You’ve heard the stories about what it’s like to work in a startup. They’re usually fast-paced, feature daily beer sessions, endless games of ping pong and free snacks. There’s often a younger crowd, and a real sense of camaraderie — a “we’re taking on the world” type mentality.
Despite these perks, it also means you’re typically working with a much leaner team and limited resources.
While many skilled technology professionals in Australia are jumping ship from the corporate world to startup land, I bucked that trend. Having gone from one of Australia’s most successful startups, Bigcommerce, into a big corporate digital enterprise, I have a unique perspective on what to look out for in a corporate environment to ensure you don’t lose that “edge” that’s so enjoyable in a startup.
Here are the five qualities I learnt from working in a startup, so you know what to look out for, ask about in interviews, and talk to other employees about before taking a role in a corporate technology or product team:
1. Approach to customers
Startups are extremely good at obsessing over their customers, for good reason. In the early stages of a business, every customer is critical to success. Many corporates, who already have big customer bases, forget to do this. If you want to find out if a corporate is customer-centric, try their products. Contact their customer service. Try to navigate their website as if you were their customer. If it doesn’t hit the mark, make sure you discuss what their customer roadmap is.
2. Access to senior executives
In a startup environment, founders are typically much more involved in the day-to-day operations of the business. It’s highly likely the CEO or founder will be present at more meetings and be actually working alongside you. This presents a great opportunity for you to learn from them, as well as have greater insights into the wider direction of the business, its vision and strategy. It’s still possible to have this within a corporate, but you should always try to get an indication in the hiring process how flat a structure is. Take note of who is interviewing you, ask to meet with team leaders, and talk to other employees if you can.
3. The “always pitching” state of mind
In my experience working at a startup, you’ll likely find yourself in what we call an “always pitching” frame of mind. Co-founders are always pitching their business to customers, investors — anyone who will listen, and more often than not, they expect the same from their employees. It’s critical to look for this passion within a corporate environment. Is there excitement about what the company is doing? Is there momentum? Read the media, read customer reviews and even HR websites like Glassdoor. A good corporate will foster this excitement in its employees. If senior leaders are excited, employees generally will be too.
4. Problem solving
Working in a startup teaches you to work hard, on lean resources, under pressure — which can be an extremely valuable skills regardless of the working environment. You’ll likely be given more responsibility and more autonomy, given the size of the team, but this will mean you’ll be able to expand your skill set and widen your approach to problem solving. There’s more of a “think on your feet”, “try and test” type mentality to solving problems in a startup, which can be extremely valuable in the long run. A lot of corporates talk about being “agile”, but make sure you ask about how teams work, and for concrete examples of agile practices. Plenty of corporates are establishing “startup in a corporate” teams, being led by managers and leaders who have grown up in startups. Always look into the employment history of those you’ll be led by.
5. Technology behind the business
One last thing you should always consider is the technology powering the business. Typically in a startup environment the founder may have built the technology stack in a very lean, bootstrapped way. And while it’s clear why a startup would approach technology in this way, it can also mean you may have problems when you go to scale the business. It’s really important to know what you will be working with. And this applies to any business — startup or corporate. Understanding the technology stack you have at your disposal can largely impact your ability to work, so it’s an important factor to consider.
Startups are incredible, challenging, exciting places to work. But at the end of the day, beer, ping pong and a snack cupboard are just icing on the cake. Don’t be fooled by the clichés when considering whether to choose a startup over a corporate —- you might be surprised if you can dig underneath the hype.
Lyndon Maher is Director of Product Management at Domain.com.au