Why You Should Never Work for a Startup

A letter to new grads from Cal alum Brian de Haaff, CEO of Aha!

Dear Class of 2015,

You’re graduating. Congratulations. Here comes the future. And life is really going to get interesting.

As a graduating senior, you have put time and energy into success. You studied hard, got the right grades, and will earn your degree from one of the world’s most prestigious universities. You can do anything –​ what choice will you make next?

Some of you will stay in school to pursue advanced degrees. Others will choose to join the workforce. Many of you will look longingly at the startups in the Bay Area. As a fellow Berkeley grad who has been CEO of three startups including now at Aha! (a product management software), I relate to that desire.

I have worked at a number of large businesses too. Citrix [CTXS] acquired my last company, and I spent three years as a VP of product and strategy.

The past few years have seen startup mania. Some articles lure you to “heed the siren song” of a startup. Others call startups “the new master’s degree.” But I must caution against being dismissive of starting your career in a larger company. Businesses with thousands of employees are training grounds that can shape your career. They teach you what you’re great at, how you’re most productive, and what you want to gain out of work.

Early on in your career, one thing matters above all else — always choose the option that offers the most personal growth. In this regard, most startups fail.

For new graduates fresh out of college, startups limit:

Learning: At companies with thousands of employees, you’ll get a front row seat to how businesses function. These companies also tend to have strong training programs — they are willing and able to invest in the right graduates so they can train them to be leaders over time. Startups are often strapped for resources. Their CEOs will focus on what you can do for them — not the other way around. For that reason, startups are often better options for professionals who have more experience.

Diversity: Within big businesses, you’ll meet diverse groups of people. As you network and make friends within the company, they will share their insights and become your best career advisors. Startups tend to be small and homogenous; founding teams often knew each other from previous companies and have migrated to create something new. This is a great option for you years down the line. But right out of college, this can limit your growth and lead to burnout.

Opportunities: A manager once told me that your twenties are for learning what you don’t want to do. There’s a lot of truth in that statement. Many join startups once they have a solid idea of where they are going and how they want to get there. Big businesses allow you to build your network, learn new skills, and figure out how you’re most productive. Regardless of which path you choose, that knowledge will help you.

For employees who have worked for a few years to hone their skills and narrow their passions, startups are a great option. But for many of you, they may stunt your development.

Larger companies are often maligned for their bureaucracy and lack of innovation. And they definitely have it. But they are also great places for recent grads to improve their skills and find their passions. Your earliest jobs might not leave you feeling the most fulfilled. But if you are astute, you can create your own career path.

This path might take you up the corporate ranks, or lead you to build something that matters as your own boss. Regardless, I think global corporations with thousands of employees have a lot to teach you about work and what you really love to do.


Check out Aha! at www.aha.io and Brian’s blog at blog.aha.io Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bdehaaff

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