I’m often asked about my decision 2 years ago to leave a great consulting career to join a startup. Here I explain my key considerations when making the decision, and why I think it was the right decision for me. The rationale follows many of the reasons Raj outlined in his post “Don’t Waste Your 20s at Google or McKinsey”.
When I graduated college in my early twenties, the key goal for me was to get some real world working experience and maximize learnings. I joined consulting with the following goals:
- Learn “business” to complement my engineering background
- Get real-world experience on what it takes to run a company
- Reevaluate whether I needed to pursue an advanced degree to further my career
The general guideline was clear, make the most of my time by learning through real world experience, and be compensated in the process. I would only go back to school, I decided, if I couldn’t further my growth fast enough in my job or was being undervalued given my lack of an advanced degree.
I spent 3 years in consulting at Accenture, a period in which I learned about managing a multi-million dollar a month project effectively, financial considerations of a services public company, managing client relationships and, among others, delivering value despite any crises that emerge. I had the opportunity to make contributions to large projects, I had great mentors, and financial compensation was great. I realized that, however, the learnings I wanted to pursue were no longer in alignment with what consulting would offer, but I was afraid to make a change and give up great compensation and benefits. Somewhere along the way I started valuing compensation more highly and lost focus of my initial goals, maximize learnings in my 20s.
I just believe that the way that young people’s minds develop is fascinating. If you are doing something for a grade or salary or a reward, it doesn’t have as much meaning as creating something for yourself and your own life.
– Steve Wozniak
The key factor that was bothering me was my inability to gain experience that would be relevant in a startup environment. Entrepreneurship had always been in the back of my mind, yet I didn’t see a path to building the skills necessary to start a new company. The kind of problems I was helping tackle in large enterprises had little resemblance to those that would determine whether a startup succeeds. The companies I worked with had resources and challenges very different from a startup environment. The longer I stayed in consulting, the harder it would become to acquire the right skills in the right environment.
I decided to re-focus my career to maximize learning, particularly the learning needed for me to run a new venture in the future. This time I wanted to be part of a team growing a company from relatively early stages. How small the company was would be a consideration, but there were other key considerations that would drive the kind of startup I would ultimately join.
First acknowledge the key risk. There was little I could have done to truly understand the chances of a startup succeeding. I could look at how much funding the company had raised and from who, but that wouldn’t tell me whether management would blunder or the market would tank, and the company would collapse shortly after I joined. Statistics for how many startups are successful were not reassuring. As such, I had to join an environment in which I would learn and grow quickly, even if the company failed.
Find a team that will appreciate your skills. A consulting background comes with a set of skills that most tech startups often don’t appreciate or understand. This is particularly true if a consultant doesn’t have a technical background, which in Silicon Valley translates to having studied computer engineering. I had to find a team and a role that wouldn’t hinder my ability to grow by under-appreciating my skills. Ideally, this would be evident by the company having leadership with similar consulting-like background, and a role that leveraged those skills effectively.
Find a team you admire. The company could cease to exist, but the people within that company wouldn’t dissipate overnight. It was critical to find a team I could learn from and with which I could work with in future opportunities were this company not to work out. In other words, I looked at the company and thought “if I work here for a year and the company fails, would I regret having spent that time working along these people?” My goal was to answer this with “absolutely not.”
This search led me to join BloomReach in 2013. I admire the team, the company is tackling interesting problems, and the leadership has truly leveraged my consulting background. Joining a fast growing mid-sized startup gave me the ability to both meaningfully contribute to the company outcome, have real impact and ownership, but still have enough experienced mentors to help me as I learn and grow. These mentors truly care for my development, and have helped me pursue great opportunities as the company continues to grow and so do the career opportunities.
Giving up a high-paying consulting career to join a startup was not easy at first, but I’m confident that it was the right choice to acquire the experiences that will prepare me to lead teams in an entrepreneurial environment. I was lucky to make this decision while it is still relatively easy, earlier in my career, and encourage others in similar positions to consider maximizing their learnings and experiences in their 20s.