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Like many before me (and I presume many after), I made the decision to leave the corporate world to try my hand within a more entrepreneurial setting. Why did I do this? The short answer is that somewhere along the way to corporate success, I no longer felt a sense of accomplishment, or that I was contributing anything of value. I needed something more. I needed something better. The day I decided to leave my position at a multinational turned out to be the day I was bombarded with the questions that other startup-curious people are bound to hear: “Why would you do such a thing?” I was asked that more than a few times, mostly by friends and family, shocked at my decision to leave what they considered a stable, lucrative, and promising corporate career. “But it’s such a big company!” It is indeed a big company, and that fact in itself speaks volumes of what it has to offer to so many others. As for me, my job was more of an obligation than a passion. I found myself stuck within what others had pre-defined as my career path, with very little space to maneuver and having no say in the way the business operated.
I’ll be the first to admit that leaving my corporate career to join the entrepreneurial ecosystem was not an easy decision. I had spent the majority of my professional life at a larger-than-life multinational, and I really didn’t know anything else. I can clearly recall the many sleepless nights debating if I should make a move on the opportunity. I now work for Laundrybox, a UAE-based startup that, as a whole company, is smaller than the unit within the division that I was working at during my multinational days.
Expect to be patronized if you join a start up
“So, you are doing people’s laundry now?” This rhetorical epithet is courtesy of a clever acquaintance. I replied, “Well, I was just selling coffee before…” For context, the brand I worked for -a powerhouse, a globally recognized household name- often made my position seem like less work than it actually was. This got me to think over the dichotomy that exists between the corporate and startup worlds, and why people were generally downplaying the latter. In my reality, the latter was (and still does) offer me so much more than my multinational position. I’m much more satisfied and challenged working within a small, growing enterprise than I ever felt working for the biggest business of them all. But why is that?
Is it the respect and recognition I receive that fosters my sense of ownership and greater level of commitment from me personally and professionally? Is it the supportive environment that allows me to increase my contribution levels? Or is it the work structure that provides me with a greater development opportunity by exposing me to the various components of the value chain? It is all three of these things.
What about the money?
We all have financial aspirations, and admittedly, working at a large corporation guarantees stability and a relatively great salary. As you gain seniority within the company, you also build a larger bank account, a pension plan, and if you’re senior enough, you may even be granted stock options. In such an environment, financial recompense is often perceived as a measure of worth, and for some, a level of respect.
At a startup, things are different. You don’t have the same salaries (at least not at the early stages), and you will never have the stability of a company that is a century in the making. You do, on the other hand, have the ability to gain equity in the business. That is not only a gesture of respect and recognition, but it is an incentive that gives you ownership (literally). With a heightened sense of ownership and the actual equity itself, you are consciously willing to commit most of your energy and passion to ensure the success of the business. Some might argue that equity may be worth nothing, but with a vesting period, who really knows? This gamble is not for the faint-hearted, but it is for those who truly believe in the potential of their business. Ultimately, it is a long-term play, and nothing happens overnight at a startup.
We look out for one another
The once less traveled and intrepid road of entrepreneurship has become more acceptable across MENA in the past few years. The “startup” culture is now becoming increasingly pervasive, and within our ecosystem exists a plethora of support networks and entrepreneurs hoping to make it big. I have now found myself at the heart of the ecosystem- it’s more populated than I had imagined, and there seems to be a sense of community you don’t find in a corporate environment. Everyone is willing to share their experiences, their expertise, and their strategic know-how to help out your business. I have had entrepreneurs go out of their way to make sure I didn’t repeat their mistakes, and I’ve managed to optimize my role and boost my contribution levels based on the supportive work environment.
The general mindset is that we look out for one another, and what was once survival of the fittest is now more cohesive and organized. The road less traveled might still be less traveled, but the ecosystem now has branches of support thus making choosing the startup path an easier way to go, and that has made a huge difference in success rates and cross-industry collaboration.
Learning on the fly
In a large corporation, you tend to work within a given function, between a set of guidelines to follow, with several objectives to achieve, and KPIs to guide and measure your success. Anything outside that job description “isn’t your responsibility.” Everyone is too focused on making sure they earn their yearly salary increase or promotion (and a pat on the back from the boss). No one is really concerned with what everyone else is doing. Everyone is in silo mode.
In a startup, things work a little differently. The “not my job” mantra is usually replaced by a positive and proactive statement: “Yeah sure, I’ll learn how to do that.” The work structure is built around a few people trying to do pretty much everything. Budgets can be very tight, and that may require you to go in-house for things that could normally be outsourced- all of a sudden, you are exposed to the various components of the value chain. You are doing sales, marketing, operations, human resources, legal, and whatever you need to do to help the business move forward. One example? I learned how to code HTML, so that I could send out emails that packed a greater punch.
Outside of your area of expertise, learning by trial and error is the name of the game. The curve is steep, and personal development opportunities are endless. What you have the ability to learn within a year at a startup, may take you an entire career at an established corporation. You’re always on your toes, and while you are learning the hard way, it does offer invaluable experiences and makes you a more resilient person. Everything I have had to learn to excel within a new role has been so much more engrossing because of the challenges. Today, I’m much more of a generalist at Laundrybox, because that’s what our startup needs to keep moving forward.
Becoming a better you
When it comes down to it, we all want the same thing: a feeling of personal fulfillment in the work we do, and the ability to channel our energy to be as productive in that work as possible. The environments we work often determine the key motivational drivers that we need to make us more effective, complete individuals. That doesn’t mean I am telling you to quit your corporate job right away to join a startup, but I am hoping you’ll ask yourself the question: what kind of work environment do you need to become a better you?
As for me, I think I made it quite clear. The startup environment is exactly what I needed to become a better version of myself.