This week, I had an opportunity to be a speaker at the Nocash event in Bucharest, Romania. I am always grateful for chances like that, – because of the conversations they bring and because the other presenters introduce topics, or certain angles of topics, I did not think about before. (And I like presenting, too, fine). As every respectable event in the Financial Services industry these days, Nocash was largely about the Open API Economy – which ultimately means fintechs. Watching many of them in the room and on the stage, I could not help thinking about my own experience of running a company, and, listening to the Nocash fintechs stories, comparing my past to my current situation: starting a business versus working for a multinational.
Funny enough, most people do these two things in the reverse order: start in large corporations and then switch to their own business. So I thought I would lay out my two experiences, comparing them on a number of parameters that matter to me in a wholeheartedly biased way.
LIVING THAT DREAM. Because after all, that’s why all startups exist, according to the official version of their stories, don’t they? I hate to kill the buzz, but most of the time the reasons for a startup existence are less romantic. Going to university is a drag (or school is over), going to the office is dull, and you hate to say good bye to your friends (bummer, running a successful startup requires more energy than sitting through your exams and pulling a work all-nighter combined). You have an absolutely brilliant idea which no one else gets to appreciate – clearly, you think so much ahead of your time (the truth is, truly great ideas catch on quickly. Facebook did not spend years pitching to investors.) Other reasons for a startup? A bunch of guys could not get a job in the companies already out there and decided to create a workplace for themselves (which is a great way to solve the unemployment problem, by the way). Someone had an idea based on a new technology barely understood, and it sounded good enough to someone else, with no clue about technology at all and with lots of money made in a much more traditional, much less trendy industry. So yes, many dreams are formed around startups but not all of them include a truly great idea and an overwhelming desire to work hard to make it happen.
Of course, there are companies are born of a great idea, a dream, and a hard work. And dreams do come true. Apple, Google, Amazon. Facebook, Uber, Airbnb. Ethereum, Free, Zenly. Our story with Vicky was a case like that. We knew the business we were in and had and a history of working together. What we also had was a very clear idea of what we wanted to do, – which was what we did before but better and in a new, clean way: online-only, digital, agile. In fintech vocabulary, we were a payment provider without a bank (a PISP). And yes, we had tons of fun working together and definitely enjoyed skipping the part of going to the office properly dressed. (Vicky and I founded and ran successfully for four year a commodity trading business. I wrote about it in the post of my life in Helsinki, Chapter I: Finland). We were never thinking about ourselves as a startup, by the way. From the first day onwards, we were a business. There is something ephemeral about the term “startup”, something short-lived. With most of the startups ending up being a flop, calling yourself a startup today almost invites thinking that you are here to try. Don’t be a startup, be a business.
So where are multinationals in all that? People join huge companies for many reasons. Mine were mostly romantic. After running a company we had co-founded (and having had worked in a mid-size firm prior to that), I was fascinated by the opportunities of a huge business. What you can do with all this internal capital, both brain and money, tools that you have to build your vision. Highly intelligent people that work by your side. Lives you can influence being a company of that size, changes you can inspire. Big company was synonymous of a big dream for me. Maybe a “dream” is too much of a word here. But it certainly was a choice.
LIFESTYLE. So what about the living of this living? I was a business owner in my 20s. I also just moved to Europe then and enjoyed my sudden mobility: both in terms of national borders and in terms of my schedule. I could work from anywhere at pretty much any time (there is always someone trading in the world), and I replied emails on my blackberry (the advances of technology that seem almost vintage today) in 10 seconds or less. I did not have to travel for work that much. We would go to an annual business fair, and that was it. For my personal life, I was roaming non-stop. In four years of running the business (out of Helsinki), I lived in London, Istanbul, South Korea, Paris and stayed for weeks every now and then in Rome and Vienna, where two of my best friends at the time lived. I also took a second Masters degree, in economics, in parallel with my work. And I was productive, too. The main difference between running your own company and working for someone else is that with your own business, you have no real time off: no weekends, no vacations, no breaks. Even if you are not working, work is always in your head. That’s true. But then, for me it was not a sacrifice, it was passion. I did not feel like I was giving up my vacation, I actually loved what I was doing. And, I will take a stretch here and say, that’s how you should feel about any work that you do, be it your own company or not.
Working for a multinational is a different kind of a balancing act for me. After changing nine countries of residence, I have finally settled on Paris, which has been my heart’s choice since the first time I stepped on Champs-Elysées (the avenue that now I don’t like at all, by the way) during my business trip in 2003. For the first time in my life, I can be happy without traveling for long period of times (or so it seems, I have never really tried it yet). I still love traveling, – that’s one of the things that inspires me the most in life. And I still take the road to discover new places. Unlike my years in Helsinki, though, I travel for work, too. A LOT. During the busy periods of September-December and April-June I am on the plane 3 weeks out of 4, if not 5 out of 6. And as much as I enjoy going to some countries I have never been to before, it can be very tiring. I do sales, and the best way to do sales is still in person, come what may the technology. So I go along with it. And at times it is not easy, even though I have come up with some travel lifehacks. Business travel is not what it seems to people who never did it. To me it is worth the arrival and being there in person, but it does come with certain trade-offs.
