In a start-up company, you basically throw out all assumptions every three weeks.--William Lyon Phelps, journalist and professor
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does.--Margaret Mead, anthropologistIf the bureaucracy and rules at a big corporation make you crazy, your best escape route may be to a small company or start-up. Employee satisfaction is often higher at small companies because people have more autonomy and feel as if their contributions matter. While you may be a "human resource" at a large firm, you are always a key member of the team at a small business.After almost fifteen years in Corporate America, Tania Mulry left a senior product development position at a major financial services firm on the East Coast to join the management team of a small technology start-up in California.Even though Tania had found great success and stability in her corporate career, something was missing. She thought about starting her own business, but felt the risk would be too great. She had a big house, a husband, and three kids. "I had mouths to feed and college educations to save for," she says. "My family relied on my income."Instead, Tania took a senior management position with an equity stake in a promising start-up venture. It was the perfect solution. Her new job at mobile technology start-up Teleflip pays a salary similar to her old one, along with ownership upside. Teleflip even paid for Tania's family to relocate to California, a move they'd been thinking about making before the position came along.Most important, the new position allowed Tania to jump into a more challenging career that offered an opportunity to help build a business.Tania is just one of thousands of corporate superstars who have defected to join small and start-up firms. They go for many reasons -- for excitement, for bigger responsibilities, for flexibility, and for future riches. Read more in Tania's Daring Tale of Corporate Escape: From Corporate to Start-Up
Although big corporations tend to pay higher salaries, employees at smaller companies are generally happier. According to research by Gallup, engagement is highest at companies with fewer than fifty people and lowest at those with one thousand to five thousand employees.That higher engagement translates into better productivity. In fact, many innovative large firms have established policies to limit the size of project teams in order to boost results.
Start-Ups 2.0For a while there, start-up was a dirty word. After the tech meltdown that led to the extinction of so many high-profile dot-coms, most of us retreated to the seeming stability of established companies. Back in the late 1990s, it was a different story. Workers left big corporations in droves to join the dot-com revolution. We were lured by stock options, company foosball tables, and the ability to take our dogs to work. Most of all, though, we were seduced by the opportunity to build something, to see what we could really do.I went from being managed by committee in a corporate environment to having sole responsibility for multimillion-dollar client accounts at my dot-com job. That was my first major career change. I left a good job at an established financial services firm to join a small Web development and online marketing agency. Within eighteen months, that small agency had become an international company with six-hundred-plus employees and Fortune 500 clients.It was fun while it lasted. Everything was moving so quickly, the opportunities for the smart and the ambitious were unlimited. I think I learned more in those two years than I did in my subsequent five back in Corporate America.Then the bubble burst and everybody got laid off. Good jobs were scarce and everybody suddenly wanted to work at a nice, "safe" conglomerate again. Like Michael Corleone, we had tried to get out, but they pulled us back in.It was a tough transition back to cubicle land. But the economy was in the crapper and we felt lucky to have jobs at all. Even the largest, most outwardly stable companies were laying people off left and right. Times were tight; employee satisfaction was the last thing on anyone's mind.Luckily, those days are over. Small companies are back, baby, and now they're actually being managed by grown-ups (mostly). Small businesses generate 75 percent of new jobs in this country and account for 50 percent of the American workforce. For disgruntled corporate employees, the time may once again be right to make a move.
Small Can Be BeautifulIt turns out that size really does matter. A 2005 study by workforce consultants Age Wave/The Concours Group revealed that employees of small companies were more than twice as satisfied as those in large corporations."Why work for a large company when you can have so much more fun, so much more responsibility, and so much more potential for upside working at a start-up?" asks serial entrepreneur and Bloglines founder Mark Fletcher.And start-ups are not the only small businesses. There are also plenty of established companies out there that keep their operations lean and mean.While some may prefer the structure and predictability of a larger firm, others have discovered that small companies offer many advantages.
Scratch Your Entrepreneurial ItchJoining a small enterprise is a chance to flex your entrepreneurial muscles without the risk of starting your own firm. You can get in on the ground floor and help build a company while still collecting a salary.Gwen C. was ready for a change after many years at a large management consulting firm. She wanted to do more innovative work, but didn't think she was cut out to be her own boss. Instead, she took a management position with a small boutique consulting firm. She chose that job over a much more lucrative offer from a larger company."I was willing to take a hit financially for the learning and the environment," she explains. "I knew that getting that entrepreneurial experience was worth more than any dollar amount."Working for a start-up can provide valuable lessons for any entrepreneur-in-training. You'll get hands-on experience in running a business and learn pretty quickly whether you have what it takes to start your own firm someday.After working for several start-ups in Silicon Valley, Mark Fletcher became a successful entrepreneur several times over. His start-up background gave him the knowledge and network he needed to strike out on his own.Fletcher's first start-up, ONElist, was purchased by Yahoo! in a multimillion-dollar deal in 2001. Bloglines, a more recent Fletcher venture, was bought by IAC/InterActive Corporation in another lucrative transaction in 2005.
