I took the 4-hour train up to the University of Sheffield today, half of a two-man show debating post—graduate opportunities for the department’s professional society. What are employers looking for; how can you gain an edge? was the remit: 15 minutes each, then Q&A to sort out our differences.
I left corporate life in 2009 for the glittering promise of entrepreneurship. Do what you want; keep what you win: Government agencies and free-market thinkers promote startups as the highest and purest form of capitalism, the fundamental engine of innovation, job growth, and social mobility.
The reality is, of course, much more difficult. Capital is very difficult to raise: banks are risk-averse and angels appropriately selective. Politics and personalities can derail the best technical and clinical plans. It takes much more persistence and creativity to achieve success than I ever would have imagined.
So, how to convey the opportunity, contrast the life, for my audience?
I was helped somewhat by my corporate counterpart, who arrived with a slick slide set showing the years of profit and global reach of the 26,000 employees earning $15 billion each year. Their four attributes (Ambition, Accountability, Empathy and Courage) flanked by four leadership dimensions (Internal, external, self, and others) generated 16 core competencies that defined the personalities and behaviors that every employee should aspire to. It was every corporate HR presentation I had ever heard, down to the concluding Huxley quote: Experience is not what happens to a man, but what a man does with what happens to him.
I took another tack, beginning by talking about the early hopes and achievements of my startup, showing pictures of my diverse and talented team of six, then describing the myriad ways that things slid sideways throughout 2013. I paused with the image of an imperfect batch of coating dripping off of a sample, cash runway diminishing, the crucial experiment about to begin.
What qualities do you need to work in a startup, in a setting with so much opportunity, so little certainty?
Capable and independent
Initiative and honesty
Positive and constructive
Energy and drive
Flexible and adaptable
Accepts risk and change
More importantly, when you are interviewed by a startup, yowhat questions do u need to think about as you are evaluating them?
Is the product concept simple?
Is the business model credible?
Is there enough cash?
Is the founder a pompous jerk?
Are the expectations realistic?
If you have both have the necessary qualities, then a startup can be a worthwhile place to be, an opportunity to contribute, learn, and succeed like nowhere else.
I remember a colleague who held that the breadth of one’s career was defined by the depth of their stories. My four years in startups have given me great experiences, deep lessons, and changed me in many ways. I always value the time to reflect on that and to discuss it in forums like this.
And, late into the night, we answered questions, shared wine and nibbles, and debated How Things Get Done. After dinner and beers we may still not have been further towards answers about Corporate and Startups.
But we really understood the differences.
And I like the team I was on, best.