Shaking off my corporate anxiety
Friday, July 10, 2015/
Changing jobs can be hard, changing careers are harder, and changing from a corporate role to a startup (or vice-versa) can be either the best or the worst decision you’ve ever made. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been pretty lucky with my work history, especially with online companies. If you’ve ever used the internet to look for a new place to live, if you bought something off another person in an auction, looked for a job, or even just searched for something online, chances are you’ve probably engaged in the services of one of my previous employers. Aside from being household brand names, the main thing that’s been the common thread is they’ve nearly all been pretty corporate, even if they’d never admit it.
My previous corporate life was full of freshly pressed suits, half-windsor ties, polished black shoes, and the occasional tap on the watch accompanied by a passive-aggressive “Oh how lovely of you to join us this afternoon!” should you dare not be at your desk at 8.29am each morning. My team pitched for “big four″ banks in marketing deals worth millions. I looked after clients who were household brand names, managing accounts that earned my company more money in a month than I would ever make in a life-time. If you’re the right person, it’s this cut-throat lifestyle that you thrive on like a drug. It might work for some people, but it certainly wasn’t for me. I never used to consider myself one of those feel-good touchy-feely types who “just wanted to work for a cause I believed in, because money doesn’t buy happiness”, but it was something I couldn’t fight off anymore.
Job interviews suck. We all know this, but it’s worth saying again just to get if off my chest. One of my previous employers had eight stages of interviews. No, that’s not a typo. Eight, and this was for a fairly low-entry role. Even thinking about it now makes me sweat. One of the stages was a personality test that involved being asked questions like “I sometimes hurt small animals”, “I often think about harming myself” and “I often lie to friends and family”. During these eight stages, there was only ever really one stage of the interviews that was about them, and that was one of the last where I got to meet the rest of the team for all of about 5 minutes. I find interviews to be an interesting way of seeing what a company thinks of itself.
You can tell a lot about a company by the way they conduct their interview process. While I agree that for the employer, it’s always important to gel well with those that you work with and make sure you’re not hiring a self-harming liar who kicks puppies, it can work both ways. It’s important to find the right fit not just for them, but for you too. Startups can usually be even more picky about finding the right fit, but it also works in your best interest too. You’ll be working with everyone in the company, so it’s great to work with people who truly inspire you – and I’ve found that when it comes to startup companies, it’s this contagious inspiration that keeps you excited and motivated. If you don’t feel that with your first interview, then I suggest you keep looking. I remember years ago, I turned down a job with a fairly well-known ad agency because I just felt that the team wasn’t a good fit for me. They were baffled (maybe they were going to turn me down and I’d beaten them to the punch? Who knows). I’m pretty sure I was the first person ever to turn them down.
Fast forward to my first day at Macropod, in a t-shirt and a pair of old jeans – while setting up my workspace, I started getting my calendar ready and asked the boss man (who literally sat behind me in our open-plan shared office space) what the regular schedules meetings are that I need to know about. Blank stare. Team weekly meetings? Department monthly’s? Annual reviews? KPI updates? Still a blank stare. No matter what meeting type I listed off, I got nothing. The more I listed meetings, the more blank his stare got. He finally spoke: “Yeah look, we don’t really do meetings”. The words were like a a cold wave rushing over me from head to toe. It sure sounded like I was hearing great things, but the idea of not having any of these restrictions was frightening. There’s an old quote by Voltaire (or Spiderman, depending on how old you are) that says “with great freedom comes great responsibility”. Working for corporate companies can be quite comforting. You’ve got KPIs that can tell you just how much you’re loved, volumes of HR policies will wrap you up and keep you warm, and you’re always surrounded by hundreds of other employees so you know you’re never alone. But when you’re boot-strapping it with just a couple of other people, you’re sometimes forced to just make it all up as you go along.
We had a variation of what could technically be described as meetings, but were quite impromptu. They would usually pop up randomly when two people were having a conversation about a something work-related. Being a small office space, it was easy to talk loud enough so that the rest of us could hear it, so one by one we’d add in our opinions. We have some more structured meetings now that Macropod is slightly larger, yet they still feel a lot more casual than at other places I’ve worked. Plus there’s quite often beer, which helps. This is a fresh change for someone like me who comes from a sales and marketing background who was only ever in charge of one particular part of the service your company provided. With previous employers, if someone would make a complaint about something with our product, I would simply fill out an internal form, hit send, and the issue would mysteriously be whisked off to another department where it became someone else’s problem and I never heard about it again.
If the problem was big enough, then you’d then have to set up some kind of “task force” and involve a ludicrous number of people whose opinions really don’t matter, but somehow now they do. I remember being at a previous employer, we were redesigning our customer profile pages and I sat in a room with 13 people while we discussed various aesthetics and design choices of what the new profile pages would look like. Out of those 13 people, you know how many of them were actual designers? None. Zero. To this day, I have no idea who actually designed and implemented these changes. They were just these pointless meetings where everyone seemed to talk our their arse before shuffling off to the next “blue sky” meeting.
