Most aspiring entrepreneurs shudder at the idea of being stuck in a cubicle at MegaCorp, endlessly pounding away at a spreadsheet or putting together a PowerPoint that may never see the light of day. When I talk to folks who have just graduated and are thinking about starting their own companies, they often talk about how they want to use all the skills they learned in college or want to have control and do something amazing. And most of these entrepreneurs-to-be think that working in Corporate America is a total waste of time.
I can’t knock the spirit — I think it’s great that people want to take control of their lives and put their skills to use in the most productive way. However, the view that a stint in corporate America is a waste of time is a bit myopic and actually sort of dangerous. Some of the best entrepreneurs, including Jeff Bezos, Marc Benioff, Howard Schultz and countless others, started after a run in the corporate world.
Here are a few reasons why navigating the corporate jungle for a few years can be a great step to take before striking out on your own:
- You will learn accountability. When you are working for yourself on your own projects, the only person you have to answer to is yourself. There is no doubt that in order to be successful as an entrepreneur, you need to really refine your self-discipline skills. However, having a manager or VP waiting for a time-sensitive deliverable from you will definitely teach you what it means to get it together or get out.
- You will learn attention to detail. Any solid corporation will require you to be absolutely laser-focused on the smallest details. It may seem trivial, but I’ve had managers freak out at me for missing a number by a decimal or forgetting to capitalize a letter in a 40-page presentation. This type of attention to detail is critical when you are building your company. Being able to focus on the little things as well as the big things is essential. Producing typos, sloppy work, grammar mistakes and numbers that don’t tie out are surefire ways to lose credibility.
- You will learn how to work with a wide range of different people/personalities. As an entrepreneur, one of the most important skills you need to build is selling your vision to anyone who is willing to listen. But if you are only used to working with your peers, you will struggle to understand how to communicate with those coming from a different perspective. I find this is especially true in tech startups. Many founders are masters in their domain, but really struggle to share their vision with those that may not be as tech savvy. A big company, by its very nature, is a microcosm of the general population. Getting exposure to a wide range of people and, more importantly, learning how to convince them of your ideas, is a great skill to develop at a big company.
- You can build up some savings. One of the biggest advantages of taking a corporate job is the steady paycheck. When you are just starting out, it is helpful to have a steady income so you can save. This will help you build a cushion that you can use later to start your business. Without the freedom of extra cash, it’s hard to make any progress. I was able to negotiate a deal with my employer where I could work part time so I could spend the rest of the time working on my business. You can’t strike a deal like this right away, but after putting in a few years of great work, you earn the freedom to negotiate.
- You can build up some career capital. Do some amazing work, make some great impressions, and learn about yourself. The skills and career capital you build can become an great asset. I worked in finance at a large company and learned the ins and outs of budgeting, valuation and business planning. It has helped me tremendously in leading GoSpotCheck, and it makes me look great to investors. Regardless of what anyone thinks, if you want to be a successful entrepreneur, you absolutely must be able to build a sound financial model and understand the key drivers of your performance. I urge aspiring entrepreneurs to think about the career capital that they could build by working for someone else for a few years.
Here is the real key though — you want to build the best possible skill set you can. Even though there may not be as much excitement inside the corporate doors, it is a great place to learn. What you put in, you get out. So if you want to be an entrepreneur but aren’t quite sure what exactly you want to do yet, don’t knock a short run in the corporate world — it will give you stability and teach you a lot. That is, if you are willing to learn.