From Consulting to Startups

As a consultant out of undergrad, every winter a spate of analysts would have Thursday doctor's appointments and Friday sick days. The diagnosis? PE interview-itis. 

These days, that mysterious two-day absence is as likely to be from flying out to San Francisco for startup interviews as it is from taking the train to Greenwich. As someone who made the transition from consulting to tech (via a b-school detour), I've spent a lot of time thinking about how the two compare. Below, I've outlined my experience.

What's constant:

  • Focus on learning

We used to joke that our consulting firm was full of "insecure overachievers" who were constantly working to learn more and deliver an impact.  The same focus on learning and impact is common among my colleagues and startup friends, although it's often much more self-motivated. Professional development now means online courses and General Assembly, not training sessions and Friday morning excel boot camps.

  • A balance between team and independence 

I always liked the consulting team set up. We often ran four or five work streams for a given project. Owning one of those work streams let me independently run a part of the problem, while still being part of a larger effort. The same thing is true of startups, especially small ones.  While everyone has the things for which they are individually responsible, only when those pieces fit together do we all succeed.

  • The stress — and need to take care of yourself

Consulting is stressful — there are tight timelines, demanding clients, and (usually) clear deliverables.  Startups are stressful as well, albeit often for opposite reasons. Timelines slip, you may not have clients, and the deliverables shift.  Both environments, for better or for worse, require a willingness to be a duck at times — calm above the surface of the water, paddling furiously underneath.  And in both environments, figuring out how to take care of yourself is essential.  For me, that means exercise, reading, and throwing dinner parties. Knowing those outlets and making sure you have time for them is non-negotiable.

What's changed

  • Your colleagues are much more diverse — and that's a good thing

In consulting, basic training bootcamps teach everyone to approach a problem, communicate and give feedback in the same way.  At a startup, not so much. Engineers, designers, data scientists, product people, marketers — everyone brings a unique perspective. While this makes for a stronger team, it can be an adjustment. I've had to strengthen my ability to see things from other perspectives and adapt my communication style. But I am a better colleague, and a better leader, for the experience.

  • Your path is not set — which makes it more open

The org chart for many startups, if it exists at all, is scrawled on a  napkin or stored in a half-forgotten google doc.  When you join an early stage "rocket ship"  (and if you don't think it's one, don't join), you join with the expectation that you and your role will grow with the company. But what it grows into can be unclear.  For those coming from a world of set roles and promotion timelines, coming to terms with that uncertainty can be tough.  The flipside, however, is that it is much easier to try out different roles, either by taking on short term projects or by making a bigger change.  Still, be ready to sometimes not know what the next step is, and to be able to self-motivate without that clarity.

  • 80/20 isn't just a catchphrase, but a reality

In consulting, everyone talked about the 80/20 answer, but I often felt the need to go to 90 to fulfill client expectations.  At a startup, 60% is often the 90% answer, especially if you're juggling multiple roles or rushing to get back to a client or investor in a timely fashion. Often, because you are scoping your own deliverables and goals, you have to rely on your own instinct — there is no one to tell you "enough" or "do a bit more."  Developing that sense of what 80/20 looks like is an important skill.

What did I miss? What else have you found if you've made the transition from consulting to startups?

Nota bene: if you're curious about the difference between those finance jobs and consulting, there's always this informative video.