Joining a startup straight out of undergrad can be risky and difficult, but if you see yourself as a founder someday, it is the right thing to do.
In The Monk and the Riddle, Randy Komisar talks about "The Deferred Life Plan"—putting off your true ambitions to pursue what you are "supposed" to do. Many graduating students, myself included, choose corporate jobs out of a sense that it's the "proper" first step. We slave away in jobs that don't quite fit, telling ourselves that "when the time is right" we'll make the jump to our desired career pursuit.
Here's the secret: if you wait for the right time, you'll wait forever. Life has a way of slipping past you, and before you know it you have financial and familial obligations that preclude you from taking risks. There's no better time to pursue your dream career path than when you are young. Besides, you can't do what you want by doing something else.
Separating dreams from reality
If you think the startup career path might be for you, here are some things to consider.
When startups succeed, people get rich. However, 90 percent of startups fail. On top of that, most new hires at VC-backed startups get equity grants of less than one percent. When you combine that with a below-market base salary, the total compensation for a job at a startup rarely stacks up against a job at BigCo.
At BigCo, roles and responsibilities are well defined. You can measure your performance against your peers, and you generally know when your work is done for the day.
Startup employees have no such luxury. The understaffed startup is a truism: each day is a frenzied battle against "to do" lists that hopelessly outpace your capacity go complete them. However, startup employees relish the challenge, frequently stepping outside their defined role to perform critical tasks for the company.
Startups are a way of life. You can expect to work 60-80 hour weeks day-in and day-out as you race to bring products to market and win key client relationships. By contrast, there are many BigCo jobs where 40 to 50 hour weeks are the norm. You can certainly find an 80-hour job if you look for it (just check Wall Street)—but it's possible to build a successful career without one.
By their very nature, startups create change. In contrast, BigCo generally seeks to preserve the status quo, in the way that is most profitable to itself. BigCo employees still solve hard problems. However, the scope and timeline are very different, and you often operate in a politically charged context. Working at a startup, you operate at the extremes of agility and velocity.
There's no doubt that BigCo adds brand-name cache to your resume. However, the boost you get only helps if you're looking for another BigCo job. If you are pursuing an entrepreneurial career, relevant startup experience is much more important.
Startups fail. However, the startup community is tight-knit. You end up cultivating a valuable professional network within the startup space. When things unwind, high-performing employees get scooped up by other startups.
Contrast that with BigCo. While bankruptcy is far less likely, bad financial quarters lead to mass layoffs. Finding a job can be much more challenging, since hundreds or thousands of laid-off workers are seeking jobs simultaneously.
Putting Up with Mom
Deciding to join a startup means deliberately opting out of corporate recruiting, foregoing the potential for early job offers. It can be harrowing: there is tremendous pressure from peers, parents and career services offices to participate in corporate recruiting. Just remember your objective. If you envision yourself as an entrepreneur, that BigCo job doesn't just delay your dream—it puts it at risk.
A career is a long endeavor. Success requires patience, stamina and a tough work ethic. Each of these attributes will be easier to nurture if you are pursuing your passion. As you approach graduation, consider the factors that matter most to you in your career. And if you decide that entrepreneurship is right for you, think about joining a startup when you graduate. There may never be a better time.
Paul Rosania is the Co-Founder of CollegeJobConnect, a career network designed exclusively for college students. Prior to CollegeJobConnect, he was Senior Analyst at a boutique consulting firm. Paul has a B.A. in Computer Science from Dartmouth College. He blogs at paul.rosania.org. Follow Paul on Twitter at @paulrosania.