It’s been 6 months since I made the decision to join a tech startup (Llama Life!) as their first employee. 

Part of a 2 women team, with the Founder.

As someone who has worked for enterprises (think large bank, telco and health insurance companies) for the vast majority of their career thus far, let me tell you, this was a major shock to the system! Some negative, but, mostly positive ‘shocks’.

A quick snapshot of my background - over the span of two decades of my working life, I have spent 9 years, so almost half, working for large businesses with 25,000 employees or more.

To say that I was institutionalised to how enterprise businesses worked, would be correct. When you work for a business that size, generally, things are slower to progress, there are more people involved in every decision, you get used to meetings for the sake of meetings, and putting together business cases and presentation decks felt like a weekly task. Don’t get me wrong, I have definitely enjoyed most of my previous roles, and have learnt a hell of a lot. I’ve made wonderful friendships I would forever cherish, often given opportunities for growth, and felt engaged in my work.

But when you start feeling institutionalised and your mind begins daydreaming and thinking “what if..?” like I was, it may be time to consider taking the scary jump, and pivot yourself from corporate to start up. 

Below is my super honest experience so far!

Decision flow chart starting with 'I want to do this' and the two options are to 'do it' or to 'do it scared'.

Image credit: Janis Ozolins 

Your impact is great

One of the first things that hit me hard, in a good way, was impact. Impact in that your work can be seen, felt, recognised, and appreciated immediately. When you work for a startup, every little thing you do adds up quickly. It feels immensely gratifying to know that everything that you do (and don’t do) is adding directly to the business’ goals. You’ve never been in a role where it has been clearer how you are helping to take the startup that one step closer to its vision.

On the other side of this, is the potential pressure you’ll feel. You’re not the Founder, but working so closely with the Founder, you begin to live and breath the mission. And sometimes, you may feel pressure because of this. It’s pressure most likely created by yourself. But one you must be on the lookout for and manage accordingly, because it can grow legs.

You better start sprinting, now

I think it’s safe to say that most people would assume working for a startup would mean a faster pace of work. I can confirm, this is true! But it’s not just the pace of how you work. You’ve gotta think faster too. Be on your feet always! Everything you do is kind of an experiment, iterating fast is crucial, and so is deciding to start, stop, or continue something. There is no time to procrastinate

In a corporate landscape, there is often more time to do the work but also to get the work going. There’s more people you need to get on board with your idea, a business case to present, and funding to be approved. There’s also often red tape or office politics to navigate.

I always believed I worked fast, but discovered that maybe it wasn’t so fast, or as fast as I thought when I joined Llama Life! I think it was my personal pace in a corporate environment that I thought was fast, but when thrown into a startup culture, I had to change gears.

There’s no right or wrong in terms of this - but rather what works for you and how you like to work. I found myself getting more and more frustrated with how slow things were moving, and desperately wanted to change this.

You will have full ownership

When you work for a startup, you will own your work. Almost every aspect of it.

I’m not saying I didn’t own my work back in my previous corporate roles, but at a start up, especially one with 2 people in it, you will be given ownership to make decisions that may feel outside of your role. Let me explain.

In my previous roles, I may have had an idea, talk to colleagues and my people leader about it, build the business case, get the budget for it, create it, then the marketing team might get involved, decide how to market it, then you speak to the Communications team about how it’s going to be shared internally, you may have to collaborate with another project team that has overlapping remit etc etc.

At a small startup, I may have an idea, pitch it, then the Founder may literally respond with, “Great idea, go do it.” And then you go! It’s liberating to be given not only this trust, but also the freedom to make decisions.

You will feel like you are being micro managed

With this ownership comes accountability, and a feeling like you are being micromanaged. In particularly when you first join. This took a bit for me to adjust to. I’ve never been a fan of being micro managed and the same still applied in a start up. This feeling lasted for a few months whilst I was getting adjusted, but has tapered off now.

In hindsight, I think it was more of an increased visibility of my work that felt like micro management. No people leader has cared about my work to the same degree before. No other people leader have had so much relying on what I produced. As part of such a small team, it’s essential for the Founder to know that you’re spending the right amount of time on the right things, and to check in regularly considering how precious time is.

Two cartoon characters, one jumping on a trampoline with the trampoline being a 'supportive community', and the other standing still.

Image credit: Janis Ozolins 

You will use all your skills 

When you work for a startup at pre-seed stage, you will be able to use all your skills. Every single one of them! Because between you and the Founder, you are the entire business. Kind of daunting but really exciting too.

So the job title in my contract may say ‘Head of Content, Community & Partnerships’, but it goes way beyond that. You will be using skills you have gained from every other role you’ve had, and you’ll be picking up new skills left, right, and centre.

For some this may be frustrating. There’s a reason you’ve moved on from, let’s say HR, to Marketing, but alas you will be looking after HR for a while!

You may need to forget some things too

Every now and then, I find myself slipping into what we’re affectionately calling ‘Corporate Speak’. You know what I’m referring to! After nearly a decade of creating presentation decks, business cases, content for enterprises - it has taken some time to forget these. Even when I think I’m doing well, it comes up again!

Changing from corporate to start up will mean you will have to reevaluate how you do things and being open to adapting (quickly!).

You will be part of a super tight knit team

When you join a startup at such an early stage, you will play a key role in the culture. Right now, the Founder and I are the culture! It’s such a different scenario to work closely in a small team that’s the entire company, then to work in a small team that’s part of a large corporation. I believe the company culture is the heart of the company and the potential to help shape this was too good of an opportunity!

So if these guys are the entire company….

then you know what to expect, right? 

What's next? 

So that’s a wrap on my first 6 months foray into a tech startup. I’ll update you again at 12 months. If you’ve made the jump recently as well, I would love to hear how it’s going and if you agree with the above!

A llama wearing sunglasses with text Llama Life is the most fun you'll have with your to-do list