“Getting the hang of” working in big companies taught me to keep starting companies

September 24, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog, Entrepreneurship

I know some people like working in big companies. They like the feeling of stability, the benefits, the uniformity, I guess.

Regular readers know I prefer small companies, especially having co-founded one.

Why? Because of big company culture.

One incident cemented this perspective for me. I’ll tell you the story that made me not like big companies. You may feel I extrapolated too far. Maybe.

What turned me off from big companies

Co-founding my company was my first experience in business. Before that I was a graduate student. I ran the company as CEO as best I could. Eventually it was no longer a start-up and needed different skills than I had and someone else became CEO.

I went to work at a friend’s company. It was young, but a big company with hundreds of employees. I worked in Product Development and tried to come up with new ideas for the company all the time. Sometimes I thought of new products and services to sell, sometimes improvements to existing ones, and sometimes I thought of ways to improve internal processes to lower costs, improve morale, and so on.

I had plenty of regular work besides coming up with new ideas. I just liked coming up with ideas and increasing revenues and decreasing costs.

Each new idea required vetting and approval to implement. Some ideas I knew wouldn’t help much, but some I liked and had confidence to promote. At the time I didn’t have great social or business skills so I rarely knew how to get people excited in them. I felt frustrated.

One particular week, in frustration at the work it took to get ideas listened to and the company not acting on my ideas and feeling like a kid thinking if-I-can’t-play-I’ll-take-my-ball-and-go-home, I decided to do the bare minimum of work I could and not suggest anything new. It was years before digital books got big, but I found a digital book to read on my computer so I looked like I was working.

As planned, I did my bare minimum of work that week and mostly read.

The following Monday I had my weekly meeting with my manager. After a comfortable week not caring about my work, I entered that meeting nervous since I hadn’t thought about the consequences.

After my least productive week in the company, can you guess what she said to me?

She said, “It looks like you’re getting the hang of working here. Great week.

I got a great weekly review. She rewarded me for doing less work. Rather, she rewarded me for not doing anything besides the bare minimum.

In any case, getting a better review for doing less work taught me I’d rather work in a more dynamic environment. I concluded big companies valued predictability and not rocking the boat even at the expense of progress and building value over creative contribution.

Revisiting…

Looking back, I see I didn’t understand the company’s systems proposing all those potentially disruptive changes all the time. At the time, I considered those proposals as valuable and didn’t consider the costs to changing set practices. Nor did I yet understand how to promote projects in a company putting the team first. Writing this post now, with all my extra years of experience, I realize I might not get into such positions of frustration in the first place, nor conclude big companies have to be as static as I concluded them to be.

Big companies don’t have to become bureaucratic and small companies can.

Still, I’ve found other reasons to prefer small companies, in particular ones I have a sense of ownership and high-level decision-making.

I feel like that environment gives me the chance to play to win, not to play not to lose.

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