Want to Be an Entrepreneur? Work for a Big Company First

Recently BNET colleague Donna Fenn listed 10 reasons a college grad's first job should be with a startup. Great article, sound reasoning... but I disagree, if only because my first post-college job was with a Fortune 500 company. Starting and running a business would have been much harder without the skill and experience I gained in a corporate environment.

Would I want to work there today? No. But am I glad I once worked there? Absolutely.
If you hope to someday start your own business, here are great reasons to work for a big company first:

  1. Entrepreneurs are sometimes crazy -- and not in a good way. For every passionate and visionary entrepreneur who identifies an unmet need and taps the latent skills and expertise of otherwise-underutilized employees to create a thriving business that values people as much as profits... there are hundreds of small businesses run by people who are, well, nuts. Sure, many startups are run by solid businesspeople, but I've met way more entrepreneurs who use their business to serve their self-indulgent, narcissistic, "me first" needs. Work for one and you may never realize there's a better way.
  2. Training is not a distant dream. Most startups have limited resources and need employees to hit the ground running. Then the responsibility for gaining new skills is firmly placed on the employee, too. Larger companies with multiple functions and departments offer tons of opportunities to gain new skills; the more focused the startup, the less likely you'll develop additional expertise.
  3. Mentors are everywhere. At a startup the founder is typically the only mentor available. That's great if the founder is great, but what if she is a terrible mentor? The odds of finding helpful mentors at big companies are much greater. Besides, who at a startup has any time to help you?
  4. Checks and balances limit extreme behavior. Who do you call if the startup's founder takes an unwanted interest in you? Your mother? Large companies expect and enforce professional behavior, teaching you how to conduct yourself in any business setting.
  5. "My way" tends to hit the highway. I'm no fan of thousand-page policy manuals, but good procedures and guidelines do serve to protect employees. Promotions, discipline, hiring and firing -- you're much less likely to find yourself suffering from the employee relations whims of an unstable founder at a large company, since even the most forceful leaders still must work within the larger system. And you learn how to treat employees fairly, which a prime responsibility of a small business owner.
  6. Discipline and follow-through are expected. Many entrepreneurs are great at starting but terrible at finishing. No matter what field you enter, persistence is everything. While I dislike Gantt charts and Project as much as you do, learning to work through problems and complete projects in a structured, disciplined way is invaluable. And speaking of projects...
  7. Large companies assign a variety of projects. The bigger the company, the more initiatives -- and the more opportunities for you to lead a project. Ideas are important, but execution makes all the difference. Entrepreneurs who get to practice the science of execution with a net below them perform more confidently when balancing on the high wire of entrepreneurship.
  8. Most importantly, you'll learn what not to do. Big companies aren't perfect. Big companies make mistakes, treat employees with indifference, fail to recognize accomplishments... spend a few years working for a big company and you'll fill your mental file cabinet with ideas for how your small business can and will be different.
Note to Readers: Check out my BNET series The 11,500 Foot View, the chronicle of my attempt to accomplish an impossible goal, remain in the good graces of my family, run a business, stay sane, and blog about it. If you like self-inflicted pain and suffering, you'll love this.
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