career pivot

Career Pivot into Startups

What do you want to be when you grow up?  In my case, I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I was 29 when I learned about venture capital and building startups from scratch. Innovators, disruptors, future builders. The topic lit a fire in me, and I knew immediately that I needed a change in direction. After almost a decade of large corporations and a successful career, I pivoted.

I have been fortunate enough to take some lessons from the corporate and early-stage startup worlds. My hope is that sharing a few of them will help others make some critical career decisions.

Below are some key differences I have observed as I transitioned professionally from corporate life to startup life:

  • Salary: Let’s start with something that’s top of mind for everyone: how much will you get paid? There are a lot of factors to this in both worlds. For corporations, size, industry, job level, and experience are factors in salary. For startups, it’s typically the stage of the business (early vs. late), the role, and the startup’s traction (growth and funding). All things being equal, you’ll likely be making more money at an established corporation than at an early-stage startup. In my case, when I first pivoted my career, my salary was cut by 66%. How do startups make up for this? Typically by offering equity ownership through stock options that encourage you to help the company grow. Corporations do this too, but growth is much slower and, therefore, unlikely to produce an outsized return like a startup will.
  • Benefits: Early-stage startups generally don’t have the resources necessary to provide these same benefits at larger corporations, at least at the same level. As mentioned earlier, startups typically offer equity incentives to help grow the company. The thought here is that your ownership will incentivize you to grow the company, and thus make you an outsized return of money in the future.
  • Organization: An early-stage startup will be notoriously unorganized. Why? Because there are so many things to tackle and not enough resources to tackle them. Also, due to a small team, there is no hierarchy. This means you can often report directly to the CEO. Given the lack of resources, you might have a core responsibility but will likely be doing many other things! This can be very challenging, but it definitely helps remove you from your comfort zone and gain valuable skills.
  • Risk: In the end, this decision comes down to risk tolerance. Startups are inherently risky, as over 80% of them fail. Are you willing to take less salary and be overworked on a small team in a company that will likely fail? Why would anyone do this? I personally think that entrepreneurs, innovators, and technology have the power to change the world, so I was willing to take that risk. Established corporations will not have that same level of risk. In that role, as long as I performed, I knew I could advance and make a great amount of money with a structured lifestyle. This isn’t to say established corporations don’t do any good in the world. They do. I just personally find that at some level, they slow down and are unable to solve the “big problems.”

I understand that some of the above points will favor an early-stage startup over corporations. The truth is that I am so passionate about the startup world. It’s no panacea, though. Many issues still need to be worked out in this realm. A lack of gender diversity, for example, is still a large problem in technology startups. 

The fact is that it isn’t for everyone, and it’s not infrequent that I miss many things from corporate life. What do I truly think is best? Try both! The lessons learned from both worlds are invaluable, and you won’t know which one is a better fit for you until you try them both.

About The Author:

Zeb Hastings, Startup Advisor

Zeb Hastings is a project manager for Seedstars, a Swiss-based group providing venture capital investment and capacity-building accelerator programs for technology startups in global emerging markets. He also runs Vagabond VC, a media platform featuring analysis and stories on this same topic, including interviews with ecosystem enablers, venture capitalists, and startup founders.

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