When my tech business failed I did something I never thought I would: I went to work for one of the largest corporations in Europe.
During the five years I worked on Somehow, a product design agency based in Amsterdam, I thought that start-up life was my calling, the most exiting gig I ever imagined. I enjoyed the ability to pick the people I worked with, the thrill of pitching to clients, the rush of making money and the prospect of becoming financially independent. Of course, I knew that building an agency would never set me up for an IPO, the cover of Wired– or sweating in front of a US Senate hearing. But there was a good chance of accruing moderate wealth while actually loving my job.
In 2015, my co-founder Wilbert Baan and I decided that the agency was not growing enough to have a solid future ahead. We had happy customers and a decent income, but we just couldn’t lock down that steady recurring stream of income. We tried pivoting to a product model, but we didn’t have the power anymore to fully pursuit it. We decided, while we still had money in the bank and no debt to anyone, to kill the company.
I was devastated. I thought I lost the best job I ever had — the one job I could actually excel at, where my weird combination of talents and skills finally made sense.
As you can imagine, I was not really thrilled when I landed a freelance gig to develop the Location Based Product strategy in the mobile app department of AirFrance KLM. I had never worked for a company bigger than a couple hundred people; I planned to get out as fast as possible.
At this moment, I have been working at the KLM mobile team for 3.5 years! And to my own surprise, I’m actually enjoying the challenges of building products in a highly complex environment. I’m amazed and inspired at the way 80.000 employees figure out to how to organize themselves and safely transport 98 million travelers per year.
Hereunder are the lessons that helped me enjoy working at a corporate after starting out, thinking it was going to be the worst thing that ever happened to my career — and how if you are in the same position, you might change your frame of mind to see it the same way.
1. No one cares about your business failure!
This is probably a European thing. But Europeans are not very risk tolerant and failing is seen as something very negative. I expected people to judge me for failing to build a successful company. It turned out that nobody cared at all! New colleagues didn’t even ask for my reasons or motivations for shutting down the business. They asked for my portfolio, the products I had built, about the lessons I had learned and adventures I’d had.
But not a single one questioned my abilities, talent or passion due to quitting. On the contrary, they admired the guts and responsibility it took to build a company.
As long as you seem able to take care of an organizational need or problem, new colleagues don’t care what you have done before or how immaculate your career has been.
2. Speed beats politics
When I arrived at KLM, there were other teams working on roughly the same product line as I was in different parts of the organization. This caused time-consuming political power battles over which team owned a certain subject. Owning a subject translates to the number of employees managed, which in most cases determines how much bacon you bring home.
One thing I learned having my own business was to focus relentlessly and deliver as fast as possible. I don’t like politics, so I tried to delivered my POC’s and products faster than other teams.
In your corporate job, some people might be scheming — as is the case in every organization. Make sure you are building faster — prove your assumptions and product value — and often you don’t have to worry about politics.
3. Engagement paradox
When I was freelancing I didn’t care much about anything else other than helping my direct client, doing a good job on the project and maximizing my invoices. I wasn’t concerned with other people getting promotions, who the new VP or what the organizational structure would be.
Once my freelance contract was turned into an employee contract, I also became more engaged with the company and my place within it. I started comparing myself to other people and having opinions about certain managers and product decisions that didn’t even involve me. My increased engagement caused me to be less happy and sometimes frustrated.
Although it may be contrary to your intuition, if you are not too emotionally involved with your company you are actually able to have more fun, relax and achieve more. Don’t get locked in with regard to your skill set and keep an independent frame of mind.
4. Organizational structure equals individual freedom
As a surfer, I need to sneak out of the office from time to time to surf our fickle North Sea. I always thought that being my own boss gave me the most freedom to surf when the waves were up. But there were many times when deadlines and meetings won over surfing.
At KLM, people are obsessed with structure and super smooth processes. I was annoyed at first having to “succumb” them. It took me quite some time to realize that when your process and structures are set up well, there is a lot less dependency on individuals to keep everything running. Good processes in place mean less stress, more cognitive space and — in all honesty — it’s easier to sneak off early and go surfing, because everything keeps running also when I’m not there.
I came to love designing internal process just as much as product design. A well designed process equals individual freedom. Whether it comes to working on your long term strategy, freedom to think or write or to run off to sea every now and then.
5. Every corporation was a crazy successful start-up once
In an abstract sense, the challenges at Adyen, Shopify and Lyft are quite similar to the ones of older or more established companies. We’re all fixing a problem, we’re all battling for talent and revenue.
This perspective makes a lot of problems and discussions interesting. Shift your perspective and look at your corporate as though it is a crazy successful start-up which battled it out for decades and made it. Imagine everything you can learn and implement from a big business in case you might want to try your hand at another start-up again in the future.
6. Love your craft
This has been my biggest and also most liberating lesson of all. I love solving hard problems and developing digital products. I love working with a team of smart people with different skills sets. I love building a little army and fighting as hard as we can.
During my time at a big corporation, I realized that it almost doesn’t matter in which type of company I work. Every different type of organization enables me to learn and improve my skills.
It can be your own agency, start-up or within a giant corporation. The rules are a bit different, but the core is the same. Love what you do, be grateful for the opportunity to improve your skills and you’ll be happy where ever the up-and-downs of your career will take you.