A Startup Was My Least Risky Option

In a previous post I made a case that running a startup isn’t that hard despite all the grumblings from VCs and other CEOs to the contrary. Another aspect of startups that people love to overstate is how risky they are. Why would you leave your safe corporate job for a startup that could go out of business at any moment? 90% of all startups fail anyway, right?

I’m not saying anything revolutionary here, but job security is an illusion whether you are at a small company or big company. In an era where there is minimal loyalty between a company and its employees (and vice versa), you are better off being in an environment that gives you as much transparency into the business as possible and constantly pushes you to get better. Generically speaking, startups are much better at both of these. A job at a large company comes with all sorts of risks most people don’t consider.

Ten years ago I worked at one of the biggest high tech companies in the world (Cisco) with a title any engineer would love to have had (Distinguished Engineer), but during 2007 there were rumors that my department might be cut. Typically those kind of cuts are done with a cleaver, not with a scalpel. In many cases, even the executive leaders in the department aren’t safe from the chopping block.

If they cut my department, I hope they would have spared me, but there were no guarantees. My manager didn’t seem to think he was safe. The worst part was I had a mediocre job (at least to me). My network had eroded over time and mainly consisted of other disgruntled corporate types. My skills were current because I kept doing projects outside of work, but that was only because I was very self-motivated.

There are two things you have to guard against when you are in a mediocre job whether it’s at a big company or small company: professional decay and network decay.

Professional decay happens when you are at a job that you’ve been doing a long time that hasn’t changed very much. You do essentially the same thing year after year using the same technologies and skills. It’s very easy to settle into a 9–5 mentality and go a long time without learning anything new. This form of decay is most prevalent with technology-oriented industries where your skills have to be constantly refreshed.

When you work at a job you love and are passionate about, you find yourself going above and beyond the call of duty without being asked. In fact, to you, you aren’t going above and beyond because there is no above and beyond. You enjoy doing it. You feel you are making a difference. You are interested in learning new things, interested in doing your best.

Network decay happens when your professional network is no longer growing and your primary connections are unchanged after a number of years. If you are interested in growing your career over time, becoming an entrepreneur, raising money from investors, or hiring great employees, you need a solid network.

When you are at a mediocre job, you don’t really care about networking. Why would you want to meet other people that are doing the same mediocre job? On the other hand, if you love your job you want to meet more people like you. You don’t always know it, but those connections will help you 1, 3, 5 years down the road in ways you could never predict.

After I realized I was starting to suffer from both of these issues, I decided to to start a company. I wanted to focus on something I loved doing with people that also cared deeply about their job. I figured the rest would take care of itself. The way I saw it, if I didn’t take action now, I’d be one of those 50 year-old IBM engineers you hear getting laid off with minimal prospects for finding another job. Waiting for that to happen seemed pretty risky to me. Betting on myself was much less risky.