Why I Chose To Work For A Start Up Over A Corporation

by kellie on June 20, 2012

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Most young people face the decision of either joining start up/small company or a big corporation when job searching, and rarely have experiential information on the advantages / disadvantages of each. On this post and series, I share my experience working for a start up, the advantages and disadvantages, and what I belief is the right skill set one needs to thrive in a start up.

I had a similar dilemma after finishing university, when after a couple of months with my current employer I got an offer to join one of the big 4 audit companies, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC), at twice the pay.

I declined the offer.

A couple of years later, I would decline to join Deloitte corporate finance (highly sought after job), and a well known ISP, in favour of my current employer, a start up real estate development company, giving up opportunities to make more money than I do, and the name a big company would have given me.

Why?

I believe working for a start up fresh from school gives you several advantages, that joining a well established corporation wouldn’t. I speak from experience having looked at my peers who joined big corporations and the extent of their career growth in those corporations.At a later stage, if you feel so inclined, then you can make the transition to a big corporation, though this rarely happens, because either the company grows with you, or you eventually quit to start your own business.

1. Responsibility: Most start ups recruit on need basis, when you join, you’re likely to be the only employee in your department, and in some cases in the whole company! I was employee number 2 in the company in 2006, and on my first day of work, the director handed me a CD that contained the company’s books of accounts,pointed out a cabinet that was full of box files, and told me to get to work. The next day, he traveled out of the country for 2 weeks. I’d never worked on a company’s books of accounts before (save for a short internship stint), but I knew what was expected of me. Within 3 months, I’d cleaned up the company’s accounts and was presenting reports on time, something that hadn’t happened in that company for a while. 6 years later, I’m second to the CEO and head one of our subsidiary companies.

A start up will most likely throw you in the deep on the first day. There are no fancy induction and training programs or introductory staff lunches, but working for a start up exposes you to a lot early in your career, enabling you to grow faster. Despite the level of responsibility, it’s very hard to burn out when working for a start up, I believe the environment is much more humane.

2. Flexibility: When you work for a start up, it’s easier to fit in your other interests to your career. Not all start ups give flexi time, but because structures aren’t established yet, it’s possible to have more flexible working arrangements than in established companies. This works out well for our generation where most people have other passions that they’d want to develop into fully fledged businesses some day.

I was able to co-found an advisory company, dabble with farming for sometime while working fulltime. My employer knew about all these interests, and would sometimes give me time off work to pursue them. What is key however is, you have to put in more than you take out. If you go out of your way for the company, it’s reciprocated, because the company isn’t faceless “management”, but  the entrepreneur you’re working with side by side,everyday.

3. Exposure: As I mentioned earlier, most start ups have a very low staff count. This means that you will be exposed to the entire business from the first day, and if entrepreneurship interests you, this is a great opportunity to learn how business works. Most entrepreneurs are keen to hire and mentor their kind, so if you show interest, your employer is more likely to take you under his/her wing and mentor you.

Working for a start up has exposed me to very interesting business situations. I started out as a trainee accountant, honed my finance skills, had a stint as a finance manager, then an operations manager, at some point a hotel general manager, and now I am in the process of setting up two businesses under our current business. It’s been a lot of work, and along the way my friends and family didn’t think it was worth it, but the way I see it, I’m an entrepreneur who earns a salary, and takes risks with other people’s money. One day when I set out fully on my own, I will have learnt all it takes to succeed in business.

All businesses aren’t identical, but entrepreneurs make similar kinds of mistakes.

4. Financial Benefits: Not all start ups pay poor salaries. Ok, most do at the beginning, but long term, it pays off.I turned down the Price Waterhouse job at the advice of my now mentor (who was my boss then, and a PWC lifer). I remember him promising that in three years time, I would be better off financially than my PWC peers. He had vested interests, I didn’t give his statement much credence. Now, six years later, I can honestly say I’m better off financially.

I have not necessarily made more money than my peers (I may have), but there are certain peculiar factors about working in a start up that have made me more successful financially; first, in a start up, you run your own race. There’s less pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” at work (there are no Joneses remember? :) ). For example, my first investment wasn’t a car. I bought a car after I’d bought some land, lost money in the stock market and in business etc. There was no pressure to keep up. In my office, everyone carries lunch, my boss included. A start up encourages frugality.

Secondly, you have examples of prudent financial management all around you. Most start up entrepreneurs are very frugal, you get to learn from the best.Finally, the fact that I was willing to take a risk with this company when it was younger means I enjoy more rewards today, financial and otherwise.

Would I work here for 10 more years? Definitely! Research has shown that the best company CEOs are often “lifers” – people who have worked in the organisation for most of their career.

