It’s recruiting season at Cornell. For many students, this means info sessions, recruiting deadlines on CCNET, last-minute appointments with career services, and polished resumes and cover letters.
Needless to say, with more than 4,500 interviews being conducted by more than 300 companies, it’s a big deal. And if this year is anything like the last 10 or so, around 50 percent of Cornell students will accept full or part-time offers upon graduation.
It may come as no surprise then, that few graduating seniors go on to start their own businesses. Often, entrepreneurship is not viewed as a realistic career path after graduation — there is little money initially, hard work, long nights and minimal chance of success — so it seems logical that students might not choose to pursue it immediately after college. Many will instead go on to pursue MBAs or work in the corporate world, some for Fortune 500 giants like General Electric, Proctor & Gamble, Ernst & Young and Lockheed Martin. Other students — about 33 percent of Cornell’s employed graduates — will go on to work in consulting and finance.
What these students may not know is that working for a major company is not the same thing as working for a startup. The two, in fact, could not be any more different.
Big companies — like McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola — are household names because they produce known products for a known customer. Take Coca-Cola, for example. For the most part, Coca-Cola’s billion-dollar business comes down to doing one thing well: the production and distribution of their famous Coke soft drink. That’s their business model.
A startup, in contrast, is an organization with a product, but without a defined customer. Steve Blank, a serial entrepreneur who now teaches entrepreneurship at Stanford University, reiterates this idea in his lectures and writings. He argues that a startup is a temporary organization in search of a customer group and business model.
At a fundamental level, any business is trying to do one thing: solve a problem in such a way that people (customers) will pay for it. And if there’s one thing any business needs, it’s customers. Big companies have lots of them, but a startup desperate for cash and customers will bend over backward to get anyone to try their product. For a startup, it’s not immediately clear if anyone will even need their product, let alone pay for it. It’s no wonder then, that 90 percent of startups fail within their first year of business.
What’s more, a startup and a corporation have very different working environments, organizational structures and business processes. In a big corporation, you’ll find an executive team along with hundreds or thousands of employees organized into various operational departments. In a startup, on the other hand, it’s not uncommon to see a few employees taking on many responsibilities. And they have to do whatever it takes to make and sell their product, find customers, generate investment capital, and hopefully make payroll if there’s any cash leftover. That’s why Steve Blank is right when he says: “Entrepreneurs who have run a startup know that startups are not small versions of big companies. Rather they are different in every possible way — from goals to measurements, from employees to culture.”
All that being said, successful startup entrepreneurs can and do emerge from the corporate world. What’s more, those with experience in big companies tend to have a broad network of contacts and solid industry understanding. And for student graduates who are still trying to decide whether entrepreneurship is the career path for them, working for a big company is often the best option. Just don’t expect your experience as a corporate executive to be the same as the founder or CEO of a new and unproven startup business.
But if you know that you want to go into entrepreneurship, and have a driving passion to do so, you should make every attempt to do it now. Don’t wait until you’re 35 with a mortgage, kids and a load of college debt to take a chance on starting a new business. Seek mentorship and counsel from others who have been there before, and you’ll be surprised to find that many are willing to help. On campus, Cornell students can take advantage of the University’s entrepreneurship program and the e-lab (now accepting applications) which provide office space, access to accountants and lawyers, means of early stage financing, and a network of successful entrepreneurs and Cornell alumni who serve as mentors.
Bottom line: Instead of deferring a life plan, follow your passion. As Warren Buffett has said: “If you take another job you don’t like, isn’t that a little like saving sex for old age? There comes a time …” Well, you get the point.
Christopher Henty is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at email@example.com. #TheStartupBiz appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.