5 Tips to Make Your Big-Business Background Work for Your First Startup

Founder and CEO of WeSpire
5 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You’ve spent years working for big business. You’ve gotten used to global offices, extensive resources and a well-known brand, and you rarely worried about whether you -- and your team -- would get paid. But you had a brilliant business idea, you ran with it, and now you find yourself in an unfamiliar territory: running a startup.

There are obviously massive differences between what it takes to dominate Corporate America and what it takes to start a company from scratch. And I’ve definitely heard it expressed that people who can thrive in corporate America just can’t be that entrepreneurial, and that many entrepreneurs would be fired in a big company.

However, I’ve been a senior executive in a large corporation and a startup founder -- twice. It may be somewhat unusual, but I’ve learned that experience in big business can be extremely valuable to running a startup. And I’ve also learned that there are some big business habits that just have to be left in that marble lobby. Here are my top five tips for the new entrepreneur navigating startup leadership and growth with only big business on their resume.

Related: Big Data Is No Longer Confined to the Big Business Playbook

1. Apply what you already know -- you can take it with you.

Just because your previous employer had 30,000 employees doesn’t mean the same tried and true business principles, best practices and skills can’t be applied to your startup that has a current employee population of three. Just take Tony Fadell, who left his corporate gig as senior vice president of Apple’s iPod division and advisor to Steve Jobs to co-found Nest alongside Apple colleague Matt Rogers. Tony applied the same ingenuity, engineering skills and business acumen developed at Apple to launch the Nest Learning Thermostat after identifying a market need for smart thermostats.

2. Focus on product-market fit first.

You likely got to take product-market fit for granted in your role in big business. People didn’t question whether your product was even needed or whether your category was even a category. In start-ups, often the most critical question is figuring out whether people actually think your solution adds any value versus the status quo. So what you need to obsess over, first and foremost, is that critical question of whether your solution fits a market. Until the answer to that is a resounding “yes,” don’t worry about all the other questions about scaling.

3. Fundamentals are fundamentals.

Raising money and understanding valuations are likely a whole new ballgame for you. Whether you are running a startup or are in big business, the fundamentals of rate and volume still matter. How many people will pay how much money for what you do over time? Focus on crunching real-life numbers that directly impact your business like total users or subscribers or customers, average revenue per user, cost of customer acquisition, and let the valuation math be something that you only consider when talking to investors.

Related: 4 Tips for Breaking Into an Industry You Know Nothing About

4. Purpose and positive impact matter.

Make sure you are clear on your purpose and what positive impact you intend to have on the world. Why? As a startup, you’re going to attract plenty of millennial employees. In fact, data shows that millennial grads are 1.82 times more likely to have studied entrepreneurship than any other generation, with 47 percent of them working for a company with 100 employees or less. It’s important to provide a work environment that millennials will thrive in and want to be a part of.

According to a recent study, for example, 55 percent of millennials want to see their company more involved in sustainability programs. Having a clear stance on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability efforts from the get-go can help attract and retain this cause-oriented generation -- which, by the way, is now the largest generation in the American workforce. A new study from Cone Communications found that 76 percent of millennials consider CSR when choosing where to work.

5. Pay close attention to culture -- and hire the right people who fit it.

Finding the right people to fit the culture is important to any company, of any size at any stage. But as the leader of a startup, understanding “fit for the stage” is absolutely critical. There are outstanding people who will absolutely flail in an early-stage environment. And there are people who thrive early stage who won’t really scale when it gets bigger. Understanding who fits where is a constant and sometimes painful process, but it’s absolutely critical to have the right team for the right time.

And perhaps the most important tip of all: Give the business everything you have. I’d venture to guess one of the most common reasons a startup ultimately fails is the founder gives up. While entrepreneurship is certainly not for everyone and not every business idea is a good idea, there is certainly something to be said about hard work, dedication and determination when it comes to the successful launch of a company. If you believe in your business, you’ll have all the more reason to succeed. 

Related: Startup CEOs Reveal the 1 Question They Ask Every Job Candidate

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