5.Values And Mission: Working for a start up is great if you are self motivated and a values and passion driven individual. I find it very hard to be passionate about my job, if I’m not passionate about the company I’m working for. Passion is the fuel that drives a start up. In addition to this, it’s easy to buy into the vision of a start up, compared to a multinational such as Coca Cola, where the agenda is set in a distant head office, and all you do is implement.  In a start up, even if you’re the cleaner, you’re an important part of the company, while in a multinational, unless you’re in management, you’re a small cog of a very big wheel.

Everyone likes to feel needed

Not everybody is suited to work in a start up, there are unique attributes of the ideal start up employee, and we will look at that in the next post on this series. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your experiences in the job market, please share in the comments section below. Have you worked for a start up, and do you agree or disagree with the 5 benefits I outlined?

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Muchoki June 20, 2012 at 6:50 pm

I have been nodding my head in agreement to each of the 5 points. I am working in more or less a start-up. The exposure is quite phenomenal! Most of the day-to-day skills I harness are as a result of working my current job. I thank God for this opportunity. I hope to be as successful and enriched as you, if not better!God bless.

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kellie June 21, 2012 at 8:33 pm

I’m glad you agree Muchoki. It’s definitely not easy, but I promise it will be a rewarding experience.

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Dancun Kirimi June 21, 2012 at 12:50 pm

The experience i’m getting from the start up i’ m working in is fantastic. its a lot of work but its worth it.Some things I’ve had to teach myself, and thats what i like about it. learning everyday.

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kellie June 21, 2012 at 8:34 pm

Indeed Dancun. The best thing is self taught stuff sticks. I wish you all the best in your career. Thanks for your comment.

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Jack June 21, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Hi pple! I have not worked in a startup. My stints have been in a DTM and now a global logistics firm.
I relish at all your present experiece and am really interested in growing entreprenuerially skilled. I’d just like to pick on your ideas. What sectors now and in maybe the next five years hold promising for startups? How were you able to choose on, let me say, viable and promising startups to work for?
I love the post Rookie Manager. Looking forward to the next one. God bless you.

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kellie June 21, 2012 at 8:38 pm

Jack, it’s easy to pick growth sectors like tech for you, but I think you should approach it differently. Interview the Entrepreneurs you would want to work with (as they interview you). Thing is, business environment has very little to do with the success of a start up.
Success rests with the person behind the business.

What’s his/her vision? What’s her investment in the business? Rule of the thumb, if the owner isn’t willing to give it all, then neither should you. I wouldn’t advise you to work for a moonlighter. How receptive is the entrepreneur to input that’s different from what he/she believe?
Some entrepreneurs are control freaks, they’ll hire good people but never let them work.
I hope that’s helpful advice.

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Dancun Kirimi June 21, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Kellie, I agree with you on that one. The guy you work with not for has to be like a mentor to you. His vision and mission for the company have to be something you believe in.

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kellie June 25, 2012 at 10:55 am

Thanks Dancun.

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Roger (@rogerinc) June 29, 2012 at 10:06 am

Awesome article! Especially to some of us who’re looking to start our careers. Stumbled upon two relevant articles on quora;
1. Why do employees leave startups for big brands? http://b.qr.ae/ODknij
2. Why do employees leave big brands to join a startup? http://b.qr.ae/LAC8em

Thanks for the post, always a great and relevant read :)

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kellie July 5, 2012 at 11:49 am

Thanks for the resources and comment Roger.

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GJ September 19, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Really nice article. i am working for a start up company and i agree with the exposure and responsibility part. On flexibility i disagree due to the level of responsibility on your shoulders. i also disagree on the finances.. most pay very poorly under the excuse of “we are still growing” not to mention some companies take much longer to grow than others… everyone has their own personal goals and if they don’t go hand in hand with how fast the org is growing you may have a problem.

BUT it all depends with your passion as you said. If you love what you do and believe in your company then it will work for you. If you don’t, well…

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The Inspired Bride October 26, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Very true!
Am sure turning down the jobs took some courage though…

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kellie October 29, 2012 at 11:20 am

Thanks for reading, and the comment. Yeah, it was a bit hard because more money is always tempting, and of course a “brand name”

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Gregory Amoshe July 30, 2013 at 10:28 am

This is a truly interesting point of view of things- Its a path I have chosen too. Great read!

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M November 23, 2013 at 9:20 am

Interesting post … Though personally I’d modify it slightly.

I think it’s good for you to work in an established company first and then later A startup

1) you are exposed to structure and systems and appreciate their value
2) you learn to navigate the world of office politics. Distasteful but useful skill
3) you learn why established firms are slower and less agile than startups – useful knowledge for later

After this experience you will be much more effective in your role at a startup

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kellie November 25, 2013 at 8:58 am

@M The challenge with a downgrade from a corporation to a start up is the fact that you are used to working with structures, but not setting them up yourself. You are used to playing politics, yet most start ups find politics a waste of time. The third point is valid.
Having hired people who worked for big Co.s for managerial positions in my start up, I wouldn’t say the first two are an advantage. Send your start up employees to corporations to learn how structures work (even as interns).

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