It all started one day on a bike ride up the Los Altos hills. Winter was past and the spring flowers were in bloom. My bicycle had been left idle the whole winter without any protection from weather and was without service. While ascending the mountain, the bike chain broke. It was late in the evening. There was not much traffic on the road and thus not much help. Dejected, I turned around and began walking back towards home. A man riding a mountain bike going up the hill stopped and offered to help. We chatted while he skillfully attached the broken bike chain. During our conversation, he asked me a question “Where do you work”. I responded confidently and said that I work for Microsoft. He looked straight into my eyes and asked in all sincerity “Why? Why not in a startup? What are you doing in Microsoft?” I felt really bad, not because I worked at Microsoft, bad because I couldn’t give him a good answer. It has been two years since the incident. I have left the big company since and work for a startup now. The goal of this post is to present my perspective on differences between working in a startup against a corporation.
“Middle of the Action”
Robert M Pirsig, wrote in his book “The Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” that traveling in a car is akin to watching a scene on TV. A car passenger is a passive observer, watching as its all moving boringly in a frame. While as, on a motorcycle, you are a part of this frame. You are right there, IN the scene and not just watching it. This describes the difference between working a startup and a corporation.
As a product manager in a startup, you are always in the scene. You are responsible for What, Why, When, Where, Who, How of the product. You will have influence in every decision that the company makes. Corporation, on the other hand, is fragmented in its decision-making process. Team A owns the research, Team B is a consumer of that research and decides what to build, Team C decides who and where the feature will build. Finally, team D decides how to build and executes.
A startup product manager is similar to a crew member of a five-man pirate ship. You fight other pirates, you will loot a merchant ship, you run away from the navy you cook food, you clean the ship, it is all part of your day job. Working in a big corporation is similar to working on Navy aircraft carrier, you just do your own job. If you are a pilot you fly planes, if you are a doctor, you take care of the sick and injured. If you are a chef, well you just cook food. The boundaries are defined; your roles are limited. A startup makes you a generalist while a corporation makes you a specialist.
As a product manager in a startup, you will dive into marketing, data analytics, experimentation, product design, customer support, branding etc. You will have a holistic view of the business. A product manager in a corporation is focused on an individual element of the business, which gives him/her depth in that sphere.
When a small ship goes through a storm, it can rock thirty degrees each way. On the other hand, a big navy ship will rock just five degrees each way. Life in a startup is hard and dangerous. It is interspersed with threatening marketplace changes or new competitors or fluctuating user interest. Life as an employee of corporations is insulated behind tons of steel.
A product manager in a corporation will have a six-hour workday, regular and a dependable salary, wonderful benefits, and a great brand value. You can hide behind the bureaucracy and stay in a company for a long time before anyone realizes that all of you have been doing during the company time is working out in the gym. Startups don’t have resources to teach you. You are expected to learn on your own.
In conclusion, startups and corporations both have benefits and drawbacks. At an individual level, we each have to decide what is the suitable match for us. I am going to end with this quote from the song “Wish you were here” from the band Pink Floyd.
Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?