Many people will have started the new year wondering if it is time to take a risk with their career and move away from a safe corporate job. While every day it appears that other people are making their dreams a reality, how do you make sure you don't waken into a nightmare?

Do I belong in a young business?

I purposely avoided asking if you belong in a start up as to me the idea seems crazy. Who wants to work without all the resources and tools that will allow you to perform to the highest standards? People who dream of working at a start up seem to be missing some critical faculties. The reality is start up is a phase not a long term state of being. It is different working in the start up phase to working in a small profitable or growing company. It is more valuable to consider work within a young business that is en route to be something else.

There are three distinct groupings I have encountered who consider working for a young business as a choice over a corporate role. I will review them in turn.

Young guns

First come those just getting onto the career ladder, who do not yet have much to lose, and for whom this can be a good calculate risk. If your career has been working for under "market rate" for over five years because you keep flipping from struggling start up to struggling start up then some serious self-examination may be required.

My personal experience is that I learned a lot more working in younger companies that allowed me to accelerate my corporate career far faster than had I started out on a graduate training program at a Fortune 500 type firm.

Done well, and by continuously challenging yourself to pivot, try more new stuff, young businesses are great places to learn. Two years into my career I had been able to study closely a great CFO, a master salesman turned CEO and a great CTO and build long term bonds that still allow me to consult them when I need some sage advice.

Unhappy or unlucky?

The remaining two groups come from experienced employees. If you are experienced and then have more to lose (and maybe some dependents) then you either can afford or need a new challenge which requires you to reinvent yourself, or you are simply unhappy with your current role.

I've seen many a successful person with large corporate success just struggle with the challenges of being asked to make good judgment calls across a range of disciplines. It is often less their entrepreneurial flair than their attention to details and ability to juggle finance, HR, operating and sales tasks well that separates out those who can thrive in a young business or not.

For those who are not excited or energized by the thought of getting creative and multi-disciplinary and waking to new challenges each day, then I would suggest some soul searching is required. The root of many looking to get out is an inability to be self critical, lacking in EQ, and being in denial about their true strengths and weakness. Start up land is filled with a lot of misfit types who continue to be unsuccessful because the reason their corporate careers failed are entirely self-defined.

The others in this group are often in fact being held back in their development because either their boss is cramping them, their industry is in secular decline or their company is not growing due to bad senior leadership. None of these is a reason to move outside of the corporate world which offers a far better risk adjusted return for many. A quick re-write of the resume and a sideways move may be more suitable.

Join or found?

That then leaves the last group who could well be successful in a new venture, and then the question is one of should I join a recently started company or start my own? There is of course no simple answer to this.

Again for many, the less risky route seems to be to join someone else's start up. But do you really share the idea with the same passion as the founders? Are you going to be happy with less equity than them? Would you execute the idea the same way as they are doing? If yes, then join them, assuming they see the synergies and have the maturity to see the value of having someone with "grey hair" or corporate experience inside their firm.

If not, then you had better hope you come up with a good idea for a firm, and can either self-fund it or get the external funding to make it successful. The biggest lesson I have learned about working with so many entrepreneurs is that you do not need to have as unique and complete a vision as a Steve Jobs. Trying to be totally unique can lead you into stupidly obscure business models. There is a reason some niches are not well served--they maybe don't pay.

One unifying theme I can see from the firms I connect with regularly is that in general they have found underserved markets where there is an opportunity to leverage some of all the work that the founders have already banked in their previous corporate lives. For me personally, this meant looking across my unique experiences in Financial Technology and in successfully running sales, client services and operations teams in multiple countries and seeing an opportunity to repurpose this in an outsourcing environment.

Only ever take calculated risks

I like to recall the quote that only idiots are ever absolutely certain of anything. Any career change and new business opportunity is going to be risky and it wont do you any good to beat yourself up if it doesn't work out. Unless, that is, you haven't been appraised who you really are, what you really value and what others really value in you.

Published on: Jan 28, 2015