Get a Piece of the ActionIn many cases, a job at a start-up comes with a literal ownership stake in the business. Because many of these companies are cashpoor, they can't always match the salary you were making in cubicleville. To sweeten the deal, most offer stock options and a chance to earn some serious dough if the firm does well.Clearly, this is only a plus if you feel strongly that the company has the potential to succeed. During the dot-com implosion, we all learned that stock option deals aren't always worth the paper that they're printed on. However, options have also made plenty of people millionaires. If you truly believe that you're getting in on the ground floor of something great, taking a pay cut for an ownership stake could be a savvy investment."My choices were to stay where I was and suffer or to take a chance on something that could be huge," says Tania Mulry of her decision to move to a start-up.Work can be much more rewarding when you have a real stake in the outcome. When you own part of the company, your hard work has a very clear purpose. If the company succeeds, you succeed. Your future rewards are tied directly to the business results, not to your manager's opinion.Michael Sands, who left his COO position at a major consumer products group to launch the small snack food company Lesser- Evil, believes that workers are much more engaged when they own a piece of the company. "To me, the most important thing was for all employees to have stock and share in the value that we were creating," he says. "I want to make sure that everyone gets a financial return on their effort, not just the major owners."
Seize Career OpportunitiesMany corporate refugees flee to small companies for the chance to start making management decisions instead of just management presentations. The opportunity to take on more responsibility can be a major draw for ambitious types who feel stifled in middle management.At a small company, there is no hierarchy and very little time for politics. You'll have plenty of openings to step up and show what you can do."Every day I face a new challenge and every day I learn something new," says Alex Kay. "When you have stagnated in these large corporations for a long time, it's great to know that your mind still works and that you can actually make decisions."If you're looking for hands-on experience, a smaller company is the place to get it. Because there are limited resources and more of an all-hands-on-deck atmosphere, you can get exposure to every aspect of the business.Alex Kay has been involved in raising funding for the company, hiring staff, negotiating licensing agreements, manufacturing the company's products, overseeing the production studio, and much more. "What I have learned in the last three and a half years is just incredible." Read more in Alex's Daring Tale of Corporate Escape: From Spreadsheets to ABCs.
This practical know-how can increase your marketability significantly and prepare you for a much bigger job.A recent Salary.com survey of small-business employees identified the following nonfinancial reasons why people stayed in their jobs:
- Work-life balance--46.2%
- Their boss--31.4%
- Relationships with co-workers--29.5%
Have More Fun at WorkThere's nothing quite like the thrill of being part of a successful start-up. Your days are full of new and exciting experiences, and there is enormous pride in knowing that you're helping to build a company from scratch.The work itself can also be much more interesting. At a big company, you spend a lot of time following rules and getting permission. At a smaller company, there's more room for creativity and experimentation. That explains why most of the world's greatest innovations have come from small organizations. "I like to move fast, and I was in a very slow-moving company that did not really want me to do the innovative things they said they wanted me to do," says Tania Mulry. "They found a way to bureaucratize every innovative idea out of existence." After moving to a start-up environment, Tania enjoyed the freedom to let her creativity flow. "It is so nice to see your ideas come to life and be appreciated by customers and co-workers," she notes. "There is a great feeling of ownership in the outcome that doesn't exist in larger companies."
Ditch the BureaucracyCorporate bureaucracy is a lot like water torture. Mildly annoying at first, it can slowly but surely destroy your productivity, your job satisfaction, and even your sanity.In my unscientific online survey of more than 150 corporate professionals, I asked respondents to name the three worst things about working in Corporate America. "Too much bureaucracy" was the number one answer, beating out such seemingly more serious challenges as "lack of work-life balance" and "overwork/burnout."At small companies, there is simply no time for bureaucracy. Tania Mulry was amazed when she discovered how quickly things get done at a start-up. "Decisions were being made right there in the room that would have taken three to four months to make in Corporate America," she says.
Embrace FlexibilitySmaller companies often offer more flexibility. You will work just as hard--if not harder--but you will probably have more control over your hours and your work location. Sometimes this is because these firms can't pay as well and want to attract top talent. Often it's just because you are more likely to be known and respected as an individual when you work on a small team. As long as you get your work done well, no one will be looking over your shoulder or scolding you for taking a long lunch.
Be a Real Team PlayerBy necessity, there is more collaboration at a small company. There are fewer people to do the work, and most employees are expected to pitch in wherever they're needed. Those who crave variety and challenge thrive in this kind of environment. You may help name a new product one day and pack boxes the next. There is also a real sense of community, a we're all in this together attitude that is in stark contrast with the pass the buck mentality at many corporations. As a result, you get to know your co-workers pretty well. That's usually a good thing if you've chosen your small company well."No offense against corporate places, but they were not always the most interesting," says futurist Andy Hines of Social Technologies, a small consulting firm, of his experience working at larger firms. "A lot of the attraction of my current company was the ability to work for people who are really interesting. Who else would work as a professional futurist? You have to be a little nuts and I like that."Ben Cikanek, in charge of hiring for Kidrobot, puts a lot of thought into who he brings on board. "There is an understanding that we're going to spend the better part of our lives in this place for a while, so it better be a hell of a lot of fun and we'd better really enjoy who we are sitting next to." Read more in Ben's Daring Tale of Corporate Escape: Art, Toys, and Management Consulting.At a small company, you'll also work much more closely with senior management. That means it's harder to hide any screwups, but you also have a much better chance of having your ideas heard and your contributions noticed.
The Small ChallengesWorking for a small company isn't for everyone. There are those who measure their value by the size of their staff, even though everyone knows it's in the way that you use it. Ahem. And there are certainly drawbacks to working at a smaller firm, especially for those who are used to a big corporation:
- Lower salaries. Smaller companies tend to pay lower sal