Jonathan Levene ’97, MEng ’98 is a Boston-based career coach specializing in engineering leadership and career development. Levene recently advised alumni interested in working in startup world in a live Lunch and Learn webinar hosted by the Alumni Association. As a follow up, Levene answered three questions for alumni interested in transitioning from the corporate sector to a startup.
What factors should be considered when deciding if a move to the startup world is the right choice for you and your career?
I recommend clarifying what you’re seeking in terms of an ideal work experience and then investigating how well this maps to a startup experience. For your ideal work experience, think of three favorite projects from the past few years that you led. Pick ones in which you felt most energized and would like to replicate.
Next, assess how well the mindsets and behaviors you demonstrated in your chosen projects align with those that startups typically value. Use the following questions as a guide.
To what degree did you demonstrate the following mindsets during the projects?
- Building a vision for success
- Embracing uncertainty
- Learning through experimentation
- Accepting change (such as a change in direction) when it arose
- Resourcing creatively (“begging, borrowing, or stealing”)
- Motivating others
- Influencing the views of senior management or peers
- Being open to others’ ideas, opinions, and feedback
- Straight talking, speaking factually and truthfully on key issues
- Engaging others in a positive way, avoiding blame and resolving conflicts quickly
- Being accountable through strong commitments, follow-through, and requests
- Effective decision making involving others by evaluating data, exploring options and opinions, and creating consensus
- Realizing innovative ideas through a bias for action
In small companies, particularly those under 50 employees, you are freed from a lot of the process that slows innovation and hampers creativity at larger companies. Many people also find that there is greater acceptance of new ideas and organizational support for realizing them through one’s own initiative.
It is important to anticipate that you’ll need to embrace uncertainty, accept change when it comes, and resource creatively. It’s not uncommon in startups under 50 employees for sudden change to result in new priorities. This means that technology you create today may need to be quickly altered, released, or sometimes even scrapped down the road. It’s important not to be overly attached to what you build or have too-high a quality standard.
You’ll also be exposing yourself to greater financial risk as a result of this uncertainty. You can plan for this by calculating the number of months you might be unemployed if the company goes under, and setting aside the required number of months of salary.
What are some common shocks that may occur when transitioning from corporate to startup? How can you prepare for these?
Many people aren’t prepared for the lack of onboarding when they start. You should expect that you’ll need to pull information from people and be a self-starter. If you’re considering a move to a startup, it will help to spend some time learning about another technology or product that your company has that is new to you. Practice pulling knowledge out of others’ heads.
Another shock can sometimes be the intense cross-functional exposure. For example, it’s not uncommon in startups under 50 employees for engineering to work closely in sales. If you haven’t had experience with this, you can expect to encounter different aspirations, values, and norms in sales – in short, a different culture. Call up a peer in one of these functions and learn about what they’re up to and what is challenging for them.
Levene has 15 years of experience leading product development teams in Boston-area startups and serves as an executive coach at Harvard Business School’s Program for Leadership Development.