Not too long ago, I finished my tenure at LINE after working in the company for more than a year. Along with many other feelings, the farewell moment reminded me of a dilemma I had before joining the global tech startup company—the dilemma that I know a lot of fresh graduates experience in this digital era: should I kickstart my career in the corporate or startup landscape? While majority of people (including many parents) still perceive big corporations as the best place to work because of their big names and promising compensations, the younger generation now start seeing startup companies to be just as attractive as big corporations because startups offer a range of flexibility, cool office, and oftentimes competitive compensations as well. I myself decided to work at LINE because I was (and still am) interested in tech industry and the opportunity to play a significant role for the company. Then again, back then I didn’t really know whether I was suitable for a startup life or not.
As someone who is in the stage of finding the best environment to grow, I regularly assess how a startup with its nature and culture fit my personal development needs. Throughout my employment, I then realize that startups, especially in tech industry, have some bottom lines. The nature of the industry, such as fast-changing and disruptive, creates some patterns that I believe happens across the tech industry. That being said, I can tell that there are some characteristics of startups which can be useful to consider before you choose corporate or startup to start your career. Although I’ve never worked in a big corporation to compare, at least this article can help you to assess whether startup is or is not for you.
1. No Such Thing as “Best Practice” in Startups
Back in college, several seniors told me that in our early career, we should focus on getting the understanding about how the company and its industry works. So, when I decided to work in a tech startup company, I thought I would get the opportunity to learn how we should do things in tech industry to win the market. After working more than a year at LINE, I certainly did learn about the company and the industry, but not the way I expected it to be. I found that there is almost no template or rigid procedure on doing the business. As long as we can deliver the expected result, be it analysis, campaign, or event, we can freely propose our way. While big corporations may have everything standardized in their business, I believe it is hard for startups to establish best practices because of the following reasons:
First, an innovation can quickly go obsolete in tech industry. Known as fast-changing industry, innovation is created on daily basis in tech industry. At any point in time, there could be an innovation released in the market and it suddenly changed the landscape. Remember how Instagram hit Snapchat hard when it released Instagram Story feature? With this nature, startups hardly establish a best practice, because by the time they establish it, it may no longer be relevant to the market. And it does makes sense for startups to focus on responding and catching up to every change in the industry instead of insisting on establishing best practices.
Second, disrupting the market also means doing something no one has ever done. Startups offer better and often cheaper products/services to disrupt the market. And to do so, they have to find unconventional ways in doing the business, so they can keep being profitable while maintaining competitiveness over conventional businesses. No wonder, very often startup companies have to reinvent its ways, considering no one has ever done what they are doing. Has anyone turned conventional ojek to ride-hailing which can deliver person, food, and even document before Go-Jek? I don’t think anyone has ever done that. In contrast to big corporations or more established industries, startups in tech industry often don’t have other players or past experiences to benchmark. As a result, startups have to keep experimenting, doing trial and error, and finding the best ways to achieve business objectives. Even an experienced person may not be able to use his/her best practice knowledge in the previous industry simply because the rule of the game is very versatile.
I would say on this matter, startups hardly give their employees a structured, regular, and uniformed learning process. Rather, they encourage their employees to go through a series of trial-and-errors, extract lessons from failures, and learning by doing. So, startups, in my opinion, are really suitable for those who have the desires to invent their own ways of working, who are comfortable working in ambiguity, and who are not afraid of failures.
2. Being Versatile is Part of the Job
I was an in-house consultant, an in-house investment analyst, a project management officer, and a local product manager during my tenure at LINE. How was it possible for me to have several roles? It is actually quite common for startups to operate in a small team and limited human resources. Consequently, startups often require their employees to be versatile because in several cases, there are tasks to finish, but the company doesn’t have dedicated team yet to handle it. So, usually the company would ask its employees to handle several roles and do various tasks. In that situation, startup company often demands its employee to be versatile. They have to be able to learn many things at the same time. Employees also need to be comfortable to execute various tasks that can be so different from one another. Having experienced it myself, I think the versatile nature of my job has benefited me in two ways:
Exposure to strategic and execution roles
In my case, I am grateful that I was exposed to both strategic and execution roles. One time I had to think of the big picture to set up my company’s annual target, and another time, I had to be detail-oriented because I was assigned to launch a product. Combination of these experiences trained and equipped me with skills to both plan and to execute. On one hand, I had to be able to understand our industry landscape, oversee the overall business, monitor product lines, and track every revenue stream. On the other hand, I also had to be detail-oriented, negotiate directly with partner or client, organize event, or even talk directly with users.
