My good friend Micah Baldwin writes a blog post discussing work experiences at a startup versus a more corporate environment. He starts by referencing how Brad Feld would “rather back a startup CEO who’s last company was a failure” over “a highly successful / highly pedigreed corporate dude”.
This leads to a discussion about “difference between the type of person that selects the startup life [over] the corporate life” along these axes:
- Risk / Stability
- Control / Structure
- Static / Dynamic
- Success / Failure
but I think there is one very important axis that he overlooked:
Progress / Planning
Over an 8 year period, my last startup grew from a startup into a corporate environment with several hundred employees and layers of management. For the last 5 or 6 years of that I felt like we spent 80% of our time planning and only 20% of our time doing stuff.
To me, this was very frustrating. I enjoy just doing stuff, and I felt like all my time was spent discussing/debating/arguing with others about what we should be doing, instead of just doing stuff to see what worked. A lot of the time it felt like we were just paralyzed in planning…literally gridlock. Honestly, I was really unhappy about the whole situation for many years, but I had a lot invested in the company (both financially and emotionally) and wanted it to succeed.
On the other hand, my current startup is the opposite — we probably spend 5% of our time planning and 95% doing. I find this infinitely more enjoyable and am much happier because of it. But, why are they so different?
I think the most important difference is that we have a very clear vision of what we want to do. This allows us to make decisions about what to work on quickly and easily. I always thought my old company was paralyzed because there wasn’t a very clear vision or plan or strategy. As a result, we couldn’t just do stuff was because nobody could even agree on the general direction that the stuff should be headed.
But, there were other reasons too: the company had a culture that was risk-averse and punished failure — success was the only option. As Micah has stated so many times, successful startups need to get out there to fail early and often in order learn what works. This is the culture we’ve built at my current startup, and it’s not just limited to culture: we’ve designed our business processes with intention so that we can ship, test and iterate rapidly.
To do this, we’ve adopted Agile development practices that keep us nimble and flexible while moving rapidly. Contrast that with development practices with high overhead that further increased the cost/risk of experimentation. (Were these processes a function or creator of the culture?…another topic all together.)
In sum, I would describe the axis like this: the startup guy will feel stifled by the planning nature of the corporate environment. On the other hand, the corporate guy will feel uncomfortable with the lack of planning. There is a place in the world for both of these types of people — I’m not passing judgement. However, I do believe it reflects the type of person who selects one type of life — corporate or startup — over the other.