Corporate vs #startuplife… Finding work happiness

Rob @ offpaper
Apr 30, 2019 · 5 min read

People ask me about #startuplife a lot, and how it feels to go it alone. Honestly, it feels like a lot of different things all at once and it changes day-to-day. But my ultimate response is always “I don’t know, but I’m happy”. I’ve been happy everywhere I’ve worked, and being conscious of that moment when I’m not, has always triggered a change.

Happiness at work is a personal thing, but congruence with a company plays a huge part in finding it. Promise.

Having seen a few sides to work — from big multinational, to rapid-growth startup and ultimately flying solo — I thought a bit about the differences. On reflection there are definitely some big swings between them which would affect what a happy work match looks like…

Time

I guess I’m the extreme end of this scale now — but my time horizon is short. I need things now, because success is defined by me (and sometimes whether I can pay myself at the end of the month). But even looking at carwow vs BMW — the use of time was poles apart.

At carwow, especially early on, internally everything happened ‘right now’. When I first joined people didn’t use calendars (I learned that when I stood in an empty meeting room, powerpoint clicker in hand, and nobody turned up). “Meetings” were instant chats. Actions were things you did immediately afterwards, not over a two week period before the next one. It felt rapid, reactive, and at times chaotic — but time was on a much shorter leash. That felt very different to BMW where there was much more planning, organising, aligning… people worked in weeks not days.

Which leads me to my next point:

Safety

When there’s plenty of money, resources, and expertise in the building things feel a lot more controlled. Startups are full of people with a lot of ambition and proactivity, but often not tons of experience. And managing money definitely rules the roost…

At BMW I didn’t worry regularly about my job security. I don’t think anyone did, really. That feeling of safety was a nice one and I’m only recognising it retrospectively based on the position I’m in now. There’s a psychological safety that comes from a big brand too. A sort of invincibility and power. It gives people the space to think a little deeper, plan a bit more, and generally approach work a little less manically.

So what’s the tradeoff?

Freedom

The biggie. The one I probably have the biggest love / hate relationship with. When you work for a big corporate there are lots of people. That ultimately creates hierarchies, decision-making groups — just frankly a bigger pool of people that are interested or affected by what you want to do. More people and more processes = less freedom.

I dreamt of a job where I could do whatever I want. A blank sheet of paper and the freedom to get visionary and execute. carwow gave me that — but it was really, really hard. Being pretty much the master of your time, resources, direction, objectives, deliverables… someone asking you what to do, vs the other way round, is way more stressful. But on the flip-side, having someone tell me what to do makes me irrationally burn with childish rage. You see the dilemma?

The difference here taught me a lot about doing stuff for myself and flipping the planner brain and the executor one. The latter though is also much harder in startup land because of one big thing…

Power

A pretty clear one really. In a big company, you’ve got power. It comes from the brand perception, big budgets, and an established presence. You never have to sell for your supper, really. You can focus on doing things in the most optimal way possible without too much compromise, which ultimately means output is more ‘polished’.

With startups or self employment — nobody knows who you are. You’re a salesperson. There’s no money. And getting people (externally) to work with you takes a whole lot more effort. I learnt a lot about selling from carwow — it’s just part of how it works. You have to sell, almost all of the time, and you have to compromise and flex to get what you want. It affects how I behave, and how the people I work alongside behave too.

On which vein, the last and probably the biggest difference is in people.

People

Quite a sweeping statement, but the collective of people at a big company versus a small one, to me, is different. I don’t generally like broad brushstrokes like that — what I mean is, the culture and ‘the way’ things get done will attract different people and foster different norms. People will find happiness and fulfilment in different environments — with neither being in any way better (depending on the strategy and goals of the organisation).

In a big place with lots of people, there are hierarchies and networks that make people behave a certain way. Perhaps more tactfully, with a view to preserving networks and maximising chances of making it up said hierarchy. People are more diplomatic, and because there’s not as much time or resource pressure there’s more scope to nurture relationships, think carefully about actions, and plan properly. The stakes are often higher too, definitely in financial and reputational terms.

In startup life there’s just you. You and a team of passionate colleagues, usually with company success at the forefront of minds. There are scraps and upset regularly, but they’re finite and they’re behind the same purpose. My first week at carwow two of the founders had, what I thought, was a blazing row across the office. I sat there awkwardly in my chair thinking “wtf kind of place have I come to”. In reality that happened almost weekly, and both parties were actually friends. Just purposeful, and authentic.

One stark observation though: Shared passion (over self interest) fades as the company gets bigger.

So what?

I’ve travelled the corners of big vs. small, and #startuplife. There are highs and lows to both, but ultimately it’s about congruence. It’s about feeling happy and fulfilled. It’s about feeling like the “real you” can fly.

What fills one person with deep dread can be another’s happy place. And vice versa. It’s in the interest of companies and people to figure that out. Ultimately, a lack of congruence between culture (the collective way of doing things at a company) and a person will leave both sides unhappy.

When I walk through the door in the morning to work, I check — do I feel ‘up’ or ‘down’? Breathe in, or let out a big sigh?

If it’s consistently the latter then something needs to change, and it’s time to work out what that is and where to find it.

If we’re going beyond CVs, then we should be looking at human qualities and behaviours as part of job search and recruitment at the very early stages. Not subjectively and randomly after 4 interview stages. Identifying where’s there’s cultural congruence early on — openly, and honestly, for both parties — will make a difference to mid/long-term happiness on both sides.

Flipping the process on its head a bit then? Sure.

Rob @ offpaper

Written by

Humans > CVs. Let’s do something about it.

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