Wide range of experience: from investment analysis to content creation
Also, I am grateful that I was exposed to various tasks so I got the opportunity to learn many different fields although only on surface level. During my tenure, I had the opportunity to do the following:
– extracted user data to produce business analysis,
– drafted legal contract,
– assessed investment opportunities,
– executed user acquisition campaign,
– designed marketing activities,
– conducted market research,
– pitched sales to clients,
– negotiated with partners,
– and made product improvement recommendation
By doing all those tasks, I got some basic understanding about each field which in the end helped me understand the company’s overall business. And of course, those knowledge are really useful to deal with various counterparts. When I talk with a marketing person for example, I know that their targets are usually based on impressions and clicks; when I talk to a salesperson, I know what matters for them are client’s needs and revenues; and when I conducted market research, I know that it’s really important to avoid biases that might be implied in our research questions.
In short, startups often provide opportunities for their employees to explore various roles and responsibilities which may or may not be related to each other. These opportunities are totally valuable for those who want to understand how the business really works. However, startups couldn’t wait for the employees to master the new field first. They expect the employees to be versatile and learn those new tasks while doing them. If you think being a generalist is cool and are keen to explore many roles, startups may be a good place for you!
3. Clear Career Path Exists —But Only If You Make it Happen
Just like how its business challenges conventional practices, startups also offer unconventional career paths. That’s why, we often see someone who works in startup could get promoted faster compared to those who work in corporate. The reason behind it is that startups mostly have slim organizational structure and companies which are in growing state usually expand really fast. This situation gives startup employees opportunities to handle bigger responsibilities or get promoted to a new position in order to catch up with the business expansion.
In many startups, career path is often highly flexible. It doesn’t follow conventional rules where someone has to serve a specific length of tenure to get promoted. Instead, it gives more opportunities for someone who has extraordinary competence to get promoted. In my observation, career acceleration is more likely to happen when there is a business expansion (meaning there is a new leadership role open) or when someone has extraordinary competence (meaning the management is convinced that the person can handle bigger responsibilities, thus got promoted).
While on one side startups offer career acceleration, on another side they also may cause their employees to experience career stagnation. The reason is simply because startups (especially those in very early stage) also often do not have clear career paths for their employee yet. In that case, we as employee may get no career advancement within a certain period of time. In my observation, someone who already know what they want and those who aggressively fight for their ideas are more likely to accelerate their career. The opposite apply to those who just follow instructions and aim to only complete every task given to them. In other words, career acceleration exists, but only for those who make it happen.
Simply put, career flexibility may bear different results, depending on our efforts and role availabilities. For those who want to build something their own ways, startup may provide them the opportunities, including granting them career acceleration to make it happen. However, for those who prefer to only get tasks done and expect within some period of time get promoted, it may cause you career stagnation. And I think regardless whether you are working for a startup or a corporation, in the end, company appreciates high-performing employees. Thus, it is really important to do our best and always go the extra miles.
I am really grateful for my time at LINE. During that considerably short tenure, I learnt a lot from the tasks given to me, from the roles assigned to me, and from the bright minds around me. And if there is one lesson that I think people need to know from my experience, I would say that beyond where we work, be it startup or corporate, there is something more important for us to understand: ourselves.
Beyond our workplace, I believe we should know our career aspiration, the skillsets we want to acquire, what kind of environment works best for us, and even how we put work in our life aspiration. By answering those questions, we should know better which companies are more suitable for us.
Having worked in the startup landscape for more than a year right now, I can say that startups may not be for everyone, the same way corporation, government, and non-profits also may not be for everyone. Every sector has its own traits, including the opportunities and challenges it may offer. Thus, it is our job to understand ourselves and know which environment is most suitable for us so that we can develop our potentials to the fullest.