GROWTH. If your heart is in what you do, you grow every day. Running my own business, I was learning take risky decisions, creating possible future scenarios, taking responsibility for other people – those working for us – and, duh, calculating cashflows. I was also learning how to do my job better, every day. When we ran intothe wall of not-exactly-startup-friendly Russian legislation, I took a year to do my MBA studies and for my next career step choose an industry that would inspire me. Coming to tech was my choice. Being new to it, most of all I wanted to learn, to understand the tech business from the inside. I was lucky, I guess, because I got a chance to interview with the leading tech companies in the end of my MBA year. With its endless portfolio of businesses, tech inside tech inside tech and all related, like matrioshkas, Russian dolls (I can’t believe I am explaining what it is), Microsoft was offering the best opportunity to learn.
I did learn, a lot. About software, licensing, business models, working with partners and, duh, about the perils of a matrix organization (cashflow-equivalent on the low-excitement axis). Then I was lucky, once again, to get the job at Microsoft I wanted the most, the industry sales, and I learnt about the latest technology developments, innovation in Financial Services, dealing with the C-level, and, well, speaking at the conferences. And I did get better in sales, too. So, if you remain a curious person, you do grow, in startups and corporations. Every day. Even if you often learn different things.
MONEY. When successful, you get paid more in your own business. That’s a simple math of cutting the management layer, because now you are it, and the coordination layer, because now you don’t need it, off the food chain. On the downside, you don’t know when you will be successful, how much it will bring you exactly, and sometimes whether you will be successful at all. (Then why are you doing it?) No bank will give you even a mid-size consumer loan, let alone sign your mortgage, and you have no pension fund other than your own bank account set aside for this noble purpose (that you occasionally tap into, because, well, retirement is far). So it’s all about how you manage uncertainty and your risk appetite (and your appetite in general, sometimes).
That’s the theory, and I bet you have thought about it all yourself (about hundred times or so, when fantasizing about quitting your work after a particularly bad day). But businesses are different, small and big ones. Some stand-alone traders will make more money than their ex-colleagues in well-established banks, some solo investors will get a higher pay out that the biggest names in the industry. And for some it will be absolutely the reverse. I was not always making more money in our business with Vicky than I did in the mid-size trading house in Russia (also because now I had to pay real taxes), but I enjoyed it much more, in ways that were far more important than the account balance after-tax. I remember reading somewhere that we need a certain amount of money to pay for most of the things that we want (including some of the things we don’t need), and that earning higher amount than that increases happiness just a little bit (if at all). That rings true to me. If it doesn’t to you, think about money as a component in the overall payout for the work that you are getting: including growth, self-fulfillment, and how this job helps you to live the life you want to live in general.
FRUSTRATIONS. Every business is full of frustrations, – that is what distinguishes it from a dream. (In a way, your tolerance to frustration is the best determinant of how well you will do in both a startup and a multinational.) What are the typical frustrations of a newly born business? You have to do your accounting on your own. You need to explain what your company does, ten times a day (on a good day). Sometimes you have to spell its name, too, and that’s where you need to be careful with choices. You don’t have a business card, a site, an office, sometimes even a computer and, of course, you don’t have a company paid phone, – all the things you take for granted until they are gone. These are small things and they go away in a few months. What does not go away is a certain ceiling, that comes either with investors who affect how you actually run this business of yours, or with the lack of funds to develop and grow it the way you want without the investors.
Different types of frustrations lurk in corporations. Acronyms. Long, grammatically overloaded sentences, to convey a short message (if any). Corporate buzz-words. Long, grammatically overloaded sentences with buzzwords. “Let’s brainstorm collectively how we should best pivot this approach to position this solution in this market to the maximum increase of the customer value”. Complexity of a matrix organization, when you have five people who are supposed to do something very similar, with none of them doing it in the end. (And everyone redirecting you instead to more people with buzzwords, on a particularly bad day). These are small things. They don’t go away in a few months, but you quickly find people who do things and speak in short sentences you understand, and you stick with them, together against the corporate world. Big thing is that even when you join forces, every one of your great ideas takes time. In your own business, you see the effect of the decisions you make every day. You lower the price of your products, you sell more. You introduce a new feature, people love it, you sell more. You don’t sell more, you know right away that the feature is not that great. In corporations, it might take you six months to introduce that feature. Or even to start talking about introducing that feature, – because sometimes the decision power is with the people who want to discuss collectively how to best pivot, and there is no way around it. And I am not even talking about reporting.
SELF-FULFILLMENT (OR THE REAL LIFE POTENTIAL OF LIVING THAT DREAM).
After starting my work journey in a commodity trading house what will soon be 15 years ago, I see both multinationals and startups not as an ultimate choice but as steps. Or, more precise, stages – both in career and in life. They might come in a different order: startup first, a multinational second, like it happened to me, or the other way round. In the end, your happiness, your growth and even, to a certain extent, your lifestyle and your income, depend on things beyond the format of your business. On your willingness to learn, to discover and innovate on a personal level: to think in new ways and do things in new ways. On never saying “that’s good enough, I will go watch some TV now”. On your ability to value your experiences, your relationships, on being an interesting person while remaining a great listener. On your unique understanding of the world, which, in fact, is your best asset.
And then, startups and multinationals can change places in various combinations, but they all become integral parts – each advancing you one step ahead – of the same journey. And this journey is format-free.