Over the years many people, including many of my co-workers from previous companies I have worked for, have approached me and asked me why I chose to leave the corporate world in exchange for the startup world. Considering I worked for 8 years for one of the largest membership organizations for towing and roadside assistance and built a name and an amazing network within, to many it didn’t make sense for me to drop such a career progression on its tracks. However, as it happens, I hit a turning point in my late 20’s and I did the unimaginable — I quit my job and moved to California to give myself a chance at change. Let’s skip all the personal reasons and consequences that came with this major move in my life and let’s dive into the main reason why you’re reading this…
What do I mean by “Gladiator Training”?
About a year and a half after leaving my corporate job, I started working for the first time at a startup company. Following the trend, I moved to “Silicon Beach” expecting to work for a company that was hip, young, open to new ideas, had free snacks and was eager to innovate. I guess I fell into the false belief that since I had a wealth of experience in operations, leadership, and because I was a veteran in project management and Six Sigma principles, working for a startup company would be a piece of cake. I was most certainly wrong; however, the experience, growth, and the grind gave me many tools I am very thankful for. In my eyes, startup companies are like Gladiator Training. They throw you into situations and experiences you have never been through, and they test your ability to improvise, critically think, learn, perform better than you thought you could and test your ability to adapt to change. The experience can be a huge career booster and has the potential to prepare you for even greater challenges.
If you have gotten this far because you are considering working at a startup company, here’s my observations so they may help you form your own opinion:
Startup companies can give you exposure to real data and real solutions
One of the most exciting parts of working at a startup company, in my opinion, is to be able to see real data from which decisions can be made and to be able to easily work next to decision-makers to push initiatives. Depending on your role in the company, you may have this access right away. If you don’t, as you grow within the company you can express interest to your reporting supervisor/manager to get you involved in projects so you can help streamline processes and give your observations based on data. Startup companies thrive when there is fertile ground for communication and execution of new ideas.
How many times have you worked at a company that requires you to do an action that has seemingly no value, but you are required to do it because it’s the way it’s always been done? I can answer this question — SEVERAL. This often happens in corporate environments and startup companies alike. The difference, in my experience, is that startup companies don’t have the financial flexibility for inefficiencies nor do they have as much bureaucracy as corporate companies do. Each extra step and each unused resource translates into money adding to the bottom line; therefore, in a startup company that is serious about business and is truly fighting to make it to unicorn status, inefficiencies should flow up to the right groups to put measures in place to address them.
Finding efficiencies is the value you can find in a startup company — the experience of fixing something and making an impact on the bottom line is priceless. This is also where the startup company finds its value in you. It’s an amazing resume builder, and no matter where you go, this experience will allow you to see things from a different lens and stand out in any role you take next.
More flexibility with career pathing
Getting to your dream role is not always easy work. In fact, some positions will not hire you if you have not had prior relevant experience, even if you have an education. In an age where college degrees don’t guarantee success or a position, and compensation is usually linked to past achievements and experience, finding your way to positions like UX Design, Product or other niche positions can be challenging. Startup companies are a great way to obtain experience in roles like these because your work, regardless of the role, will likely crossover to other departments or duties beyond your conventional scope.
There is a common knowledge within startup culture that if you work for a startup company, you most likely wear many hats in your role. You can use this as an opportunity to flex the skills you are looking to develop and show your leadership team what you have to offer. This is especially useful if you have built a great relationship with your supervisor and you express interest in eventually being given the opportunity of transitioning to said role. However, keep in mind that before asking something like this, you must be able to demonstrate the ability to do your current work at a high-performing level, and you must earn your leadership team’s trust with a great work ethic and positive attitude. No matter where you work, being hardworking, having a great attitude towards collaboration and service while wearing a smile goes a long way.
Startups can expose you to executive leadership
One of the most exciting aspects to work at a startup company is to learn directly from executive leadership. Especially if you join early on, and middle management has not yet been hired. It is common in startup companies for executive leadership to walk around the office ensuring everything is going as expected. It is a form of magic to observe Founders, CEOs, and the executive team involved in actively working on fulfilling their dream to see the company succeed. Their presence is not only motivational, but it also sets the tone of the company’s direction and they are a great source of knowledge that you can learn from. This is not an opportunity employees usually have in corporate environments, where seeing the CEO walking around may be associated with issues, and where being addressed by the CEO is usually through large company “town halls” or even through video. Even if they do, many times executive leadership in large companies can feel as if they are under a veil of politics, and it’s harder to make a real human connection. Of course, this varies by company and many corporate environments have put efforts in place to change this dynamic — especially after studies like the one done by Glassdoor show a relation between CEO approval and employee retention, as stated by Robert Hohman, Glassdoor co-founder, and CEO:
“We know that CEO approval ratings correlate to overall employee satisfaction and trust in senior leadership, which contributes to long-term employee engagement, ultimately helping an employer’s recruiting and retention efforts.”
If you’re looking to challenge your career, be exposed to different areas of an organization to enhance your career path, or looking for a faster way to grow within a company to eventually land the job you want or own your own company, the Gladiator Training is the way to go. Just keep in mind that while there are many positive aspects to a startup company, like anything else, there are risks that come with working for one, like the potential risk of a startup not taking off. But that is a topic for another article.
Whatever path you choose to take, always keep in mind that you should have a strategy in mind to get to where you want to be. Startup work can be an amazing tool to help you achieve your goals and find like-minded people who can become long-time mentors if you are up for the challenge.