Why graduates should seriously consider working for a startup

A caveat: there seems to be a narrative these days which goes something like: “startup=good, corporate=bad”. This isn’t a narrative I agree with, as I believe every organisation — startup or corporate, small or large -‎ should be judged on its own merits

Credit: pixabay.com

Credit: pixabay.com

For many years, those first jobs that have been the most sought-after have been the ‘prestigious’ graduate schemes. In other words, placements with banks, law firms, and other large corporates.

Today, many talented young people are finding themselves on the notorious “conveyer belt”. But, after dipping their toe into the investment banking world (and suchlike), they are discovering that these places aren’t quite as glamorous as they appeared.

When reflecting upon landing his gig at a prestigious law firm, Peter Thiel is often quoted as saying:

“From the outside, everyone wanted to get in. On the inside, everybody wanted to get out.”

Thiel goes on to say “I really had to rethink what I really wanted to do. What was I really passionate about?” (his full interview is available here).

“But I think if I had to give advice to my younger self, I might still go to Stanford, I might still go to law school. But I would ask far more questions about why was I doing it. Was I doing it just for status and prestige, or was I doing it because I was really substantively interested?”
 — Peter Thiel (Co-founder of Paypal, entrepreneur & investor)

In fact, many employees (especially millennials), are ditching their corporate jobs to work for startups, citing various reasons for doing so. (e.g. see this engineer who quit his Microsoft job).

With 2015 being a record year for startup formation in the UK, there are several reasons why young people should consider joining a startup, rather than following the well-worn, corporate path.

Here are 12 of the best reasons*:

1. Greater job responsibility

Startup: Even at entry-level, you are given more to do right from the beginning. As the teams are smaller, you have more of a part to play — and are much less the “small cog in a large wheel”. Therefore, you will feel as if what you are doing is genuinely adding value. Yes, the learning curve is steeper, the challenge is often greater, but it is all the more worthwhile and the opportunity for you is huge.

Corporate: At entry-level you are looking at a defined ‘analyst’ job or similar. You might be doing tasks of some value, but you will generally have to ‘earn your stripes’ by carrying out more of the mundane and administrative tasks, before working your way up the corporate ladder and doing the more interesting stuff. This can sometimes take years.

2. More job variety

Startup: Within your specific role, your role probably isn’t so specific! You will be tasked with more responsibilities and your day-to-day work is likely to be more varied. Chances are, say your position is in Marketing, your work will extend beyond the marketing world and cross over to other areas. i.e. In this case, your role might actually be more of a Marketing/Sales/Operations position.

This gives you an opportunity to:

A) Learn more
B) Get more feedback around what you actually enjoy doing and/or are good at.

Corporate: Much less variety in a typically narrow and defined analyst role (or equivalent).

3. More control over your role & career

Startup: It is easier to get close to a part of the business that you are interested in, and to some extent ‘build out a role’ within that space. If you are hard-working and are a good fit for the company, they will want to keep you and utilise you both in the best way possible. This will mean you working in a position where you are happy(-est) doing that role.

Corporate: If you find yourself in a Finance role, for example, it is near-impossible / extremely difficult to:

A) get wider experience in another field and
B) manoeuvre yourself into another role.

This is partly due to the specific nature of your role, and partly due to the sheer size of the firm and the politics and bureaucracy that often comes with it.

4. Less of a hierarchy, more holarchy

Startup: This ties in nicely with the previous points. In startups, like in any organisation, there is a mix of experience within the teams. However, there is generally less of a heirarchy, and everyone tends to be taken seriously and have a say — both in the team itself as well as in the overall direction and mission of the company. Some startups have even actively removed themselves from the hierarchy model, instead implementing holarchy — e.g. Zappos.

Corporate: A rigid corporate hierarchy, with typically at least 2–3 years between each title promotion, and certainly 10–15 years (minimum) before you can reach anywhere near “the top” (e.g. Director, Head of Department, etcetera)

5. Your age matters less

Startup: Generally speaking, and partly due to their more recent emergence in the history of the workplace, a startup workforce has a lower average age (for better or for worse). More crucially, with less of a focus on “seniority”, your age is less relevant and less looked-at-between-the-lines at a startup. In other words, your age is less of a barrier. For this reason, if you join a startup after school or university and ace it, you can find yourself in a pretty significant role (and much faster than would be possible within a corporate). The rules are less defined and there is less bureaucracy — this can go to your advantage and you can find yourself way ahead of your investment-banking peers.

Corporate: As mentioned in point 1, you will most likely have to ‘earn your stripes’. It’ll take 2–3 years of work before you are likely to move upwards to a ‘senior analyst’ position (or equivalent), and even then it might be more of a title change as opposed to anything with more tangible responsibility. Frustratingly, your manager might either be someone a couple of years ahead of you (in age and experience), or someone who got the managerial role simply by ‘doing the time’ and being with the company for so many years, thus ‘earning’ the promotion through tenure.

6. Greater exposure to impressive individuals

Startup: Greater exposure to, and thus greater opportunity to learn from, these individuals. Smaller teams with more responsibility and less hierarchy also means that you get to learn from some really impressive people, both in your team and across the company as a whole. Chances are, the founder(s) will sit near you — possibly even a few desks away — or at worst just one floor away. This also gives greater rise to horizontal variance in your network (as opposed to vertical). Zak Slayback (Top LinkedIn Influencer on Education & Business Development Director at Praxis) talks about this here.

