The Startup Alternative


11 August 2014

Startup culture has pervaded our thoughts through social media, enthusiastic blogging and excited talk at meetups across the globe. It seems like each day another round of your online and real world contacts is starting their own company or leaving the corporate world to join a fledgling startup.

The dream of being your own boss, or getting in early at a company that solves a real problem innovatively and experiences success, has long captured the imaginations of those in and around the tech industry (though these days, that’s a wide net — who isn’t around the tech industry in some manner). Furthering the cause, there are a host of people blogging, tweeting and posting videos showing how they left a 9–5 job behind and now work from wherever there’s WiFi — today, a beach hut in Asia; Next week, some sun-soaked beach in South America.

Its therefore no wonder that grads coming out of College today are increasingly pursuing this lifestyle, attaining this previously unimaginable freedom either immediately or within the first few years of their career. And for many of them, it will absolutely be the right choice.

For many of those who have worked the standard 9–5 route for 5, 10, 15+ years, the switch to applying what they’ve learned in the wholly different Startup world or controlling their own destiny will be exactly what they need and are suited for.

But — and here’s the bit we don’t seem to be discussing — for many others, wherever they may be in their career path, sticking with (or starting at) a medium to large established company and building a traditional career may be far better suited. “To each their own”, as the old saying goes. I fear that the glorification and near celebrity-like status afforded to those who go their own way with a co-founder or join a company that just raised a Series A round (that’s just a big loan, don’t forget) is leading to a host of people, many young, many impressionable, making a massively impacting decision based on a skewed view.

We hear all the time about the pros of striking out in to the unknown in this way. From time to time, we’ll see a heartfelt, emotion-laden post-mortem written by a startup founder who had to call it quits on their venture when it failed — but the message always seems to end up being spun again as if to say “this is the risk; therein lies the glory when it succeeds”.

Do I wish to discourage anyone from starting their own company or seeking a new adventure outside their comfort zone? Absolutely not. Without those who do this, very little of the things I use on a daily (hourly, minute-ly…) basis would not exist and we’d all be in a worse place. But what I do wish for is a more balanced representation of the career options open to you when you find yourself pursuing a life in technology and its related industries.

The familiar rhetoric is that working for a big company means you’ll gradually reduce the innovation efforts you are involved in. There’s always someone else deciding what you’re working on, how it should be implemented, someone else’s vision and someone else’s glory. It’s boring, they say. You get in to a routine, you work to live and count down the moments until you get to go home and work on something you care about or be with someone you care about or do something you care about.

The problem is, nothing in this world is black & white (even a penguin has orange feet). Any rational mind can see that there are pros and cons to both choices. Discounting the pros of staying in big business/the corporate world as being evidence of not wanting to step outside your comfort zone is too one-dimensional. Suggesting that innovation, self-motivation and achieving goals while affecting change simply isn’t possible at a medium or large company is beyond the realms of truth. Sure, there are companies where this is truly the case, but — and here’s a shocking thought — you can always go work somewhere else where that isn’t the case.

For every benefit you see proposed by those encouraging you to make the leap, there’s always a counter point. Direct access to the production database instead of jumping through hoops with your database administrators? Sounds good. But when the database goes down or there’s a complex problem with the performance of your queries, they’ll be calling you at all hours to fix it. If that doesn’t bother you, fantastic! But consider it, because it will happen. No strict allocation of Paid Time Off, perhaps called out as “Unlimited Vacation”? That’s great, but when do you think you’ll be taking that vacation? It probably won’t be too soon, as a smaller company or one striving to launch and iterate can’t afford to have key staff out of the office. Again, this might be fine for you— but consider it.

If you’re thinking of jumping from your 9–5 at a medium or large company and doing the startup thing, I ask only one thing of you: Please make sure you are truly considering all factors in a rational, balanced and unbiased way. Don’t let the promise of greener grass lead to a decision you may one day regret.