Start-up

How To Move From A Big Company To A Small Startup


Startup businesses are developed in coworking spaces in London, United Kingdom. Getty Royalty Free

This experienced professional is conducting a targeted job search to break into the startup scene:

What abilities do you need to transition from big company to startup?

Startups hire for similar roles as big companies – e.g., sales, marketing, finance, etc. – but due to a startup’s smaller size and budget, it has different requirements than a big company for the type of worker it adds to the team. You need to demonstrate abilities for sure, but equally or arguably more important, you need to have the right personality and work style for a startup .

If your entire background is with big companies, a prospective startup employer will want to be assured that you can successfully make the transition. Ability to do the role is only one prerequisite. Here are five more traits you need to demonstrate:

Genuine interest

Working at a fast growth startup often entails long hours, volatility in your schedule and responsibilities, and uncertainty. It’s the opposite of the more established, structured big company. Therefore, why would you want to make a switch? If you have been successful at big companies to date, why change now? You need to have a more convincing response than just, “Startups offer growth!” First of all, everyone says that, and more importantly, that’s focused on you, not on the employer.

Genuine interest is best demonstrated by knowing the prospective employer very well (beyond the superficial “it’s a growing startup”) and then pointing to specifics in your background that show you have already thrived and contributed in such an environment. One of my clients has several years of impressive experience at a brand-name investment firm but only with later-stage companies. She’s now investing and advising much earlier-stage companies on her own time and dime to get that type of experience and to be compelling if she ever wants to move into a different investment focus.

Fit with a small culture

I have worked in companies so big you couldn’t possibly know everyone, even in the office I was in, much less regional or international locations. How will you feel when you know everyone, and everyone knows you? You might assume it’s all positive but it’s like being in a close-knit family where everyone knows your business.

If that’s you, then demonstrate this by sharing examples of how you have navigated a small, close-knit culture. Don’t regale your startup recruiter with how you navigated layers of management to influence a change – that’s a useful skill for sure, but only once a company reaches a certain size.

Ability to get results with limited resources

One key aspect of working with a smaller firm is that you will have more limited resources. This means fewer people to get things done and smaller budgets so you can’t just throw money at a problem. With fewer people, you and others will have a broader scope of responsibility, so there will be less specialization in your day-to-day work.

Many big companies have had to start an initiative or launch a product with limited resources, and ideally you have worked on these projects. You want to show firsthand experience getting results with a smaller team or budget (or no resources but yourself).

Ability to work with limited direction

Another difference between big and small is how many layers you have to navigate to get things done. In a bigger company, there will be more gatekeepers and more permissions to collect before you can make a change. At a smaller company, you might have direct access to the CEO. At a bigger company, the burden of a project may be spread across more people (the advantage of more resources again!). At a smaller company, it may just be you with minimal oversight.

Prepare examples of when you have worked with little direction. Don’t just say that you’re a self-starter or a problem-solver – point to initiatives you proposed and problems you solved. Ideally, these are situations where you didn’t wait for permission.

Show why your big company background is an advantage

Even if you can show multiple examples of working in a small company-like environment, if you have only worked for big companies you are at a disadvantage because your experience is something new. However, you can turn your big company background into an advantage by highlighting skills, expertise, or qualities you have learned that would be particularly useful at a small company.

For example, if the small company is at a growth spurt where they are adding more structure, your experience in the larger environment may be exactly what they need. If the small company serves big company clients or is looking to partner with big companies, your experience may provide a relevant point of view. If the small company is raising funds, their investors might want the new hires to have big company experience, so you would actually have an advantage.

The above is about going from a big company to a small one because of the specific question that inspired this post. However, the advice holds going in the opposite direction – from small to big. You would want to show how your small company experience is actually an advantage. At the same time, you would want to mitigate any risks from hiring you – yes, you can work under more oversight and structure and navigate a more complex organization. You also want to think carefully about your reasons for making such a move, so that you sound genuinely interested.

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