What Is It Really Like Moving From a Big Company to a Start-Up?
Last year I left BNY Mellon, a global financial institution, to join 2030 Group, a tech start-up using distributed ledger technology to solve real world problems. Many people have asked me what the transition has been like after 20 years working at global companies.
To mark my first 12 months since switching the City for Shoreditch, I thought I would share 12 observations. Some good, some brutal, some maybe surprising.
1. It’s extraordinarily fast-paced; even faster than you probably think it is
A small company with fewer people generally means there are fewer processes in place. Along with less people who need to have a say in something. It’s faster and easier to get things done. It’s liberating and I love the pace. It’s great for people who are action orientated.
If you are the kind of person who needs to follow detailed instructions to do something, or have lots of meetings to plan. Or cross every T before you feel comfortable making a decision. You may find the lack of structure, speed and changeability unsettling. At least at the beginning.
2. You need to be mentally and physically fit
The grind is real people. Very real. Prepare to work harder than you have ever worked in your life, particularly when trying to secure your first customers and earn enough revenue (or until then, raise enough capital) to break even each month. And you will likely face a large number of setbacks along the way. It’s not an easy life. Exhaustion is common.
This is ok if it comes with a sense of achievement at the end. Less so if it is heavy churn or constant pivoting with little accomplishment and irregular payroll. Stress and burnout are perennial shadows and you need to think carefully about how you look after your mind, body and soul. From exercise to mindfulness and nutrition. A bit like a professional athlete.
3. People might be wary that you will be too “corporate” and damage the culture
I received mixed welcomes. The majority of people were excited to see me and wanted to learn how things work at big companies to help professionalise processes and inform strategy to facilitate faster growth. Particularly with institutional clients on the fintech side. A handful were less friendly with a fear I would damage the team’s culture through introducing rigid corporate ways of doing things.
Before you join, ask about the culture and make sure it sounds like something you would enjoy. It’s your responsibility to fit in. Make the coffee. Offer to help and be helpful. Listen more than you speak. Ask questions. Learn. Roll up your sleeves, get involved and show your value quickly.
4. You have the freedom to innovate and this may sometimes mean you fail
In a big company, people can fear ridicule, criticism and damage to their career if they make a mistake. Failure may impact my bonus, for example. Yet failure is simply part of the innovation process. We conduct pilots and gather data. Information. Intelligence. It is an opportunity to learn, fix it, and make it even better. Or pivot in a new direction. Key is if you are going to fail, you fail quickly, safely and cheaply. To innovate, you have to be comfortable with the possibility of failing. And that’s a new feeling.
5. You learn a lot, and I mean, A LOT
This is because you are expected to do a lot and learn as you go. And you have the opportunity to step up and take on responsibilities that can be way, way, way outside your comfort zone. At a large company there is always someone you can contact who knows how to do something and it is their job to do it.
At a start-up, there are only a handful of people, so you need to be strong at problem-solving, willing to figure it out and do the work. Sometimes on your own, sometimes in collaboration with colleagues. The opportunities for rapid professional growth are exponential.
6. Have a strategy but keep it agile and keep an open mind
Start-ups need the same strategic principles of a big company — purpose, mission, vision, and so on. You definitely need a clear market-focused sales strategy, and, of course, a solid pricing strategy. But until you’ve secured your first customers and are gaining momentum, it’s not wise to have a concrete plan.
I have a framework and calendar for the year, a list of things I know I must do, and an ever-evolving list of monthly, weekly, even daily, new actions I update after each sales or product meeting. Life is difficult to plan at a start-up. If you need a long-term agreed plan, or prescriptive goals to feel in control, this might not be for you.
7. It can sometimes be difficult to get colleagues to focus
Your colleagues are likely to be amazing entrepreneurs with lots of ideas, drive and enthusiasm. Which is truly energising. It’s the magic sauce of a start-up. People are reimagining the future. But there is a danger of people spreading themselves too thin by trying to implement too many ideas at once in their excitement. Throwing everything at the wall in the hope one idea sticks.
