The Globe and Mail published an article this week which argues that millennials at the outset of their careers should stay away from start-ups. The writer’s reasoning, if I understand it correctly, is that since only a small percentage of these companies will succeed, the majority of young people coming out of these businesses will find themselves having invested ‘everything in a company that no longer exists’. As a result, having slaved away in ‘grunt’ jobs and likely ‘without a lot of mentoring’, these individuals (the start-up lottery losers), will have ‘worthless’ resumes and may find themselves ‘unhirable when they start looking for their second jobs’. The writer goes so far as to suggest that graduates, fresh out of school, have more ‘cachet’ than the alumni of failed start-ups. With all due respect to the author of this article, I say nonsense!
As someone who has discussed careers with tech sector executives for decades, I would argue against conceptualizing jobs as win-lose lottery tickets. Instead, they are far better viewed as experiential signposts along a long undulating, occasionally bumpy and unpredictable road. Forks present themselves, decisions have to be made and occasionally accidents or dead ends present themselves. Each experience however is accretive and a developmental opportunity in one way or another. And while some people will learn and evolve in remarkable ways, others will get stuck in the mud. Over time however, narratives and themes take shape and careers play out. Happy trails for many, highways to hell for some and something in between for most.
Starts-ups are but one type of business, no better or worse than others. They are experimental by nature, free-flowing, exciting and high risk. They share common characteristics and yet each is unique in its own way. Context matters, as does the quality and experience of charismatic or professional leadership. Serendipity and timing are rarely absent from the equation. Starts-ups are front row experiences, with the CEO usually just down the hall. There is usually at least some visibility into most of the moving parts. While start-ups fit some better than others, it is ludicrous to generalize that every graduate interested in marketing or sales or customer service or finance, should avoid these environments in favor of the more formal learning settings of IBM, Royal Bank or General Motors.
The experience of a young person who has worked two years at a failed start-up is no less valuable than the experience of a person who spent those same two years as an analyst buried in the bowels of Canada Post. It is just different. And if that individual can articulate even a modicum of what they have observed, what they have learned and can apply going forward, what they enjoyed and come to better understand about themselves, then they will have learned much of great value. There is nothing worthless about that.
About the Author
Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.