What to Expect When Making a Mid-Career Move to a Startup
by Kevin Dickinson
You are done with corporate. You have spent half your career in a slow-churning grind, one cog in a gigantic machine. You want a place to make your mark, where your skills and experience are not lost in the shuffle but critical elements in the creative process. And you’re thinking a startup may inspire and reinvigorate your career.
That may be true, but the startup world runs on different energy and a unique set of norms. If you are seeking a startup, there are certain tradeoffs you must be willing to make in order to tap into the mid-career opportunities.
Rip up your job description
In corporate, you are your job. Your responsibilities are part of a system in which you receive input from one sector and generate output for another. At a startup, your title and job description follow the pirate code: There are more guidelines than actual rules.
Because change is constant and startup teams are small, you will need to take on projects and assignments beyond your core skillset. That can result in long, odd hours tackling tasks that would have been compartmentalized at previous workplaces.
For many mid-career professionals, that’s a stressful proposition. They have spent years honing a skill set that has become inextricable from their professional identities. And they may enjoy the solace of routine.
But if you can step outside of that identity, this challenge houses opportunity. You can learn a panoply of new skills that will not only boost your resume material but help you expand your identity beyond the corporate pigeonhole.
Can less be more?
It’s not just personnel power. Startups have fewer resources in general. Do not let press releases announcing eye-popping amounts of seed capital fool you. Most of that money will go to outreach, production, and operation costs. It doesn’t flow into salaries or benefits with the same force of corporate America.
You may end up shouldering more responsibility for life’s necessities, such as insurance, and tightening your budget in the absence of more standardized raises and promotions.
What do you get in exchange for these monetary comforts? You get to build something and push your innovation to new heights. Because everyone at a startup is part of the inner circle, you gain a larger voice and more creative control over your role. You will become more invested in the successes (and setbacks) of the company and will see directly how your skills and contributions make a difference.
Be a culture cultivator
Startups are like adolescents. They are still growing and sussing out who they want to be. As such, company culture and protocol are much more malleable than a corporation’s—where employees adapt to a culture that predates them and is too large to be moved from anywhere but the top.
This will position you as a cocreator. Your decisions will have a large influence on how that startup ultimately defines itself. Additionally, your experience and knowledge can be tapped so the young company avoids mistakes and matures more quickly than otherwise.
That puts a heavy responsibility on you. Be cognizant of your bad corporate habits and be sure to shed them so they do not infect this bouncing-baby business.
Be prepared for all possibilities
The most difficult part of moving from corporate to startup is the bottom-line risk. It’s no secret the vast majority of startups shutter their doors. Even those that stay open may never reach their lofty ambitions. That risk can be huge mid-career when you must place your mortgage, children’s education, and that car sporting 100,000-plus miles against it.
Sure, there is always the chance your startup will rocket to success, and your fiscal patience may pay out big time. That’s great, but it is not what to expect from a startup.
What you can expect is a workplace where your voice will be heard, where you can boost your creative energy, and where you become a mentor to some gifted young colleagues. If that tradeoff sounds promising to you, you can expect leaving corporate for a startup mid-career to be a worthwhile endeavor.
Originally published April 5, 2020 in the Washington Post - Jobs.