Category: Career

The career dilemma for startup entrepreneurs

Leaving your day job to launch a startup is a big and difficult decision to make. It is made especially difficult because the skill set needed to run a startup is very different from the one you need to make a career in BigCorp, probably even more so if you have a technical background (like me).

How are they different? This is a gross oversimplification but let’s say there are three main activities performed in any company:

  • Producing. In a software company this is what the developer or designer is doing. They build stuff.
  • Managing. This is all the overhead activities that comes with more people, larger projects and multiple offices. It’s everything from managing customer requirements, writing change requests and setting salaries.
  • Selling. Selling is the act of bringing your product to your customers. For simplicity’s sake I include marketing here.

If you have technical background and want to make a career in a large company, most likely you will end up managing something or someone. Unfortunately, very few large companies have good career paths for technical roles. Even worse, “programmer” is usually at the bottom of the food chain and a so called “architect” will be spending more times in meetings with PowerPoints than actually producing (coding). I have spent years managing requirements in large telecom projects, for example.

When it comes to selling, very few people in a large organization work with actually driving and increasing sales. It’s usually a question of managing existing customer relationships. So, the skills needed look like this:

A corporate culture where managing is the most important skill will be characterized by endless meetings, a lot of document overhead, lots of middle managers (often competing with each other in political struggles) and long decision times (often months or even years).

In a startup, on the other hand, there are basically just three roles: hacker, designer (both producers) and hustler (sales). The skills in a startup look like this:

Yes, managing will be important some day in the future, but not when leaving the corporate career path and starting something new.

So there is the dilemma: you’re not just saying goodbye to your corporate salary, you’re also saying goodbye to skills that will reward you in the corporate career ladder. A hard choice.

Of course another way to look at it is: do I want to spend the rest of my life having endless meetings, working with document overhead, fighting political struggles with middle managers and spending most of my days without moving the needle?

Perhaps the choice isn’t so hard after all.

(Discuss on Hacker News.)