So you want to join a startup?

Laurence Smith, who switched from a corporate job to startups a few years ago, shares some advice for other HR professionals looking to do the same
By: | May 29, 2018

So you’re ready to ditch the suit and the 9-5 to join the glamorous startup world and gig economy? Think twice. Then think again.

“I want to get into startups”, “I want to join a startup”, and even “I want to do a startup” – as an HR leader that has left a high profile corporate job to join a startup, people often tell me they want to do the same. But rarely when I ask ‘why?’ does it turn out that they have actually thought it through.

Here are a few words of advice if you or anyone you know is considering this radical move – as well as a few insights from my own journey and “re-adjustment”.

When I ask people why they want to join a startup, they give a myriad of predictable reasons, but they are usually stuck in an “either/or” dilemma. Should I leave safety, security, and a regular pay check? For risk, potentially higher rewards, more fun, a greater challenge, and purpose etc. And they really can’t make a decision.

I then ask them, “so what have you done to learn about the startup world and understand what you’d be getting into,” and they usually look a little sheepish and admit, “well, actually, not much – yet…”

So here’s the thing – you don’t yet have enough data to make a decision. In fact, you don’t yet know what you’re talking about, so learn before you decide. In classic lean startup fashion, run some experiments and get some validated learnings. Don’t know what that means? Then you’re definitely not ready for the startup world yet!

Here’s a suggestion. Some time ago I was having dinner with a very senior HR leader I used to work with. After more than 20 years with a top global FMCG firm, he found himself in Silicon Valley, but still working for a large global firm. Enticed by the vigorous startups in the valley, he was considering his next career move. My advice to him was “don’t”. Don’t do anything – yet. Just learn.

Start going to startup events. There’s hundreds of them in the Valley and dozens every month in Singapore. Network and get to know startup founders and people that work in them. Learn how they really work, what they really do. Find out what it’s actually like to work at that pace and intensity. Understand the insanity and the pressure, and the fear of running out of money or not getting that funding.

When you’ve made enough connections, built your network, established some credibility as a big corporate person that is genuinely interested in startups, see if you can find a founder that you have some rapport with. Offer to mentor them or advise them, for free typically (though if they formalise an ‘Advisory Board’ position you may get 0.5 – 1% of equity).

You probably can’t advise them on building the business, but most startups NEVER have any HR support, often until they are hundreds of people strong. Indeed, many famous founders have commented that their biggest regret is not hiring a proper HR manager earlier to help them scale.

You have massive years of experience in HR, talent and in building teams. Now you’ll have to adjust your thinking as it will be an experimental learning journey for both of you. Many of your traditional HR ideas and processes will be totally archaic for the fast-moving startups world – but that’s exactly the point. This an opportunity for you to learn safely, without ditching your day job – and if you’re open-minded and adaptable enough, you can still offer massive value to any startup.


Tested assumptions and validated learnings

The lean startup thinking I mentioned earlier? The most fundamental idea you need to understand – and the concept that every entrepreneur works toward – is to test your riskiest assumptions as quickly and cheaply as possible. So don’t quit your day job (yet). Do what startups do: run experiments, lots of them. Go to dozens of events, meet hundreds of entrepreneurs, have a thousand conversations.

Your riskiest personal assumption is that you’ll love the startup world – so test that assumption. There is no right or wrong, there are only unvalidated assumptions.

This brings me to my final point: validated learnings. I love this concept. Throw away “fail fast” I hate that term – and by the way, so does your boss, even if they don’t admit it.

To get real validated learnings, run dozens of experiments. With experiments there is no failure, no right or wrong, there is only data. And this data takes the form of ‘validated learnings.’ Every experiment (meetings or conversations in this case), gives you great data and validated learnings. Every experiment gets you closer to being able to make the “right” decision.

So, are you interested in the startup world? Then think like a startup, act like a startup, get to know real startups, and if possible mentor a startup. If you’re an experienced business or HR leader, you have massive ability to contribute. You’ll have to be totally flexible and adaptable to do so, but again – that’s the point.

Whether you’re suited to the startup world will become self-evident really fast. This experience, and these experiments, will very quickly validate your assumptions about the startup world, and you’ll know whether you’re cut out for it or not.

In a future article I’ll share some insights from my own journey and re-adjustment.




Laurence Smith is the host of HRM Asia’s Digital Mindset forum, and regularly contributes articles on how technology is changing the way workforces, and HR, operate.