After I wrote my last post, a surprising number of people emailed me asking why I decided to join a startup after graduating from Duke. Many of those I heard from face similar decisions today: either they are college seniors choosing between a big company and a startup, or they are recent graduates who work at a big company and are thinking about making the switch. What’s interesting is that most are already leaning towards the startup career path: it seems they just want someone to assure them it’s a rational move. Their friends and family are skeptical: “How can you turn down a job at Morgan Stanley for a 10-person startup?” Hopefully this post will give those who want to join startups some good points to bring back to the skeptics as to why it’s a good idea to join a startup early in your career.
First, an important point: As much as I’d like to say that everyone should join a tech startup as soon as they graduate, I don’t think it’s that simple. People have different passions, and I’m not a fan of projecting my own interests onto others and assuming that what I did was somehow the “right” thing to do. So, the first piece of advice I’d give is to pursue whatever you are passionate about. What is passion? In defining it, I’ll take inspiration from Steve Blank’s recent graduation speech at Philadelphia University. This quote caught my eye:
It’s your curiosity and enthusiasm that will get you noticed and make your life interesting.
I think he nails it: passion is enthusiasm coupled with curiosity. Which leads me to the first reason to join a startup early in your career:
1. Passion is the ultimate competitive advantage - When I was an intern on Wall Street, I took a look around the room of my peers and thought, “What is my competitive advantage here? Everyone is smart and works hard, right?” What I quickly found was that those who excel in that job are passionate about financial markets. I thought finance was interesting, but didn’t have the same level of enthusiasm and curiosity about it as my peers did. I didn’t have a competitive advantage in the Wall Street world. However, I did have a passion for technology and for startups. If I could work for a startup, I could use this to my advantage.
A nice way to tell if you have a passion for what you are working on is to ask this: Do your weekends look a lot like your weekdays? When you get home from work, do you find yourself wanting *more*? Do your ears perk up whenever someone talks about a certain subject? Do you feel compelled to ask questions and really listen to the answers? That’s passion, and it fuels a competitive advantage that can’t be faked. It’s what drives you to work when you don’t have to, to think about new solutions to old problems when everyone else is spending the weekend flipping the “work” switch off.
2. Startup years are like dog years - One year at a startup is like seven anywhere else. In Hackers and Painters, Paul Graham writes, “Economically, you can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Instead of working at a low intensity for 40 years, you work as hard as you possibly can for four.” For a young and hungry person, startups provide an awesome opportunity to accelerate your career. By their very nature, high growth startups always have more tasks to be done than people to do them. This necessarily results in a lot of employee “stretching.” By this, I mean being put in a situation where you have to do work that you might not be quite ready to do. This is the best way to learn.
Companies tend to change most in their earliest stages (as opposed to later when they are executing a proven model). As an early employee, you have a front row seat to this evolution. Because your role, and perhaps even the role of the company in the market, changes at such a rapid pace it is much harder to reach a point of diminishing marginal returns at a startup.
3. Sunk costs only grow with time - A lot of people I meet reason that joining a big company will de-risk their career path. If they can get a brand name on their resume, even if they join a startup and the startup fails, they will still have that brand name to fall back on. There is a recurring question: “When do I cash in the chips I’ve accumulated and do something I really want to do?” In reality, what I’ve found in talking with older friends in other career paths is that the further you go down one path, the harder it will be to make the switch to another. The weight of momentum can be overbearing, especially when the skills accumulated in most industries outside of tech are little transferable to tech startups.
4. If you want to start a company, a startup is the best place to learn - I’ve long known that at some point in the future I want to be a founder. It’s hard to describe the effect that working at a startup has to help move that aspiration from abstract to real. Before working at Hunch, I’d always think about starting a company, but it would be in an “armchair” fashion, where I’d be thinking of everything in theoretical terms. Working at a startup allows you to observe how one startup is run, and help shape a concrete vision of how you would want to run your company. What type of person do you want to hire? What kind of culture do you want to set? How do you onboard new employees efficiently? I don’t have perfect answers to every question, but these are the types of things I’ve been obsessing over for the past year, whereas prior to joining Hunch I didn’t even know the right questions to ask.
All of this stems from the fact that at a startup you have greater access to and can better observe the actions of the founding team. At a big company I’d likely be several levels of management removed from the people I work with at Hunch everyday. I’d wager that more than half of what I learn is through observation, and its tough to learn how to be a founder sitting in a cubicle where you don’t interact on a daily basis with the people who shape the vision of the company.
5. Your experience is subject to greater variance - At a big company, your role is usually defined for you. The analyst program you go through is identical to the program the kid last year went through. Not the case at a startup. In many cases you define your role, and no two people have the same experience. If you see a problem and have a solution to fix it, you’ll likely get ownership of that problem. But that’s the key: you have to own it. Nobody will tell you exactly how to do your job, or hold your hand. Your peers at big companies will likely not be afforded the same responsibility in the earliest stages of their career. This is an incredibly exciting thought for some, and super terrifying for others who have moved from institution to institution, brand name to brand name, their whole life. But, if this idea excites you it can be incredibly rewarding, both in terms of what you can get done and what you can learn.
Final Thought - Clearly I have a ton of bias here because this is the route that I chose. And, I’m sure there are benefits to joining a big company as well. But, if you are someone who wants to join a startup but just needs an extra nudge, hopefully the above points will give you some ammunition to take back to your friends and family who tell you that you are an idiot for turning down a job at a brand name company for the chance to work at a startup.