The transition from a large corporation to a brand new startup is not easy for many people. As many of my peers are looking for a more tactile and independent alternative, they are choosing to experience entrepreneurship firsthand. I myself took the plunge in April 2013, moving from a bulge bracket investment bank to a then five-person startup.
To say I had no idea what I was jumping into is an understatement. This is not to diminish the support of my close friends, colleagues and family who attempted to explain the tradeoffs. The truth is that every firm and person is different, and the conclusions I have arrived at are understandably different from the assumptions I had before. But for young women looking to join a startup, I wanted to shatter a few of my preconceived notions to hopefully make your transition a bit smoother.
FIVE THINGS no one ever told me about joining a startup
You snooze you lose. The world is changing constantly. If you want a new client you need to pitch aggressively. It you want to own a specific account, you need to put money where your mouth is and do some unsolicited research. There is no time or energy for passive people.
Easy becomes hard and hard becomes easy. Let’s be honest: If you have always had a person coordinate logistics, ensure the supply cabinet is stocked, and set up meetings as you need them, you don’t even think about it. On the other hand, those executive meetings where people just stride in, quote facts, and decide strategy seem lightyears away from reality. WRONG.
If we are keeping tabs, I have spent infinitely more hours and agony booking travel, finding a real estate space, and processing paperwork than I have perfecting verbal communications and deliverables at very senior meetings. The de-layered environment of a startup is such that you climb the learning curve quickly to make yourself useful. The intellectual enrichment of the big challenges drives additional investment and energy for those activities, rendering them easy. As to the logistics, banal as they may seem, you need to be attitude-free and detailed if you expect to have a room in which to present that rockstar presentation.
More autonomy, more responsibility. Startups are famous for the independent culture and the ability to “do more”. I have indeed found that I get to try my hand at everything from recruiting to interior decoration to social event planning to training/mentoring. This has to be one of the best parts of the job, as things are never boring.
However, managing the many balls in the air with clients, vendors and recruits requires a conscientious commitment to prioritization and timely response. Knowing when and who to escalate issues to is integral. The fun side of independence has to be balanced with dedication to getting things done correctly and punctually.
Learn when and how to say no. When you are in the corporate world, at some point the buck stops with your boss and you go home. While startup work tends to be more targeted and purposeful, the flip side is that there is the same quantity with 10% of the staff to do it. You can literally work 24 hours a day.
I personally struggle with drawing lines in the sand. If there is unfinished work, I really just want it done before bedtime. However, I’m slowly learning to delegate, prioritize, and resign myself to sometimes saying no. Without the ability to draw your own boundaries, you’re losing out on the experience of managing your time. You’re also not capitalizing on a flatter hierarchy. While saying no to your boss at a large corporation may not fly, saying “no” or “maybe later” is perfectly acceptable in a small firm where transparency is much higher. For your sanity, figure out the balance of doing work and keeping hobbies and relationships alive. You’ll realize you earn respect for doing so.
Roll with the punches. Moving away from the mentality that Mon-Fri is for work and Sat-Sun are weekends has been a tremendous blessing. Understanding that you may get a call to go to London in seven hours is normal. A client or candidate may sign on verbally and then unexpectedly change their minds. Changes happen in every walk of life, but in a startup the impact can often feel magnified. By keeping a flat emotional state and an open mind, the roller coaster ride is a lot more fun than frightening.
Lavanya Srinivasan can be found hanging out on Facebook.