CMOpinion: the differences between start-up vs. corporate

In her first regular Mumbrella column, 8-Star Energy CMO Diana Di Cecco explores the two different workplace worlds and the people best suited to thrive within them.

Once upon a time, working for a big corporate was the definitive goal of those entering employment. In fact, this paradigm was idealised and start-ups were not part of the mix. Fast forward thirty years, and that view has changed. Having worked in a variety of business models, including large corporates, I recently landed in a start-up, the only business model missing from my CV. I had always wondered what it would be like. Now I know, and often find myself comparing it to other work worlds. 

At opposite ends of the spectrum sit corporations and start-ups. With their own idiosyncrasies, each comes with challenges and opportunities.  I know Mumbrella has a discerning readership, so I won’t waste time reiterating stereotypes and explaining things you already know. Instead, I’ll share some of the less documented differences that might make you change your mind about working for one or the other.

I preface by explaining two things. Firstly, given my short tenure in the start-up environment, I did due diligence by discussing the topic with three other CMOs/executives with start-up experience to ensure my lens was wide. Secondly, every business is different. Some readers will violently agree or disagree with my thoughts. That’s okay. I am not pro start-up or corporate, nor do I dislike either. I am simply here to make observations, especially for those who may lack first-hand experience.

Having spent many years in the workforce, it’s impossible not to think about learnings when you start somewhere new. I contemplate things I did well, not so well, and how I might apply those learnings to make a better version of me. And so, when comparing the polarity of the “worlds,” a couple of characteristics come to mind.

The corporate challenge: Drama

No workplace is perfect. Every workplace has challenges and there is no employment utopia. That said, there is a colossal challenge in corporates I refer to as HWS: Hamster Wheel Syndrome.

Hamster Wheel Syndrome is a high-drama unwritten charter that feeds top-down, sending each level of management into a frenzy on the nod of a senior executive. It creates a scurry of activity that results in departments of people needing to change something, activate something or do something differently, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, often based on a personal opinion or disapproval. People get angry, emotions are high, everything is “urgent” and it feels like the sky is falling. People exhibit behaviours that don’t reinforce company values and that are unacceptable. Contradictory decisions are made, tensions are high, and just as quickly, the conduct is parried away. It’s frustrating.

Managing this comes down to two things. Primarily, accepting the environment you’re in. If leadership has created the conditions for you to make rational decisions, great. If not and you are obligated to jump on the hamster wheel, you must accept that sometimes you’ll be required to support decisions that are technically incorrect. Next, is to acknowledge that you make decisions about how you behave – don’t cave into commotion. Unless it’s a life-or-death situation, nothing is worth dramatisation in a workplace and no one has the right to send people home feeling terrible. As marketers, we’re in the business of selling people stuff to solve their problems, not write scripts for Days of our Lives. So, take the high road and a deep breath. It’s just a job.   

The start-up challenge: Risk 

Mitigating risk is complex. To really understand risk, talk to people who have put their hard-earned cash on the line to fund a giant experiment – because that’s what a start-up is. I recall reading an HBR article a few years ago that struck a chord. It suggested that to work for a start-up, one would need the ability to do three things, the first of which was to manage uncertainty, and that article was right. 

There is no greater risk than putting homes, livelihoods and equity on the line. Risk, in this setting, is simultaneously scary, exhilarating and unsettling. It is a slight shock when you realise certain activities are reliant on future funding and cash flow. You need to identify what needs to be done, pause and check to see if it’s possible, and then know which triggers to pull, in a way that is right for the business. Basically, you have an unwritten fiduciary duty.

With great risk, can come great reward. Understanding how to bring this to fruition means having a deep understanding of how a start-up’s potential is forecasted and capital is raised. It’s a masterclass in financial operations that helps you interpret and manage risk. Nevertheless, you can’t help but ask yourself the big questions – “What if this doesn’t work? When will the next round of funding land? What will we prioritise?” In answering questions like these, the CMO must bring technical skill and strategic thinking, proving their worth in real time. Overall, it’s unsettling but exciting.

The corporate opportunity: Career progression

The mecca of those vying for senior leadership is a continuous drive to grow professionally and personally. Executives don’t land positions accidentally; they’re ambitious and motivated to progress their careers. While many try to climb the corporate ladder, not everyone succeeds but the corporate world is one of the best ways to pave that opportunity. Here’s why. 

Career development is probably already an aspect of your performance program: What’s your goal? Are you willing to relocate? What do you need to get to the next level? Is there a succession plan for the role you want? Use the framework to drive your desired outcomes.

Climbing is not always in a straight line so be aware of possibilities and cultivate a broad network to gain visibility of happenings internally and externally. The multitude of people can keep you informed about opportunities in your organisation or industry, so keep an ear to the ground.

Put yourself in the “other roles” consideration set, i.e. in other parts of the world (if travel is your thing), in other businesses in the group (if it’s big enough), for secondment, on special projects, etc. You already have a foot in the door so use it to access a future opportunity.

You have access to the top. Don’t secretly hope someone can read your mind. Make your progression intentions known and consider aligning with a mentor – a CEO, chairman, people you can learn from – who can advocate for you and help send opportunities your way. Most businesses would prefer to promote from within so connect with the right people. Caveat: be wary of empty promises.

Ultimately, if you don’t look out for yourself, no one will do it for you. Take responsibility for steering your own career.  

The start-up opportunity: A seat at the table 

The ideological view that start-ups are highly stylised offices with a Google HQ vibe, where you wear Chuck Taylors and eat pho, is incorrect. If you want to work for a start-up because you think it’s cool, don’t make the aforementioned your guiding principles. To work for a start-up, you need to genuinely believe in the company and its purpose – you’re in 100% so be mindful about whether you’re a match for each other.

One does not just “show up” in start-ups. You must be present, excited to be there, contribute and have personal impact. There’s a self-induced cue that you are playing with people’s personal investments, not a gifted budget from a parent company. There is also a clear message that the business has chosen you to fill a gap and drive growth – no start-up intends to stay small, you’re there to scale up. It’s a place where you’re more than an employee number so respect and accept the responsibility. It’s a place where you provide insight that helps shape the company’s future. In fact, there is no greater satisfaction than contributing in this meaningful way. 

The precursor for start-up land is that you are a highly skilled professional, i.e. a well-trained marketer who knows their craft so well, you can explain it to others. You need to be able and willing to complete every task type– strategy to execution – and be prepared to “do”, which is not for everyone. Any conditions about shunning low-level tasks should be left at the door – it’s no place for illusions of grandeur or for being precious. Believe me, it is fun and humbling, and also helps make sure you’ve “still got it”. This importance cannot be understated for the CMO… at least, not for this CMO.

And so, while this list is by no means exhaustive, it hopefully provides a glimpse into both worlds. Workplaces are really important aspects of life given how much time we spend there – they offer unique experiences, so don’t miss the opportunity to learn valuable lessons. As far as a verdict goes, my view, at this point, is that working in a start-up is more challenging than a corporate. It is not for the faint-hearted, nor is it necessarily glamorous, but it is deeply satisfying and commercially complex. If you know your craft, have sharp business acumen, and have courage, you could be suited to the start-up environment. If not, stay in the corporate world. Life isn’t so bad there either, but don’t spend a lifetime wondering if the grass is greener – find out for yourself.

Diana Di Cecco is the CMO of 8-Star Energy. CMOpinion is a regular Mumbrella column.


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