Corporate: Most of your interactions will be with your immediate team, which will likely consist of fellow analysts/senior analysts with the manager possibly being a level up from that (see previous point re: age and managers). All of which amounts to less opportunity for network variance (see above).

7. Startups are doing cool and exciting things

Startup: Funding Circle is revolutionising the outdated banking system. Pact Coffee is changing the coffee industry for the better. DrEd is transforming healthcare. This list goes on. Startups are innovative and disruptive, in some way trying to shake up the way things are currently done in their respective industries. The founders risked it all by leaving safe and secure jobs (often corporate jobs!) to put themselves on the line for something they really believed in. Is that not something you’d want to be part of, given the choice?

As a result of which…

8. Your are close to the overall mission of the company

Startup: And you feel it. Not only is your company trying to do something exciting it, but this is often felt in what you are doing every day. They are values- and mission-led in a genuine way (rather than having generic core values just for the sake of it). Your work is more likely to be fun and fulfilling, and you are more likely to see what you are doing as more than just a job, as you can feel that you are tangibly and meaningfully contributing to the lives of others in some way.

Corporate: The ‘company values’ were probably something you were given on induction day, never to be seen again. (Except when you browse the company website every once in a while, perhaps). The overall mission is more difficult to determine — beyond simply “making more money for ourselves, the Board and our shareholders.” Equally, the company founder(s) is probably sat in another office, another timezone or is no longer alive. At best, you might see him/her once a year giving the annual company presentation (possibly via video-conference, bonus marks if you see them from afar, on stage, in person). Even if you do know what the company’s mission is, it probably isn’t felt whilst sat at the bottom of the chain along with the hundreds of other analysts.

9. You get to see the bigger picture

Startup: Do you want to start your own business one day? (If so, you’re not alone — nearly 2/3 of millennials want to start their own business at some point. Also — take a look at some more interesting facts about millennials). Within a startup, you are much closer to Sales, Marketing, Operations, Finance, etcetera. You get to see how the departments interact with one another, and gain insights which could be invaluable for when it comes to starting your own business. This effect is even greater within a smaller startup (e.g. 10–50 people in size). You may even get to join an early-stage startup, and experience it as it grows in size.

Corporate: In your role and team, you might feel removed from the rest of the department let alone the rest of the business. Such a bigger-picture view isn’t possible. Not unless you reach the uppermost echelons after 20–30+ years with the firm (and, even then, you’re pretty far-removed from much of the day-to-day company activities).

10. You get to bring (more of) “yourself” to work

Startup: Many startups tend be more human and accepting of who you really are, and not just focused on “work”. Often, you get to wear normal clothes(!) — not suits — and express who you really are. Take this page for example, introducing the team at BEAR Nibbles. Yes, it is a company, there is work to be done, but this is clearly a group of people who are treated like people, and don’t have to put on as much of a “work façade”, openly expressing your interests and the other sides to you away from the “work you”.

Corporate: Suited-and-booted. “Professional” only and corporate-type-façade. You certainly won’t see employees talking about their love of early-morning raves on the company website…

11. You actually get to know the people in the company

Startup: With a company just 10–100(ish — it varies) in size, you actually get to know who the people are. Need to speak to Jack in Finance? He’s not just a stranger on the phone — you actually saw him at the gym last week… It feels more like a community as a result, even with a family-like feel to it, with a sense of camaraderie.

Corporate: Jack in Finance could well be far away, possibly in another time-zone. In fact, it can feel like you are speaking to people who aren’t working for the same company. Though a close team-bond can be fostered, a community-like feel on a larger, company-wide scale is much more difficult to achieve.

12. Check out some of these awesome benefits…

Startup: Startups have their own unique culture, and their own unique benefits to go with it — from free breakfast, beer, foosball tables and ping pong, through to meditation/yoga and office dogs(!). OK, not the most important thing in the world when considering a job, but hey, it’s the small things that count. (And the perks aren’t always just “small things” either — check out what this tech company did).

Corporate: Ping pong tables? A dog in the office? Err…moving on…

*These 12 points apply to small businesses as well as startups.

So there you have it. Working for a startup has plenty of advantages, and especially so if you are a young person about to embark on a career.

A smart thing to do is to begin by searching for a startup with a mission that is meaningful to you, contributing to the world in some way that you can see eye-to-eye with. (Watch out for a future post here on what startups look for when they hire graduates and school-leavers).

Working for a startup is no easy ride. It is just as much hard work as it is working for a corporate (if not harder), and probably with a lower salary, at the beginning at least. (Though often there is more transparency around salary — an extreme example of that here). There also tends to be more uncertainty; your role might not be so “typical” — every day/week is likely to be different and bring new challenges.

Working for a startup has a whole host of benefits.

Perhaps most of all, you can choose to work for a company with a purpose and mission that you can relate to and are passionate about, and can feel in the work that you are doing.

And for more and more young people out there, that alone counts for a lot.

This article originally appeared here. It also featured on Medium, with a shorter version featuring on NACUE.

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