8 things I learned while leaving a startup to go work at a big firm
Note: This post is the expression of my opinion and experience only and is not meant to give a statistically accurate representation of work at all consulting companies or all jobs at large companies. It’s one specific case, to take in consideration along with others.
Deep inside, all indie hackers, entrepreneurs and others working at startups have a big question. The source of much FOMO and hesitation.
“Given my resume, shouldn’t I join one of these large, prestigious, well paying companies and just chill?”
I could find a million stories over the internet of people explaining why they left consulting to go work at a startup, but much less explaining what it’s like to do the opposite.
In August last year, I made a radical change in my career. I had just decided to leave ForestAdmin, a company building a spectacular product with an actual product/market fit, at the moment we were raising a €3M seed round, also spectacular by European standards, and where I was the business counterpart to the founder.
Having never worked in a company of more than 30 employees, I was facing many more questions and options than I had anticipated. Not knowing whether I should start over a new business from scratch, join an early team, or join a more mature startup.
My curiosity, the hope to learn a lot of different things, and probably some part of FOMO about the idea if just having a regular, simple job made me give a shot at another option I had always dismissed: joining one of the “prestigious” fortune 500 juggernauts. A few weeks and an offer later, I was starting at the very attractive Digital service line of a major consulting company.
Work doesn’t work the same way
I’ll start with the good things that I learned, from both Consultants, but also Americans in general, which I think are two subsets of humans that are unconsciously obsessed with a process-ization habit. The US is based on repeatability and mass production, no need to look far to see that: everything man-made here looks and feels the same anywhere you go. In a way even people here were made this way.
Let’s call these things out by their names: process and framework. They’re everywhere. In practice, this means that you won’t just find a way to get something done well and fast and move on, it’s never the goal. Instead, work consists mostly of designing a set of instructions for each task, defining responsibilities and documenting everything extensively, so that not one person can do it once, but many people can repeat this task many times. They have come up with some pretty elaborate ways of designing repeatable tasks, a lot of which you can find online, and this is a brick I might have been overlooking when thinking about scaling a business.
Well done America!
Work doesn’t feel the same way
As I started working, I quickly realized that I was clearly an outlier. My work habits, my intuitions about what was right to do just seemed to be off, and the underlying logic behind it wasn’t even understood.
- Starting right away with the biggest issue: Working hard or smart is useless. Promotions are the only good outcome you can expect (apart from ridiculously unappealing yearly bonuses of a few thousands — at least that’s not what thrills my life), and they happen based only on your seniority in the firm*. Doing more just feels like trying to swim faster in a vacuum by moving more.
* If you get more things done than planned, you’ll receive a nice congratulation award PDF by email from your manager with eventually a gift card.
Do like me and if you receive one of these, print and gold-frame your PDF to remind yourself that you have no impact.
- You have to live up to the expectation that consultants are busy. Everyone works really hard and you clock in incredible hours that are all billed to the client. You’re billed at least $400 an hour, so that’s $4,000 on a normal day. Everyone creates things to do, email threads with problems that don’t matter, and inefficient 20-people skype meetings to keep themselves busy. Drinking a lot because you have a passion for wine is very different from drinking a lot because you have nothing better to do or are expected to. The same goes for work.
- When you’re at a startup in a team of 10, you represent 10% of the output of the company. Your everyday decisions and work determine if you will be in business in a few months. In a bigger company, you represent 0% of the total output. You’re as important as a high-end secretary making powerpoints.
- You don’t make friends at work, you network. You’re just one of 60,000 employees, people don’t have to get along or create a connection with people around them. So people usually don’t. You’ll be on another engagement in a few months anyway, so why would you bother? Just like you wouldn’t invest to improve an appartment that’s temporary, no one invests in a team that’s temporary.
- In a startup, you lovingly care about your product and the features you’re responsible for. In a big company, few people have any personal goal, vision and passion for the work they’re doing. The temporary nature of consulting takes this next level. The biggest chunk of time in your life provides no excitement. I’ve never run to work in the morning a single time (after the first day) because I was excited to get started early.
- There are no metrics that everyone is constantly watching to assess how amazing, well, fine, or terrible we’re doing. Once the project is sold, there is no good or bad work, there is only one indicator: done or to do. No one is going to come up with an elegant solution or creation that others will notice and compliment. There is no empathy for your users in your work.
- Because there is “so much work”, managers always bring in more people that need to be put up to speed and synched with. A week after bringing more resources, you’re not further along, and not going faster. You’re just more people with more overhead now.
Here is the truth: Nice Powerpoints but a startup would get the same outcome with 1/10th of the resources and finishing work at 4PM every day.
Working at a startup for me has felt like being the pilot of an F-15, while consulting felt like being in the economy class of a 747. F-15 pilots always fraternize over their war stories, they go fast and agile on a battlefield on which they know they might not get to see tomorrow. The 747 is more comfortable than the F-15, gets everyone to its destination without a risk of being shot down, but you’re surrounded with people you don’t really want to talk to. You might also be seated next to a smelly guy.
Consulting companies provide real value to their clients, which are already really above-average companies that can afford that kind of service. I’m in no way implying that hiring consultants isn’t even the best thing for these client companies: for many of them consultants provide a structure and practices that they’d never be able to come up with, being too focused on their day-to-day emergencies.
I’m mainly sharing my experience for people working in small or on their own business, thinking of going to work in a bigger company. If you’ve never worked at a startup, you probably don’t agree with everything I said. You’ve probably always been satisfied with all the points I mentioned, and maybe wouldn’t enjoy more a world with different rules. You may even love every one of the folks you’re working with on your engagement. My point is to say that it feels quintessentially different when you’re not on an engagement, but on a mission with everybody else.
For substantiation, you’ll like this very well written story of someone very satisfied of everything in consulting who made the move to a startup and only then realized.
Coming from a different world, having priorities ranked differently, I’ll quote Ali Mese, who 3 years ago encapsulated in a few sentences in his story the feeling of going the other way around, from consulting to starting his own business:
“Entrepreneurs are willing to work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week.
It all started by little wake-ups in the middle of the night. At the beginning, it was because I was too excited about my ideas and I had so many of them. I simply couldn’t wait for the morning to arrive so that I could start working again.
Then came the exaggeration phase. I was working too much because I never had enough of working for my idea and I wanted to do more.”
If you feel like you wouldn’t enjoy going from being the pilot of your F-15 over hostile territory to being an economy passenger on a regular 747 flight, don’t leave your startup.
What big firms will never provide as perks of working the job is vision, passion and empowerment. No matter what social pressure and FOMO might make you believe, there is real excellence coming from building something out of nothing, and you know what you’re doing at your scale much more than they have figured their things out at their scale*. They’re just confidently riding a 747.
*Don’t make the opposite mistake of thinking you know it all. We all know nothing, but we’ve seen things and patterns in our field.
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