is too short and precious to not try for big things. Join us in the arena and make your mark.