Until a few months ago, I had never worked at a startup. I’d worked at small companies; I did taxes in college part-time for a bit, worked in retail selling computer software in high school, and worked at a small travel agency in grad school. But most of my career has been spent at large companies; I worked a couple of years at a large insurance company, and for the better part of 20 years I worked at Delta running digital support and social customer care. But never at a startup. Earlier this year, I took a job at Sparkcentral (I was previously a customer). This career move has been a totally new experience for me. Some of the differences are stark; some are more subtle. Here are some observations from my first 6 months aboard the startup ship.

When you put people in the same room, there's a wonderful collaboration that naturally occurs. Click To Tweet

There Are No Walls

I mean this both metaphorically and literally: there are no walls. When you put people in the same room, there’s a wonderful collaboration that naturally occurs. I know a lot of big companies these days have flexible work arrangements where one can be in or out of the office as long as they’re getting their work done. However, there is something pretty magical about working in a collaborative space for all the brain trust that happens. Here, you can walk across the room, have a five minute conversation with someone and solve a huge problem; versus at a big enterprise company, where you’re separated by buildings, floors, physical walls, time zones, and sometimes even continents. In my last job, I was in an office, quartered off from the rest of my team who sat in cube land. I thought I would hate this open plan environment because I like people a lot and I get easily distracted. Turns out there’s a set-up for that. If you need time for deep-focus you just wander off to a quiet corner, conference room, or sprawl out on a giant beanbag with your headphones on. It works well.

There Are No Politics

In startup land there seems to be a distinct absence of selfish motives. Maybe because we’re too busy for that. There’s no my-division-needs-to-fight-yours-over-resources-and-budget drama. We’re all here focused on a common goal, and that’s not about posturing or corporate climbing. We’re all genuinely focused on the same thing and those self-serving distractions get in the way of the bigger prize. The team ethos here is palpable and it doesn’t seem to be lip service either. In Week One, for example, I was trying to keep my mouth shut and my ears open. I didn’t want to be that corporate guy who comes in and tries to change a bunch of stuff from the outset. Instead I took tons of notes and a few plans started whirling around in my head to restructure and strategically realign teams for success. I kept quiet though, deciding to pick just the right moment to float my big ideas. The next week I had some conversations with people on my team to test the waters. In Week Three, the VP of Sales walks over and says, “Jerry, I’ve been thinking we should restructure the team in this way…”

In my head I was thinking, did he steal my notebook? But really it’s just that we were so in tune that my ideas and his were already aligned — no need to debate or route ideas through upper management before announcing them to the team. Team planning is totally transparent and the way things are done can be adjusted on the fly if there’s a belief that it’ll move us forward faster. At big enterprises, teams can often be too stagnant and too resistant to change, which ultimately can hold you back. And even when re-orgs occur at larger companies (and they occur often), getting buy in across and among teams takes up a lot more time — time that can be better spent focused on customers and stakeholders.

Don’t Try to Be Everything to Everyone

One thing I’ve observed in a startup is the importance of have a laser-sharp focus that’s unwavering. This is an area where we can learn from large enterprise companies. I think a lot of startups want to change the world and attempt to do so from a lot of different angles. However, it’s imperative to have clear focus on key objectives. It’s good to adapt quickly to market demands, but you have to understand you can’t try to solve all of an industry’s problems at once. Instead be a leader in your space and then expand strategically knowing that some structure is important. The problem with trying to be all of the things to all of the people is that you end up being good at nothing. It’s easy to fall off the beam if you’re pivoting too fast and too often. Big companies, especially public companies, are so disciplined from the top down that getting sidetracked or changing course overnight doesn’t really happen. It’s almost in their nature not to move fast. I know this sounds contrary to what I just said about pivoting quickly, but there has to be this balance of both things. The best startups, I’m learning, figure out this balance and understand they have to be exceptional at their core competency. If you’re good at that people will buy your other things later. Then, you’ve got a rock solid foundation before branching out.

Should You Make the Move?

If you’re thinking about moving from corporate life to a young startup, I say just do it. For me, at times I felt complacent and stagnant. Sometimes I felt myself just going through the motions, safe in the security of a job I could almost do in my sleep while still yielding good results. I had to ask myself, is this what I really want to do until I retire? Or do I want to take a risk and do something that excites me? Do I want to make a difference in the industry I’ve grown up in professionally? Joining a startup has given me that opportunity and a place to re-experience motivation, drive, passion and the creativity that comes from bringing new ideas to life. That inspires me. If that’s inspiring to you too, then give it a shot. If you don’t take the leap, you’ll never know if you were going to be part of the next Apple, Google, Facebook, or Sparkcentral.

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