Picture this. Two identical candidates walk into your office for a job interview. The only difference between the two candidates is that one has a resume full of experience at a large company, the other has the same depth of experience at a startup.
Which person do you hire? If you're like most, your answer would have been the former.
The reasoning for this is simple. We look for mental shortcuts in everything we do. It limits the number of decisions we need to make, and more importantly, our likelihood of making incorrect decisions. When you see a resume with brands such as Google and Microsoft, it creates a shortcut for our minds. It acts as a bridge. Through the association of a brand to a specific person, we relate the quality of that company to the quality of that person. And because startup companies rarely reach brand status, we place a lower value on that experience than the brand comparison.
Although this is a natural reaction, it is flawed for a number of reasons:
1. Size is the opposite of impact
The first thing we must realize about large companies is that they are just that -- extremely large. Google has more than 40,000 full-time employees, while Microsoft has just over 128,000, according to their respective websites. With so many employees, it's impossible to have an impact on the business, unless you're in the upper echelon of the executive team. And even then, I'd argue that much of the work that has been done is more political than tactical. Depending on how broken the company is, you can succeed by sucking up to the right people, giving the impression of productivity, and so on.
But that doesn't work with startups. There is no boss to trick, no shortcuts to deploy. Each and every person is vital. At a startup, there's nowhere to hide if you don't perform.
2. Momentum makes everything easier
A few weeks back, I tweeted this. The goal was to attempt to distill, in less than 140 characters, why startups are so hard. Momentum was the first thing that came to mind.
In a large company, there's a lot of existing momentum. As a member of a large company, if you pull back or become inefficient, the train will continue to move down the tracks, metaphorically speaking. There's so much built-up momentum behind the brand that momentum carries it, regardless.
One of the hardest things about startups is that there's rarely existing momentum. Each day you have to create your own.— Andrew Dumont (@AndrewDumont) August 13, 2014
At a startup, there is no momentum. Every day, you're required to create your own. If you don't, the company will slow. And in the event you do generate momentum, it quickly depletes if not continued. This pressure is placed squarely on the shoulder of every startup employee, every single day.
3. Failure breeds knowledge
With limited people and many things that need to be done, a startup is a the ultimate venue for failure, and therefore, learning. In a large company, nearly everything that an employee does requires approval or another set of eyes. There's a fear of failure, an unwillingness to allow employees to try new things. This fear builds with the size of the company.
At a startup, no one has the answer. The only way to find an answer is to try new things and adapt based on the results. Startup employees are battle-tested. Each day is a volatile string of highs and lows, with a heavy emphasis on the latter. Stuff breaks. Things go wrong. With that kind of experience, these people are more able to deal with the ebbs and flows of any business.
Now, I say this not to demean the experience people can get at large companies. That experience is valuable too, but different. Depending on the stage of your business, you may prefer it. What I'm trying to caution against is falling into the trap of inherently placing more value on corporate experience.
If you haven't heard of a company, that doesn't mean the knowledge obtained by its people is without merit, or somehow less valuable. In fact, just the opposite may be true.