Do Renegade Startups Still Need Big Biz Experience?


There was a post over at a few days ago that’s really stuck with me. It’s an article from Mark Stephens of IDR Solutions and it lists seven reasons why you need to work for a big company. The main argument is that working at a large company first will give you the tools you need to create a startup later and that entrepreneurs should start their careers there. That it’s almost a required education process. And while I think Mark’s post was probably right on the money a few years ago, I’m not sure many of his truths hold true in today’s climate. But I’m curious to hear what you think.

In his post, Mark goes into detail about his magic seven. I won’t repeat it all here but, in a nutshell, here’s why Mark thinks you should work at a large company:

  1. You learn an awful lot.
  2. You get to work with lots of clever people.
  3. You become part of a larger diaspora/community.
  4. They have lots of perks.
  5. You learn the art of politics.
  6. You have time to reflect.
  7. You get a baseline.

You know what’s funny? If I had to create a list of seven reasons people should pick the startup life, those may be my exact same seven. Well, except for number five. There’s no room for politics in startup culture. Or anywhere else. Get over yourself.

Like I said, Mark’s list was probably very true a few years ago. When you think of the archetypal image for an entrepreneur, what do you think of? It’s probably that unshaven guy sitting in his basement, lit by a single light bulb and pizza box fumes, while he searches his head for an answer he can’t quite find. Or at least that’s what it used to be. When we thought of entrepreneurs, we thought of a person who had fallen off the map and went rogue. He was in business all by himself.

But that’s not what today’s entrepreneur looks like.  They’re not by themselves.  They’re driven by a vision and can get by without that big business experience because, as people and entrepreneurs, they’re a heck of a lot more connected then they were before. There are Web communities like OnStartup to go for information; there’s Twitter and the other networks that allow us to build communities; and we have a long list of role models to learn from, to emulate and to partner with. Those resources we once relied on big business to give us? The ones we had to collect before we could go underground and live in our basement? Now we easily create them ourselves. Social media has given us the water cooler and the Rolodex we’ve always wanted.

And that’s evident regardless the size or niche of the business. Even the small baker down the street isn’t going it alone. She can check out BakeSpace and find others like her or the tools she needs to run her business. The education is taking place in real-time, which allows us to move faster, smarter and in brand new directions. We’re not going underground, we’re reaching out. We’re connecting ourselves to others just like us.

Telling someone they need that big business background before they can make it on their own merit seems a little backwards and I think it discredits what the entrepreneurial spirit is based on. I know I’ve learned more running Outspoken Media in two years than I have at any job I’ve previously held, even when in a pseudo-management role. I know more about business, myself, and what I’m doing than I ever would have in a different environment. I’m connected to more people who can help my business and my career.

Your vision and sweat equity are what will determine your success in a startup. That’s what you need to bring to the table and what will determine your fate. I think entrepreneurs today are a lot less dependent on the networks that big businesses create, not because those networks are less important, but because we’re creating them ourselves. The learning, the community, the working alongside smart people, the baselines? We’re finding that in each other.

Or at least that’s my thought. What’s your opinion? Do entrepreneurs need a big business background to later run a successful startup?

Your Comments

  • john Falchetto

    I think it really depends on the person. Some entrepreneurs need these ‘formative’ years inside a bigger company to gain the self assurance of starting their own show. Not everyone has the cojones, or the savings to be be able launch and have no revenue for sometime.

    Learning politics, or playing well with others is important. You said there is no room for politics. I believe politics, or finding mutually beneficial solutions and compromising is an essential skill for new entrepreneurs.
    You mention ‘they’re not by themselves..’ absolutely and learning to work with people who are not our drinking buddies is crucial in any successful business.

    I worked for a big agency before I started my own show, so I can’t say I would have done it without working for someone beforehand. But the cubicle life certainly pushed me to get out of there and work for myself. If anything working for big business is a great way to reveal who does and doesn’t want to be curious.

    • Lisa Barone

      You’re probably right in that it depends on the person, I just don’t buy that you need to learn the corporate ropes before you start your own gig. Some people need to work the corporate life to know that they don’t want to be there. But if you’re someone who out of the gate, has that vision and the desire to change the world, I don’t think trying to stuff yourself into a corporate box is going to at all help you in your career. It may even stifle you. I think politics are what’s wrong with business, not a necessity to getting involved.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Appreciate your bringing the other side of the conversation! :)

      • john Falchetto

        Perhaps we dont define politics the same way. I don’t use the word with any undertones, politics for me is the process which allows a group of people with different interests to make a collective decision.
        Learning to work with others is a necessity as you explained.
        Of course ‘office politics’ suck.

        Agree working in a corporate box won’t help making you a better entrepreneur, and might even tempt you to stay in the job security trap. But if you are tempted maybe you were not meant to be an entrepreneur?