With the limited resources of a start-up, its important teams identify the ideas which are the fastest to convert into real and sustainable revenue streams. And build a solid foundation for rapid growth. Once you have enough revenue to stay afloat each month, then start branching out. Laser focus is vital.
8. Time becomes a vortex and your personal relationships may suffer
You will have very little personal time, certainly at the beginning. Quality time with family, friends and partners is rare. Weeks will pass in the blink of an eye. And when you are lucky enough to see them, be ready for the potential impact your absence will likely have as not everyone will understand or agree with why you are no longer as available as you once were.
This is only temporary, but you need to be ready for how your sacrifice to try and achieve something incredible will likely impact your relationships.
9. You need to be passionate and really believe in the company
Working at a start-up isn’t just a job. It’s a vocation. You’re going to need to work insane hours, make large personal sacrifices and there is no guarantee you will be rewarded with success. Sounds crazy right?
It is crazy. So, you have to be passionate about what the company is trying to achieve as no matter how hard it gets, it’s your passion that will drive you in between paydays and during all the times when everyone else tells you to quit. If you’re not passionate about the company and just want a nine-to-five style job, a start-up probably isn’t for you.
10. Hiring the wrong people can be costly
Think of your early hires and colleagues almost as cofounders. At a start-up, no matter what your job title. No matter what your level of experience. You have to be prepared to get in the trenches. Hire someone who shares the same rewards (or worse, has better rewards) but doesn’t put in the same hard work and it can severely impact team morale. Notwithstanding the financial impact, both in expenses and slower revenue growth.
Plenty of talented people aren’t going to fit the mould needed of an early stage start-up employee. They might make great hires down the road, but right now, they might not be a good fit. It’s really important to be very clear in what you are looking for when recruiting and be very clear with candidates too. And if a hire is not working out as well as hoped, you need to be quicker in addressing issues than you might at a large company.
11. Know where every penny goes, and justify it
One thing I have really come to appreciate at a start-up is the value of money. What things cost and the value of what you are buying. And not just physical items which you can see like advertisements, events, office equipment; even people. I also mean the cost of time. The cost of unnecessary meetings and chasing the wrong sales leads. The cost of nice to haves versus need to haves. The cost of delays. The cost of mistakes.
In a start-up, you need a sharp eye on your balance sheet and be able to justify every penny spent. Overspends or bad investments do not just impact growth, they could impact your survival. Be smart with your budget and measure everything.
And don’t spend any money (or very, very little with a clear justifiable rationale) on direct marketing until you have revenue. A good deal on an advert, for example, is a bad deal if it doesn’t directly align to immediate revenue generation at a start-up.
12. Perfection is your enemy but lowering your standards doesn’t mean poor quality results
Lastly, they say as an entrepreneur, perfection is your greatest enemy. This is true. When you’re building a company from an idea to reality, I have needed to learn to not be afraid to pull the trigger on something I know isn’t perfect. If it does the job, that’s all that matters.
I’m not advocating you accept mediocracy and throw just anything out the door (and anyone who knows me well knows I set a high bar). Strive for excellence, but make sure you balance quality over what’s best for the company. Put your ego to the side and take action. You can improve something on the next bounce.
And just because you will likely have a small budget, that doesn’t mean you cannot deliver. You might be pleasantly surprised with what you can achieve with a little imagination, tenacity and ambition.
Working at a start-up will rewire your brain and how you view the world. It changes you. It’s definitely not easy. But the rewards and satisfaction of building a successful company are enticing.
Those that love to live life in the fast lane and have a genuine desire to have an impact on the world will love it. Those that don’t, may get motion sickness…
If you’re thinking about moving to a start-up, do your research and make sure your passion, lifestyle and goals match those of the company. It’s definitely not for everyone but if you are looking to shake-up your career, I recommend it. Just make sure you have savings, just in case.
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