Once upon a time, working for a big corporate was the definitive goal of those entering employment. In fact, this paradigm was idealised and start-ups were not part of the mix. Fast forward thirty years, and that view has changed. Having worked in a variety of business models, including large corporates, I recently landed in a start-up, the only business model missing from my CV. I had always wondered what it would be like. Now I know, and often find myself comparing it to other work worlds.
At opposite ends of the spectrum sit corporations and start-ups. With their own idiosyncrasies, each comes with challenges and opportunities. I know Mumbrella has a discerning readership, so I won’t waste time reiterating stereotypes and explaining things you already know. Instead, I’ll share some of the less documented differences that might make you change your mind about working for one or the other.
I preface by explaining two things. Firstly, given my short tenure in the start-up environment, I did due diligence by discussing the topic with three other CMOs/executives with start-up experience to ensure my lens was wide. Secondly, every business is different. Some readers will violently agree or disagree with my thoughts. That’s okay. I am not pro start-up or corporate, nor do I dislike either. I am simply here to make observations, especially for those who may lack first-hand experience.
Having spent many years in the workforce, it’s impossible not to think about learnings when you start somewhere new. I contemplate things I did well, not so well, and how I might apply those learnings to make a better version of me. And so, when comparing the polarity of the “worlds,” a couple of characteristics come to mind.
The corporate challenge: Drama
No workplace is perfect. Every workplace has challenges and there is no employment utopia. That said, there is a colossal challenge in corporates I refer to as HWS: Hamster Wheel Syndrome.
Hamster Wheel Syndrome is a high-drama unwritten charter that feeds top-down, sending each level of management into a frenzy on the nod of a senior executive. It creates a scurry of activity that results in departments of people needing to change something, activate something or do something differently, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, often based on a personal opinion or disapproval. People get angry, emotions are high, everything is “urgent” and it feels like the sky is falling. People exhibit behaviours that don’t reinforce company values and that are unacceptable. Contradictory decisions are made, tensions are high, and just as quickly, the conduct is parried away. It’s frustrating.
Managing this comes down to two things. Primarily, accepting the environment you’re in. If leadership has created the conditions for you to make rational decisions, great. If not and you are obligated to jump on the hamster wheel, you must accept that sometimes you’ll be required to support decisions that are technically incorrect. Next, is to acknowledge that you make decisions about how you behave – don’t cave into commotion. Unless it’s a life-or-death situation, nothing is worth dramatisation in a workplace and no one has the right to send people home feeling terrible. As marketers, we’re in the business of selling people stuff to solve their problems, not write scripts for Days of our Lives. So, take the high road and a deep breath. It’s just a job.
The start-up challenge: Risk
Mitigating risk is complex. To really understand risk, talk to people who have put their hard-earned cash on the line to fund a giant experiment – because that’s what a start-up is. I recall reading an HBR article a few years ago that struck a chord. It suggested that to work for a start-up, one would need the ability to do three things, the first of which was to manage uncertainty,…