        Merry Christmas to you and the Outspoken gang. Looking fwd to

        • JadedTLC

          Generational Differences
          I also believe it depends on the generation. The Millennial generation KNOWS what it wants. They know they don’t want to work in a big company with the “politics” which is in every corporation. And I mean EVERY. The politics in a small office/startup are a lot more like “family” issues. Whatever dysfunctions you run into there, you deal with it in “love,” but there is no room for backstabbing in a startup. I’ve seen this many times in corporations. It matters how you “handle” people.

          I believe that the online world and entrepreneurship go hand-in-hand. You need a fluid environment to change direction or evolve your product or service, based on the needs of your consumers. Big companies can’t do this. You have to have paperwork submitted, approved, signed off on, and budgeted before any changes happen. A small company has already made 3 different changes in course by the time this one change is implemented.

          What Happened To Mentors?
          Big companies used to offer mentors, but more often these days, the boss has no time for his/her employees so you’re not learning anything from him/her except that “Title” matters. Startups don’t have titles; you do as much as possible to grow the company. And I think that’s where the learning happens. You fail; you succeed; you evolve – personally and professionally.

          -my 2 cents – worked for both corporate and startups

  • TrafficColeman

    Lisa I agree and I disagree at the same time..but I will say you do need some experience taking to people who are of higher value then you ..meaning at some point you will have to talk to people and you must come off as been relax and not nervous. having this experience helps..

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  • Nick Norris

    I completely agree with everything you said here; however, working for a large company, and freelancing on the side, I find it’s much easier to woo potential clients when they find out who I work for, and what I do for that company. A lot of smaller companies have high hopes and want to make sure that they are doing things right, and when they can hire a small firm who is trusted (or has been trusted in the past) by a large corporation, they have a little more faith in what that small company is doing for them, and they may even pay a little more for the premium of having an “expert” near by.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you are dealing with clients, it’s a matter of perception, and however they perceive you will depend on your credentials.

  • John andrews

    There’s a huge difference between “startup culture” and “corporate culture”, agreed?

    If agreed, then there’s no debate.

    • Nick Norris

      I don’t necessarily think that the debate is about culture, it’s about whether or not having a corporate background is beneficial to a start up company. I think it depends on your personality, confidence, and readiness level.

      • Lisa Barone

        If so, do you think those three things are best earned through working for someone else or on your own?

        • Nick Norris

          Confidence is a tough one. Some of the most talented people I have ever met were not confident, but could have done an amazing job if they just could have sold the idea confidently. The corporate world is an easy place for people lacking confidence to get lost in their work and clock out at the end of the day.

          Personality is a huge part of start up success, some people are not cut out for the corporate world because of several personality flaws (not in a negative way). I’ve worked with people that have had amazing ideas that required a lot of risk, but the corporate world is less willing to take risks on those types of people (and their ideas), and usually, those are the people who start new companies and see amazing success. Behind every start up is a personality that creates the culture, and if someone has no personality, they might succeed, but the culture will be too bland. I guess what I’m trying to say is:

          Start up = Usually Risk Takers
          Corporate = Not Risk Takers

          As far as readiness level, I’m referring to execution skill. You can have a million ideas that seem great in theory, but when it comes time to execute those ideas, you don’t know where to begin. The corporate culture is great at defining processes, and always welcomes process improvement, so when you are involved in a culture like that, it’s more likely that you will pick up some best practices.

          I’m all about people who create businesses, and I wish them the best success. I’ve tried to start my own company, and I can honestly say that I am not good with the stress and sleepless nights.

      • john andrews

        If there is a big difference between the two cultures, then any one who spends all of her time in one may not fit well into the other. Vision, insights, ability to communicate well and work together all come from a perspective e.g. common understandings.

        The more different the two cultures are, the harder it will be to work together.

  • Rico, Leeds

    I’m not sure about “big business” as opposed to small businesses, but I do think an experience of working for other people in the same area is very helpful when starting out on your own.

    As well as the reasons outlined above, bad management is usually most visible to people working below them, so you can learn from their mistakes.

    That said, most business skills are just common sense, so if you have that, I’m not sure experience is all that essential – it may just make the learning process a bit quicker.

  • Kieran

    Big company experience is valuable…but does it guarantee success? No. Does it put someone in a better position for success? Maybe. Does it help in a start-up? Maybe. As with everything it all comes down to the person .

    I view it the same way I view IVY League schools – it looks great on a resume, amazing connections and gets you in the door a lot quicker….but, just because you went to an ivy league school it doesn’t mean you are smarter than everyone else. Eventually people who look less at where you worked / went to school and more about what you have done.

  • Matthias

    I think the biggest problem is the wording of that post. ‘Need’ is a strong word that implies a necessity. In this case, it comes across as the author saying in order to succeed as a startup it is a necessity that you must work at a big company first. However, the contents of his post are geared more toward the nicer, more subtle version: “I worked at a big company first and these are the things I learned from that experience – you can do the same by working in a corporate environment.” (I only read the post when it was published, not any of the comments – so maybe the tone changes there – I don’t know.)

