Career Choices: Corporate vs. Startup
What would you do? Are you thinking about making a career choice? Here’s what I did, being a freelancer/startup enthusiast who went big time corporate for 2 years and then started a company right afterwards:
Some late winter-day in 2007, I heard about an internship call at Microsoft. I was working for a small company in Vienna, Austria / studying / freelancing on the side at that time. I figured it might be worthwhile trying to to see how far I’d get. So I sent in my documents.
Fast-forward, 6 months later, I’m interning in Redmond, as a Product Planner for Microsoft Office. Of all positions offered, this was the absolute uber-best fit I could possibly ever be matched with. I identified with the internship, the role, the company (don’t judge, the brand is one thing, but there’s tons of incredibly smart folks behind that) and eventually got a full-time offer.
Now, this brought up a problem for me.
I have always been a freelancer on the side, startup enthusiast and really chasing the dollar on my own terms since I learned how to use a computer (at around age 10). Working for somebody else, was always just a thing I did to learn more, to experience environments, to apply my skills to real-world problems and such. Small companies rarely paid good cash, typically averaging at around 15 to 20 USD an hour maybe, when employed. With freelancing on the side, I made up to a 100 USD the hour with US clients. I was perplexed as to what sense it would make going to work daily, when I made a day’s worth of cash between breakfast and the 10am meeting at work already from home.
I am not allowed to post salary details for my role at Microsoft, but I’m sure you’ll find all the necessary ranges online somewhere. Hiring bonuses, awards & stocks included, all bells and whistles, it was a good, lower 6-figure salary for my first year.
Now, this made sense again. Working for Microsoft, was paying me what I felt I was investing, time/effort-wise. I had a great, demanding job, but it was not a crazy Goldmann Sachs crack-job, far from that. I did 9-5, sometimes less, sometimes slightly more. It gave me a life outside of work. I loved traveling for work, doing focus groups and so forth.
But still, I was having this one question hanging high above my head every day:
Will I ever quit and join the startup craziness? Or, live my forever corporate life?
Being at Microsoft, surrounded by nice people, great nature, serious money, the high-rise apartment with city-view I always wanted, I figured, wow, this could be a life. What a stupid question to ask oneself. Life is good! Nonetheless, I figured I might never know what’s going to happen in the first 2-5 years, so I decided to start saving cash, lots of it, as strict as I was able to manage (damn you apartment leases). I eventually gave in and bought a car, it was, however, a used Chrysler Sebring for around $7.000, so I sort of saved after all.
Then, I received a call by the attorneys working on my green card application (I’m an Austrian national), explaining how they messed up something and it can’t be changed and instead of 2.5 years waiting for the green card, I was looking towards 7 years. I have a long-distance relationship with a perfectly smart, hot and brilliant girlfriend in Austria, the US doesn’t want me for now, my bank account was loaded (for me, a guy coming from rural country-side in Austria, it definitely was), I had the corporate tattoo on my resume and it all started to make sense, all of a sudden. I filed my resignation, 30 days later, I filed for incorporation in London, United Kingdom. That day, http://www.twentypeople.com was born.
The power of being taken seriously
When I was doing some freelance work, I occasionally talked startup/business ideas with many different people. First thing you’ll notice is that people rarely tend to believe you are being serious, qualified and standing a tiny chance of being actually successful. There’s so many people, with so many ideas. Go to a StartupWeekend. There’s one every weekend around the globe now, with new ideas, new groups, new big plans. And, despite the occasional exception to the rule, most people are not being taken seriously outside of this startup bubble. Try this: You think you have a great idea? Go to a bank, ask for a USD 50.000 loan to fund your first one/two employees. Tell them about your idea. You’ll feel like a 10-year old explaining how time-travel works. Nobody is going to take you seriously, unless you have serious traction.
At Microsoft, one of the things a manager once told me was, “you know, life is a bit different here. If you call someone and get to voice mail, mention you’re calling from Microsoft, and you will surprisingly always get a return call.” – And that was true, every time. And not only that, checking in at hotels, talking to customer support, bank managers, border patrol, the police, etc. – you have a tiny but notable joker.
I met tons of CEOs (of serious companies, traded on stock markets, making music videos, you name it) and it felt like being among peers. Not because of me, but because of who they suddenly saw in me and consequently decided to treat me.
I thought, giving up that corporate card (there actually is a corporate card, but that for another story) by quitting my job, I would lose all of these benefits. Turns out, almost none of it changes:
“I recently left my job at Microsoft to start a company, I was wondering….”
— HOW CAN I HELP YOU SIR?
And, while this will totally not resonate with ANYBODY who hasn’t gone through a large corporate brand, trust me, it’s golden card that only helps if played wise. You can make a serious dick out of yourself pushing sentences like that, but sometimes, it’s the magic butter you were looking for.
This way is probably the easier way: Here’s why
Now, there’s a gazillion startup founders out there who never worked for a large brand, not Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple or Facebook. None of them. Yet, they are or will be successful. I truly believe there’s a lot of you out there, hey, you reading this, might just be that person. Chances are, however, you are not. People are dicks, they don’t believe shit anymore. Showing up at a meeting/event outside of the startup bubble, explaining your grand-masterplan of how you’re going to change the world, most of the time, will result in responses like, “ahh, nice, sounds interesting” - “hm, sure, great to hear somebody is after this”, “wow, that’s so cool, your own company” …. but nobody, ever, takes you seriously enough.
Working one year for Microsoft and putting some cash aside, gives me enough leeway to live and work on a startup for about a year, with no further income.
Two years at Microsoft, probably amount to two years of leeway. This might vary depending on your role/salary/company/saving-habits/expense. But it’s about right for most people intending to go self-employed afterwards.
Having two-years of “not doing distracting, annoying, time-consuming freelance gigs on the side” is pure gold. Mind you, this does not mean it’ll be worry-free. You will be seeing your bank account going downhill in seriously intense steps. You work, work and work - and yet, your bank account drops, drops, double-drops (Christmas), and drops some more. It’ll make you think fast about revenue models, fine-tuning, customer acquisition before your money runs out. It’s like a dry-run investment. You paid for it. And, in my opinion, it’s the best kind of investment, albeit the emotionally most hardcore instance of investments.
I was always wondering what life would be like, had things progressed the other way around.
I start a company, great idea, nobody takes me seriously but I pull through. I manage to stay alive for a year or so until money runs out and I face consequences. I get a job on the side, work through some freelance gigs. Work starts to suck. I wonder if I should travel more to get my head free. I don’t have money to travel. Maybe I should see if I could go corporate, make some serious dough, come back afterwards. Applying might be tougher, I might not even feel like applying for anything, it’s like giving up. And even if I’d get a corporate job, I can only assume life would suck. I would be there only to leave again, since I know I failed in my past life and had to do this for the money.
This brain-fuck gets worse with every minute. I understand there are A LOT of people out there going down that path. But hell would I fail at it. Not saying I haven’t succeeded yet, but things definitely look much brighter from where I’m standing now, looking at my resume, the future probably will be fine, either way.
A note to dreamers and haters
Sorry to insult the dreamers. I’m one of you. But at the end of the day, if you live a life among others, have family, girlfriend or anything important nearby, it will demand your time and happiness. Being out of cash, out of inspiration and without much ahead of you will not make the day brighter. Dreaming will be dead by then. So go and do your resume some good, make sure your professional profile is set up for going wild before you actually go wild. There will be enough time, just read these words again, there will be enough time for you afterwards.