Out of the frying pan and into the fire – 3 observations you may or may not expect when moving from consulting into a start-up.
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Author Greg, Director – Success at Movemeon
It’s a well-trodden path that leads from getting a good university degree into some form of management consulting – it’s still right up there amongst the most popular destinations for UK graduates. People’s motivations are, of course, broad – many see consulting as a vehicle for turning intellectual curiosity and ability into solid business acumen, taking advantage of the perceived variety of a job in consulting as a form of ‘boot camp’ to refine their understanding of the commercial world.
However, once this base has been built, it’s the relative minority who choose to stay in consulting for the long haul, with the ‘move into industry’ seen as a graduation of sorts in itself. Start-ups are increasingly the destination of choice, and many (as I did) make this leap bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with a longing to have a set of needs met that consulting just isn’t satisfying any more. Drawing on my own meandering experience, I’ll attempt to validate and dispel a set of myths and assumptions about what it’s really like to make this move.
A tiny bit of my own background for context
I initially decided not to go into consulting, opting instead to join a tiny start-up in Cambridge based out of someone’s converted swimming pool. While this definitely gave me the ‘ownership’ I somehow felt qualified to assess that I needed so early on in my career, the path to progression wasn’t immediately obvious and within two years I had joined Accenture’s Strategy division. Two years after that, I was longing for the start-up world again, and (via a brief stint trying to build an app) soon made a glorious re-entry into this weird and wonderful community, first helping a lighting brand to expand in Europe and then running a virtual reality start-up.
Now hopefully at least a little seasoned in the nuances of both the big corporate and the ambitious start-up, I’ll give a few categorised thoughts on some differences, both expected and unexpected, I have noticed since making the leap, as well a nugget or two of well-intentioned advice.
1. The grass is actually always greener
The practical differences between a consulting and a start-up day-to-day can be huge and are indeed some of the biggest reasons why people (including myself) choose to make the move. The idea of ditching the suit and heady cocktail of structure and process is an appealing one for many.
However, one of the most interesting things I’ve found through experiencing both ends of the spectrum is actually how much crossover there is between their respective ambitions, and in just how many ways the one idolises certain ways in which the other does things. In almost every start-up I’ve experienced, especially in an operational capacity, one of my first remits has always been to refine and streamline the process, bringing in documented structure, standard operating procedures and uniform file naming conventions (to name just a few things) as a matter of urgency. Of course, these are some of the prerequisites to scaling a business, but ironically a lot of people also see them as underpinning the bigger, slower corporate machine, getting in the way of being able to get things done – they’re definitely a major reason why people decide to move on to something smaller.
Conversely, a lot of large consultancies are responding in a number of interesting ways – in some cases through their acquisition strategy, but also by deliberately creating a more start-up vibe in the office itself. Not just physical spaces that resemble a playground built by Eric Ries (although ping pong tables and chock-full drinks fridges are definitely a thing now), there’s a very real sense of large companies wanting to facilitate a culture of innovation and creativity and a recognition that this kind of environment likely makes people happier to spend as much time there as they do. Leaving a large corporate environment, I firmly expected my new reality to be this kind of utopia on steroids – and yet I can only surmise that both sides of this equation are beginning to converge somewhere near the middle (perhaps fuelled in part by the fact that some of the original companies to embody a ‘start-up’ culture are now household name corporations).
2. Everyone has to be a stakeholder in the company’s success
This one often falls into the same bucket as other clichés, including the idea of ‘everyone rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty’ and other gardening metaphors, but it’s very true. It’s always been a wonder to me that you’ll often find start-up interview processes being considerably shorter than those of large corporates or consultancies, in that a start-up needs to be ultimately long-term sure about who they’re putting ‘on their bus’ in a way that larger entities perhaps don’t. Corporates, and especially consultancies, are frequently part of a longer-term game plan where they often only play a two- or three-year role in people’s careers, as a stepping stone to something else – start-ups are not, and should not, be seen in the same way. Especially those on an ambitious growth journey need to have absolutely everyone pulling in the same direction, being an ambassador for the brand and the product or service – where that’s not the case, it’s both extremely visible and can easily be ultimately damaging for morale across the company. This is also frequently reflected in the pay structure, as discussed in our ‘Progression and responsibility before salary’ insight.
People joining start-ups should be clear that the road might well be a long one, and that financial success can be a much more elastic notion than in a larger enterprise – this is also why large salaries are often substituted for equity, especially in early-stage companies.
3. Culture is formed in the Founders’ image
Culture is a huge reason why people move into the start-up world, yearning for something tight-knit where they can feel more recognised, more valued and more impactful, where hierarchies are flat and raises are meritocratic rather than time-bound. While this is definitely a result of making the right move, it can also work in reverse if you make the wrong one – I’ve seen culture be both amazing and inclusive, and a bit of a poisoned chalice.
Ultimately when joining a smaller outfit it’s important to remember two things – firstly, that in a smaller company, the culture typically follows in the Founders’ image, and secondly, that an interview is very much a two-way process. A lot of the time the culture in consulting comes from the project environment at least as much as what the wider firm stands for – this means that it can be relatively easily changeable in a way that any other kind of company can’t count on.
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