Coming to the graduation season, some students who are about to kick start their careers come to ask me about the differences between working in large corporates and startup environments. As a former banker who is now on a journey of building an early-stage venture capital firm – Zash Ventures – with a group of entrepreneurial people, I think it might be helpful to write a blog sharing my experience for those who are interested to know more about what it looks like working in the startup environment.
Before I start, I want to say that there are no absolute right or wrong career choices because we are all different individuals, and our goals may change as we grow up. Ten years ago, when I graduated from my university, startups weren’t really ‘a thing’ in Australia. Many graduates’ dream jobs were entering large corporates, big banks, government departments etc. Others might start some small businesses without knowing the difference between small businesses and startups.
I was one of the lucky ones who got into banking, which sounded pretty cool at the time. I appreciate that a career in banking provided me with the foundations of many professional skills, career progression opportunities, and a stable and decent income. But over the years I was progressing my career in banking, I felt like something was missing internally, and I couldn’t find the drive to be fully passionate about what I was doing. As time moved on, I noticed that more and more news around me started to talk about how Uber was disturbing the taxi industry, how Airbnb was reshaping the travel accommodation space, and how innovative business models and technologies were changing many aspects of people’s lives around the world. Those stories sounded much more attractive to me than my job, and a thought came into my mind: the world is changing rapidly, and I don’t want to be left out in this movement.
Then, I took a career break from the bank and flew to Silicon Valley to get some inspiration. I spent a good few months exploring the startup ecosystem in the Valley, and I was fascinated by the vibe of the environment. To me, it was a new world in which the most common words I heard were innovation, entrepreneurship, impact, revolutionary, game-changing, etc. In comparison, the most spoken words in my old world were scorecards, KPI’s, sales revenues, bonuses, promotions etc. From the differences of the vocabularies of the two worlds, I found the reason that I couldn’t be passionate enough in my old world, and I decided to break into this new world that offered the opportunity for me to make the impact that the old world couldn’t provide.
Ok, that’s enough of my story and let’s talk about the differences between working in big corporates and startups. The answer to the question may vary, depending on different scenarios. Based on my experience, I’d like to share two differences: business operation styles and career pathways.
Set business operation system vs ever-evolving agile system
In large corporates such as banks, tasks and procedures to complete the duties are all set. Individual employees are hired to apply their specific skills to complete specific tasks using the set procedures. From my experience, the bigger the organisation is, the more subdivided their operation and task allocation are. For example, when I was a mortgage lender at a smaller bank, my task was to work on all types of home loan applications, and I had relatively more autonomy in my daily operations. When I moved to a bigger bank doing the same role, my task was to work only on certain types of applicants with less autonomy in operations; there were other specific teams look other types of applicants. The benefit of the system is that it’s more efficient from the management point of view and more productive for each employee. But for some individuals, it may feel a bit like working in Henry Ford’s assembly line in the 1910s.
The experience I’m having in the startup environment is quite different. Startups’ organisational structures are usually flat. Especially for early-stage companies, team members are co-building the companies’ operation systems, culture, and strategies. Individuals typically wear multiple hats and are all-rounders. For example, I joined Zash Ventures in a business development role. At the same time, as a former banker who had experience with banks’ referral programs, I joined a project team with another two collages who had stock brokerage and compliance experiences to work on designing referral programs and strategies; and, as someone who has an entrepreneurship research background, I joined another project team which is developing a digital VC investment platform. In my work environment, an agile project team can be quickly formed when certain tasks need people with specific skills, and the agile team can disperse after the job is done. Individuals can join multiple agile teams at the same time according to their skill sets and interests. The daily operation, strategies and culture of the organisation are continuously evolving as the business grow. There are no two days that are the same.
Clear career pathways vs unlimited opportunities
One of the good things about starting your career in corporates such as banks is that you have a clear career pathway. Initially, it is easy for you to set a goal of where you will be in five years and set an action plan towards the goal (until you reach certain levels, which is very hard to be promoted again). Using retail banking as an example, I started as a teller and then moved onto a personal banker and then mortgage lender. From the lending position, theoretically, there are few different pathways: I could go down the management path, becoming a branch manager, and then area manager, or move horizontally to a business banker, relationship manager, business development manager and move on from there; I could also shift to a different business unit, such as corporate or institutional banking. However, in reality, the theoretical career pathways seem to have invisible barriers at every step. From what I saw, many people stopped progressing at the lending position; some people may start jumping to a different bank every couple of years to do the same job; some people may choose to leave banks and become mortgage brokers on their own. What I saw might be biased and not reflect the complete picture. Still, I think it’s fair to say that banks provide clear career pathways that only a few people can make it through along the corporate ladder. Those who end up leaving the banking industry and want to do something else may realise that the ‘Henry Ford’s assembly line’ makes their skill set very narrow.
On the other hand, working in a startup may not offer you a very structured and clear pathway, but it provides you with multi-dimensional career directions and unlimited opportunities. For example, in banks, people with a sales and business development background most likely can only progress their career in their skill-related roles. However, working on a business development role at Zash Ventures, I also gain exposure in strategy making, business model designing, marketing, and product developing through the multiple hats I’m wearing. If I decide to pursue other career ventures one day, my skill sets can get me in a broad range of different career directions, such as management consulting, product development, etc. The most attractive thing to work with a startup is getting in the ‘next big thing’ on the ground floor. My father is a good example. He quitted his stable government job in his late 30’s and joined a newly established local dairy firm which eventually became one of the largest dairy companies in China; this move changed his entire life. This example may be a rare event out of the 1.4 billion people in China, but it’s a real-life story, at least to me, showing me the unlimited potential of a career in startups.
What’s your choice?
As mentioned above, there are no absolute right or wrong answers when choosing your career because we are all different individuals. What frustrated me in corporates and what fascinated me in startups maybe not apply to you. I want to make a point that, when I started, there were few choices, but nowadays, entrepreneurship is becoming popular in Australia, and the ecosystem is growing. It is easier than ever to kick start your career with tech startups, accelerators, incubators, venture capital firms and even turn your passion and idea into startups. You have both choices in your hands; choose that one that suits your characters.