McKinsey or a Startup?

You couldn’t choose two more diametrically opposed paths, and in the end, there is no comparison

Jonathan Woahn
Jul 1, 2020 · 8 min read

“I’m trying to figure out what to do next — debating going to McKinsey or joining a startup, what do you think?”

I’ve heard this question 5 times in the last month, which to me signals an opportunity for a good article on the topic. Buckle up.

The circumstances are these. Assume a smart, ambitious, talented individual is about 3–5 years out of undergrad and is lucky enough that this is a legitimate choice for them. They’ve either been working as a “cog” in a prestigious tech or financial firm, have advanced their leadership title by bouncing from role to role, potentially across 2–3 companies over that same period of time, or they’re about to graduate from a top MBA program.

In any case, they realize 2 things:

Therefore it’s time for a change, and obviously, McKinsey & Company or the world of entrepreneurship are the only natural next steps that will check both of these boxes.

Having traveled both of these paths, I’m bemused by the questions, because in my mind, there really is no comparison. I’ll illustrate this by subjectively comparing the two across a number of dimensions (Yes, I know).

The case for McKinsey & Company

The case for a startup

For clarity, it makes a huge difference when you join the startup — there is a tremendous amount of difference between founding a company to joining a team with seasoned entrepreneurs to joining after the company has funding. For instance, joining the “startup” Facebook as the 500th employee will feel very different from joining 3 founders at inception.

For the sake of this article, we’re going to assume you’re the 10th member in a seed-funded company, started by successful, serial founders. Seed is early enough to feel like a founder, but late enough the riskiest stage of the business is past.

Which should I choose?

Really, if these are legitimately the two paths you’re considering, then let me boil the factors down for you, as there are really only two things you need to consider.

The first is your personal risk tolerance.

When I say there is no comparison, it’s because all of the dimensions map orthogonally to each other with one exception: risk. These two options sit at opposing ends of the risk spectrum, and depending on where you sit on the spectrum, it’s difficult to empathize with the other end.

With McKinsey, there’s little-to-no risk. It’s pretty clear from the start, with a high degree of certainty, what you’re getting yourself into once you sign up, across all dimensions.

With a startup, there’s only risk. You have no idea what’s going to happen. Even with the things you think you know or are “a given”, you don’t, and they aren’t.

The second is how clearly do you see where you are in the next 10–20 years.

If you look ahead, and the future is clear, then it probably indicates you should go to McKinsey. Not because you couldn’t get there with a startup, but because it speaks something to your risk tolerance and the possibilities you see for where you’re going. If your personal vision is clear, then the odds of you making it happen are much more realistic. Even if it means starting at McKinsey and going to a startup afterward.

However, if the future is fuzzy, you struggle to articulate it, or you’re open to whatever comes — then a startup is a fantastic option. It will take you places you never dreamed of and will bring constant surprise and discovery on a day-to-day basis.

Either way, I support your decision. Just let me know, and I’m happy to help you take the next steps to make it happen.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or would like to hear more about something specific, feel free to leave comments below or send me a note on LinkedIn.

Click here to book time with me during office hours if you’d like to chat.

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Jonathan Woahn

Written by

Chief of Staff @ The Future of Work Studios. Husband. Father. TFA. McKinsey & Co. 3X startups. Entrepreneurship, leadership and self-actualization enthusiast.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +794K followers.

Jonathan Woahn

Written by

Chief of Staff @ The Future of Work Studios. Husband. Father. TFA. McKinsey & Co. 3X startups. Entrepreneurship, leadership and self-actualization enthusiast.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +794K followers.

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