By Dave Kostiuk
The startup world is where the cool kids play—or so we’ve heard.
The autonomy, flexibility, and freedom to pursue a passion project that startups are legendary for entice many—not to mention the casual dress and lack of bureaucracy.
Then again, working for a startup can be excessively challenging, with perpetual concerns about resources and cash flow, as well as constant exposure to risky moves. For these reasons, many find the perceived comfort that comes with life at a corporation more appealing. But what happens when someone who has cut their professional teeth in the startup world transitions to a corporate environment?
Jennifer Sherer, Vice President of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Metro Atlanta Chamber, has seen that the typically more multifaceted demands of working at a startup can be nicely transferred to the corporate world, as the former can help you better realize your strengths.
— Jennifer Sherer (@JenniferBizU) March 13, 2017
“You have multiple resources and employees in a more established company, where it is better for partnering up and finding what really gets you excited,” Sherer says. “You hear about the ‘cool’ culture of startups—growing fast and getting bigger. But a stronger company culture [at a corporation] encourages and supports team building and leadership.”
“Most days in the startup world are characterized by joy and optimism or fear and doubt,” says Tommy Fad, Vice President, Business Integration at Comcast. “Understanding how these highs and lows emotionally affect your team and how to work through them will dictate success or failure of the unit.”
“Larger organizations typically move slower and thus are more stable,” Fad continues. “But even with small changes, understanding what motivates your team and your co-workers is critical when that organization has a larger number of employees working together towards a common set of goals.”
— Comcast (@comcast) February 27, 2017
Still, for those who want to pursue fresh ideas and innovation, startups can seem to have the upper hand. According to Sherer, “Corporations are complex and have processes and procedures for a reason. When you’re a global company, if you push a new product out, you’ve got an expensive problem.” In this sense startup life has the advantage, as it operates under the model of taking gambles.
Understanding Key Differences
Anatoly Shilman is an Atlanta-based leader in both startup and corporate spaces. In addition to leading his own startups, he’s led efforts at Fortune 500 companies, and he recognizes “the pain of feeling comfortable” that can come with corporate work.
“A lot of people see startups as fast,” he says. “I look at things as you can be bored at a fast company, and excited at a corporate job. A startup can be just innovation for innovation’s sake—move or you die. Startups are nice, but will I be excited by the opportunity?”
When it comes to how startup and corporate environments compare in regards to facilitating out-of-the-box implementation, Sherer states that nowadays, “Corporations don’t always get enough credit. In Atlanta, a lot of corporations are focusing on engaging the entire community, looking at new things outside their four walls, and tapping into people they see as being innovative. The smaller you are, the easier, but corporations are proactively addressing this, asking: ‘How do we create that risk tolerance?’”
Besides, as Shilman reminds us, “That’s why startups are startups. They’re great at spending money. They’re not made to be sustainable. In the Southeast, they just celebrate the next funding round.”
— Comcast South (@ComcastSouth) June 6, 2017
Conversely, one of the major benefits that an established company can offer is preservation. “90 percent of startups fail,” says Sherer. “That’s not the case for corporations. They go through downsizing or restructuring, but the business itself is stable by and large.”
However, Sherer also notes that startups do better when they are located in regions such as the Southeast, where others already conglomerate. “You’re better off in urban areas,” she says. “Geography matters. Concentration and density matter. In Atlanta, as we continue to strengthen the ecosystem and more and more resources are booming for entrepreneurs, this at some level helps reduce risk and increase the number of people who can help build sustainability.”
Culture Is Still Key
Shilman warns that startup culture can foster “polarized behavior” and “cliques.” “[Founders] say ‘Hey, we just started up, so talk to your friends. Hire guys like you,’” he explains. “This is why the tech industry has problems with diversity.” In other words, Shilman says there’s an unconscious bias towards hiring “interesting guys just like them,” people who are “cool” over people who can provide the highest quality work.
“The more diverse the team is, the better the financial performance,” he continues. “At Kimberly Clark [Shilman’s former company], which has been around for 145 years, I was very impressed that five of the nine executives on the leadership team were married women.”
— Toly Shilman (@tolyshilman) April 3, 2017
In contrast, a lot of the startup world remains dominated by men. In this light, the corporate world presents more affirmative opportunities. “There’s quite a few [positive] mentors at corporations because they’ve long since figured out ways to make sure core values are not just lip service and have nipped problems in the bud,” Shilman adds.
The good news is there are relatively younger companies that are lasting because they’ve learned this as well. Shilman cites MailChimp as an example; the company, founded in 2001, has a “welcoming team” that dedicates a full week to integrating new hires into the company culture before the work even starts.
“Corporations are more resource rich,” Sherer explains. “They have long-established, regular procedures that proactively look for rising stars, with pretty robust HR departments and recognition avenues.” In contrast, “Some startups don’t do individual recognition. Everything is team-based, with incentives awarded to a team versus individuals.”
What About the Future?
Nevertheless, corporations can stymie those who seek a multifaceted professional future. As Shilman concedes, once you start to work in a particular field or department, “it can be hard to break out of your lane.” These days, he says, “Corporations are getting a crop of people who want to advance. They want to know: ‘What am I going to do in five years if I stay?’”
Moreover, regarding stress levels, intense working hours, and work/life balance, the perceived advantage of a corporate position can be elusive, at least the nearer one gets to the top of the hierarchy.
“Honestly, there are comparable levels of stress at both startups and corporations,” Sherer says. “Worrying about the bottom line at corporation in a leadership role can be just as stressful as being a startup founder.”
Differences in work environment aside, it’s clear that cutting one’s teeth in the startup world yields no lack of personal growth, transferable skills and professional knowledge.
If a transition from one sphere to another is in your future, just remember: No matter what you do, everything you learn will become a valuable part of what you have to offer as a thinker and a leader.