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Startups – what’s their allure?

Picture by Mike Dierken

Having just left a startup in which I was a founding partner, I’m going to shift the emphasis of this blog – at least for now – from branding to startups. This is the first in a series of articles I plan to write.

…And I’m changing my personal branding statement to “I put the start in startups.”


In my long and varied career, I’ve spent more time in startups than in established companies. Let me relate an experience I had in my first post-graduate school job – I think you’ll understand immediately why I hated big companies.

When I was about to leave graduate school, with an MBA in Computer Applications from a top school (NYU), I was introduced to the Chairman of Bloomingdales. He asked me to come work as the liaison between Finance and EDP (now IT). That should have been my first red flag – here were two essential groups, and the managers weren’t able to work with each other. I later came to realize that the retail business was riddled with nepotism, and this was a prime example. (I don’t mean to say the individual managers were incompetent or bad people, just that the new finance people  didn’t have the experience they should have had for a business that size.)

That position never materialized, so I was put in the Internal Audit department, which was run by Bloomie’s token woman manager. This woman never did a single day’s work in the entire time I worked for the company. She had one employee whose primary job was finding her an apartment in New York City. Too bad, because there was a real glass ceiling in those days, and people like this, who took advantage of the need for business to diversify, set back the women’s cause by a lot.

Working for her was pretty bad. It was also bad sharing a closet with 2 other office workers, but that’s another story – and after all, the closet did have a window, so I really shouldn’t complain.

Starting to get the picture? Well here’s some icing for the cake. I was given an assignment to create some cost accounting information so the cost of charge sales could be accurately computed and allocated among departments. My marching orders were “do the worst job you can – we have to comply with Federated (the owner of Bloomingdale’s) requests, but since we’re their most important store and we don’t want to do this, screw them.”

Being intrinsically stubborn (a good trait for a startup maven, but not so good at Bloomie’s), I ignored these instructions, and did pretty thorough job. Dilbert could have written the script: I wasn’t allowed any access to the computerized records of sales, and so my “little” task required a lot of extra work by the already overtaxed sales audit team. And in the end, I got soundly criticized for doing too good a job.

Fast forward to the first startup I worked at a few years later. In a startup, you do whatever you need to do to make the company successful. Everybody is involved, and everyone works collaboratively. Small and startup means that everybody has opinions about the projects their partners do, and decisions are generally communal. In startups, you don’t have some dumb shit telling you to do stupid projects. And since you own the company yourself (or have stock options – but in any case you’re motivated to have the company succeed), you try to do your projects as well as possible.

I don’t know about you, but one of my biggest frustrations is doing a project that gets put on the shelf, or one that has no value and is just busy-work. That simply doesn’t exist in startups. In this small, naïve environment, everything you do has an impact in the success or failure of the enterprise. I need that to get motivated. I need to see that what I do will have an impact on the business, and by the way, I don’t want to wait five years to see it.

So, when asked why I hang around in startups, which have their own drawbacks, my answer is simply this: I like the enthusiasm, the naiveté, the collaborative spirit. I like seeing the fruits of my labors. I like being accountable. I like being able to change course instantly if the original is headed for disaster. I like working with groups that genuinely enjoy working together, where you don’t have to live with politics and people who think their job is to keep their job. Focus on the product or service, and things pretty much align themselves. At the end of the day, you can come home and say that you contributed to the (hopeful) success of your company.


Posted in Personal branding, Startups.

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