    To me, it’s really just a case of mistaken identity with the article title. (Maybe an attempt to draw in controversy? Rabble rousing? Match a keyword phrase? Or just not thinking it through?)

    Clearly you can succeed without having worked in a corporate culture, as we have empirical evidence in those who have succeeded.

  • GG

    Lisa, I’m so with you. His post left me with my jaw hanging open.

    I’ve worked in a 3-person sales office, a 15-person agency and gigantic (I don’t even know the number) corporation. I’m now in the process of starting my own business.

    Absolutely 100% of the lessons I’m taking with me came from the smaller businesses, which allowed me to learn more, be more involved and connect more. Corporate culture just doesn’t encourage rapid growth.

    So, to add my own why-work-for-a-small-co/startup list to your already smart entry:
    1) You learn not only your own craft, but a variety of disciplines. Want to get involved in sales? Help with accounting? The one-person sales team or accounting team would probably love the help.

    While in corporate culture, you’re often shut out of things that aren’t inside your little specialization box, in small companies, you can learn alternate skill sets, as long as you don’t drop any of the balls you’re responsible for.

    2) You connect with smart entrepreneurial folks. These are the folks who will own their own businesses or continue to climb in really interesting careers and companies. And you’ve already proved your worth with these self-starters, so when it comes time to do business together, done and done.

    I know I still work with and alongside people from my agency years. And I’m always impressed by their newest learnings, positions and ideas.

    3) You have a front-row seat to the scary parts of starting your own business. You’re not jumping in unprepared after watching the big, inefficient corporate machine continue to chug along. Instead, you’ve watched the hard times, the good times, the decisions the CEO or senior management makes, etc. They’re not hiding it from you. And you can learn from their successes and mistakes.

    Thanks for posting this!

  • Tedster

    Regardingpoint #5, I’d say that understanding the art of politics IS essential. I learned this the hard way, and in reality, that may be the only way.

    You say “there’s no need for politics in a start-up culture.” I’d say there’s no way to avoid politics in ANY culture. Otherwise disagreements lead to blow-outs and sow the seeds of failure.

    The art of politics includes knowing when and how to disagree within the culture that already exists. It means learning how to be straight without being insulting. It definitely doesn’t mean kissing butt.

  • Anonymous


    The short answer is YES, I think it’s going to help working for a big company BEFORE opening your own shop.

    There is so much half-baked ideas out there that people use as a foundation to mortgage their house and siphon credit cards to LAUNCH their dream. They mean well, but need more experience that a big company brings.

    It’s good to work for a big company ESPECIALLY if you are already plotting your strategy for your next business venture (no stealing, though). This will give you piercing insight into an otherwise murky world of setting your own business (financial statements, budgets, accounting).

  • Paul May

    About the only point in this post that I disagree with is the assertion that “this idea was probably right a few years ago.” I spent three and a half years at a big business at the start of my career and then went to my first startup…I’m not exaggerating when i say that I learned more in the first three months at my first startup than I did in my entire tenure at the big company. That was over fifteen years ago.

    Based on my experience, the attributes and skills you need to be successful at a big company are fundamentally different than those you need as an entrepreneur. In a startup, you’re always working with imperfect information and the ground you’re standing on is constantly moving. Given this, the key to success is the ability to size up the constantly changing situation, learn new skills accordingly and adapt. These simply aren’t skills you learn in a big company…in fact, the ability to do this is the reason that startups are able to win against these companies, despite the fact that they’re larger, more established and better funded.

  • Martina Iring

    Interesting post! While I certainly learned a ton working at a larger company, I definitely agree with you Lisa that I have learned WAY more running my own small business. As a one-woman show, I have really had to expand my skill set, as I am the one in charge of everything. And as my own boss, I also have the freedom (and the power) to focus on what I think needs to be done, learned, researched. This has been incredibly valuable to me and I know that I am much better marketer because of this self-direction (and the responsibility that comes with it).

  • Kelli Wise

    I’ve worked for small companies and Fortune 50 companies and now I work for myself. Hands down, the place where you learn the most about the least is the big company.

    I always advise new grads with entrepreneurial dreams to go work for a small company. Since there are so few people, you will have the opportunity to learn about every aspect of the business. I learned tech writing because English was my first language and I could touch type (this was 1987 when no one had a PC). I learned marketing because they needed an engineer to help with the marketing message. I learned project management because they lost a PM and I had just shipped a project and hadn’t ramped up on the next. I learned to do time studies and production fixture design because I was one of 2 engineers (electrical, but that can translate to industrial and mechanical, right? Right).

    Forget the big companies. All you really learn there is how not to get fired. If you plan on becoming an expert in one very narrow subject, a big company is a great place. All the other stuff is being done by someone else.

    Of course, working for yourself is the best. You learn it all or go out of business trying. And that just means you learn some really hard lessons that you take to the next project.