Working in the corporate world certainly has its benefits and can yield an incredibly rewarding career, but for some, the corporate world feels a little stifling. With long hours, high stress and a somewhat monotonous workflow, some find themselves looking for a way out – the same way I did, writes Tim Atkins, Business Operations Manager, Cancer Aid.
In 2019 I made a career change which saw me go from a corporate law firm to my dream start-up. I now work at CancerAid, in a role that straddles partnerships, operations, legal, finance, HR and marketing (it’s fair to say I’ve seen an uptick in role diversity). Whilst taking the leap from the corporate world to start-up life was nerve-wracking, it was the best decision I ever made, and I learned some valuable lessons along the way:
Your Basic Skills are Valuable
Don’t pigeon-hole yourself – if you have done even a couple of years in the corporate world, you are valuable. At a corporate you get taught the basics well, which matter at a start-up far more than I realised:
- Attention to detail. Dotting the ‘I’s and crossing the ‘T’s. Being the person that stops client names from being misspelled in the rush of a pitch has value. Who’d have thought?
- Understanding of risk. Corporates are generally risk averse (which means you’ll likely lean that way). Start-ups have a far higher risk tolerance. If you can straddle this line well, you can ensure the company’s growth is controlled and sustainable.
- Organisation. Start-ups work with immense speed, which means things can get lost in the rush. You’ll have been trained not to let this happen.
- Email communication. Corporate email etiquette (replying to emails quickly, courteously and in the right tone) is a skill in itself. This is particularly useful if your venture is B2B.
- Productivity. Well-oiled start-ups empower people to work efficiently. Given you can now go home at 5:30, and you’re surrounded by highly motivated and capable operators, your productivity will shoot through the roof. But say goodbye to the free feeds and cabs home.
- Your motivation. If you, like I did, feel disillusioned, know that I got a second-wind working for something that makes a tangible impact on peoples’ lives. Rather than ducking and weaving from weekend work, I now do it for fun. Bizarre.
- ‘Hard’ skills. These go without saying. If you’re at a law firm, hopefully you picked up a bit of law along the way. Get ready to be the client and ‘general counsel’. If you’re at a bank, you’ll become the go-to for cash flow and financial projections. But in my opinion, the ability to pick up new skills dwarfs in importance the hard skills you bring across.
Prerequisites for working at a start-up
- Picking skills up quickly (on your own). You will be asked to do things that no one in the team has experience with. You need to enjoy the challenge – and get comfortable learning quickly on the fly.
- Comfortable with uncertainty and change. Things break, and plans change. Go with the flow, or else the environment will be challenging.
- Initiative. There’s a laundry list of things start-ups don’t have the time to execute on. Get ideas off the ground on your own, and you’ll be valuable.
- A reasonable risk appetite. You need to come to terms with the fact that the venture may die within a year, and you won’t truly know the state of the business until you’ve crossed the point of no return. Try get over the fear of having a blip on your CV if it all goes pear-shaped. In my opinion, the reward (in terms of learning and experience) far outweighs the risk.
How do you make the leap?
I once got great advice from someone at AirTree:
- Find a company with 10-20 people. They’ll have some form of product-market fit, revenue in the door, and will be a more stable environment in which to learn.
- Find a mission you truly believe in. If finance puts you to sleep, avoid fintech. When things get tough, the mission will keep you going.
- Cold-email them to see whether they need a ‘generalist’. They probably won’t advertise they’re hiring, but start-ups are always looking for capable people to fill gaps.
What I did was slightly different: When I reached out to start-ups (i.e. firstname.lastname@example.org), I gave something for free to accompany my snazzy new Canva-built CV. I’m OK at spelling (woo!), so I reviewed each start-up’s website and gave a couple of pages of tips.
I also recommend meeting as many people at the start-up as you can over lunch/coffee, to ensure your values align. Start-ups are small, so you need to make sure you click with your colleagues.
There are other programs that can help with the transition: i.e. the StartMate Fellowship Program. Another way is getting on the mailing list of VCs like BlackBird Ventures or AirTree – they often share job openings. A third way is going straight to job posting websites like AngelList.
But that’s how I did it, and thankfully I signed a contract within a month of my first email to CancerAid!