At Macropod, I’m literally sitting in the middle of our Dev team. I’m spoilt for choice when it comes to not just reporting a problem, but helping with its solution and working with the people doing the actual work. I’m involved with these projects because I want to be, and I feel I have something of actual value to add. I’ve had a direct affect on the company and a number of important business decisions have been made because of an idea I’d originally had. I can point to things on our site that are there because I made the suggestion. I can’t tell you much I value this. It’s an easy thing to accomplish in small team and it’s an amazingly rewarding experience for those people who like to get their hands dirty. I can take a customer complaint, find an exact and specific answer, work directly with the Web Dev team to come up with a solution, make that change, then bring that solution back to the customer myself. All without a “task force”, a series of meetings, approval forms, business plans or sign-offs from five different managers. It’s this sort of direct impact that inspires me to do more.
A typical week at a startup is not always filled with bug-free releases, craft beers and high fives – there’s a lot of hard work involved, and can involve some weird hours. While working corporate, it’s sometimes easy to just kind of blend into the background and just skate along doing the bare minimum – for a lot of larger companies, they may also have a fairly in-depth HR policy that even makes it hard to fire you. However in a smaller company, there isn’t a background to blend into. Some days are more productive than others, sure, but slacking off in a small team isn’t really a viable option, as it will become very obvious very quickly. So how you handle this kind of work really depends on your attitude – there’s usually a stereotype that people working in startups have this super casual approach to work and only do work when they feel like it, but it’s actually quite the opposite, you need to be quite self-motivated especially if you’re boot-strapped – you sometimes find yourself in a situation where you literally have to work because your livelihood depends on it. Plus, finding a job these days doing exactly what you want is hard.
When you work in a corporate office, chances are the company has been around for a lot longer than you. There are probably HR folders and employee handbooks that pile up that describe everything that the company does and doesn’t allow. Now, not all of them will make sense. At a previous employer, if I wanted to install software on my work laptop, I needed to get approval from my immediate supervisor, the department manager, and then someone in IT, who would then pass it onto someone else in IT to come down and install it. All those steps because I needed to install Skype. Yet whenever I questioned why this process was in place, I always got told “that’s just the way it is”. I didn’t even know who to talk to to even begin to get these kind of useless red-tape processes reviewed. This happened a lot with that company, yet whenever I questioned these pointless hoops I was made to jump through, I got that same shoulder shrug. Yet this sort of thing never seems to in startups. If you can justify it and speak your case to your team, chances are that change will happen.
Another thing some of my friends find odd is that I don’t even really have a real job title. Or at least, I don’t have one that states exactly what I do, because I do so many different things. On the surface, I basically touch everything in the business that has to do with our customers (yet despite this, my job title suggestion of “Head Of Customer Touching” keeps getting rejected for some reason). I was brought on to address customer churn, but most of my day is filled with replying to support tickets, as well as looking after our social media accounts, but I also do a number of other things that, had I been in corporate, I probably wouldn’t have the chance to be doing. I also over-see our beta testing, reviewing customer feedback and feature suggestions, I manage our life-cycle emails and assist with on-boarding, dealing with billing issues, writing the newsletters, writing the odd blog post or two, plus a myriad of office management things (just don’t tell my wife about how crazy I am about making sure the kitchen is always clean and tidy). I also sit amongst the Dev team, and since being here, managed to pick up enough information that I can become involved in some of their decision making, or at the very least offer a customer’s perspective on these decisions, while still having an idea of what they’re trying to accomplish. Now if I was the type of person who wanted to only do what their job description says and not a single extra thing, then I probably would’ve been let go a long time ago. Because that’s probably the most desirable quality you can have in a startup team: adaptability. That can be large scale or it can apply to even the tiniest of issues at work, but it’s still there. You have to learn to roll with the punches.
So what’s the point of this long-winded rant, I hear you ask? Well I guess there’s a few points to make, but here’s mainly what I’m trying to get at: This is partly about me and my own insecurities as I try to shake off my corporate anxieties. I’ve spent more of my work-life in a suit than not, and as much as I love this startup life sometimes I need to re-evaluate my work goals and remind myself that I’m not failing some made-up KPI just because I’m 10 minutes late back from lunch, and that it’s actually okay to wear jeans to work today. There’s also a pretty good chance that you’re reading this thinking “Oh my god, what a cry-baby! You’re clearly not cut out for corporate work. By the way, in case you didn’t get the memo, we’re putting cover-sheets on all our TPS reports now” which is also totally fine – I’m not trying to bash those in corporate-land. Some of the most valuable life lessons have come from some of the cruelest mentors that I’ve worked with. So no matter what your perfect working environment is, I wish you all the success you deserve – after all, you gotta do what makes you happy. But maybe, just maybe, you’re already in corporate-land, reading this and thinking “wow, that sounds amazing, I wish my work-life was more like that”, then hopefully I’ve started to plant some seeds of thought.
This article was originally published on Macropod.