Start Up or Join Up?

Recent graduates from post-secondary schools across Canada have an interesting choice to make: should they start up a new enterprise or accept an offer to join an established one?

The student start-up dream has been immortalized by wild success stories.  Legends abound of university drop-outs like Mike Lazaridis (creator of the BlackBerry) and Bill Gates, as well as graduates like Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerburg – all students who left university to pursue technology start-ups that changed the world.

Intelligent and creative students across the country are faced with a choice when they graduate.  They may have innovative and ambitious ideas for new businesses, but are inundated with offers from businesses that need the best and brightest new graduates to survive. When faced with the choice between working for an established enterprise like Research In Motion (RIM), Google or Facebook, and starting their own venture, how should a student decide?

The price of failure – risk – is often the largest deterrent for anyone considering an entrepreneurial venture.  Students who finance their education with student loans (about 26% of Canadian students according to StatsCan – I think it’s closer to 50%) might have no choice but to accept an offer of steady income that helps pay down their debt.  Even for those rare few students that manage to graduate debt-free, sometimes a steady paycheque is too tempting to resist.  When you graduated university/college, wasn’t money your largest concern?

Students might also be concerned about missing the opportunities for networking, training and resume building that a large enterprise might offer them.  There’s no doubt about it, yesterday’s start-ups are now large firms with fixed budgets that have attractive perks for new hires.  The trade-offs are similar to the differences between working for a small company vs. big company – only with added risk and potential reward. So what’s stopping young entrepreneurs from getting hired?

A new wave of student organizations have started promoting youth entrepreneurship, encouraging students in high school, college and university to pursue their innovative ideas. Impact, UBC’s Enterprize Canada and EPIC Tech are three examples of student run not for profit organizations that are fostering a new community of student entrepreneurs that aren’t afraid to innovate.  These organizations are supported by venture capital and consulting firms looking to foster a new generation of clientele, as well as government agencies that (like the rest of us) would like to see more jobs created on Canadian soil.

Universities are catching on.

The University of Waterloo has created an entrepreneurship-based student residence called VeloCity, where students form teams that develop actual mobile media businesses over the course of the academic year.   This business community holds seminars and information sessions about starting a successful venture, and acts as a gateway into venture support networks in the wider community, like the Accelerator Centre.  This is a trend that is sure to continue.

Now when asked the question, “start up or join up” what would you do?

4 thoughts on “Start Up or Join Up?

  1. How much do you love your craft?

    I’ve done both. I’ve worked for large publicly traded companies and I also ran my own firm for about 7 years before selling the majority stake. I can tell you both provide valuable and unique insight the other cannot provide.

    IF you are fresh out of school it is better to join a large firm and gain insight and experience while you save money to seed your company and refine your skills. This is even more true if you have the attention of a recruiter. You may find it a little harder to get their attention later especially if you have a “bust” company under your belt and 5 years of effort out of school. Learn Learn Learn as Greg pointed out while you work for that big firm.

    You may even find during that time you enjoy the environment and may not want to go the other route. Working for someone else allows you to really dedicate yourself to your craft and only your craft without concern for reconciling your accounts at the end of the month to make payroll if you know what I mean.

    Working for a small firm is much like working for your own business. If you want a next stop down from working for a big firm and a taste for running your own business this is a good route. Here you will see first hand the many different hats you must wear and might love. You will also see how hard it will be to totally dedicate yourself to your craft with the level of time and attention you might be able to working for a larger company.

    1 really important thing many folks forget about running their own business is to change their hats and to become a leader and business person first and a technical craft practitioner second. This is especially true in skilled trades and professions. A programmer just the same as a plumber cannot successfully be running their business and providing the driving vision and be in book keeping, marketing, human resources and all these different roles and still dedicate all their time to their original passion (programming or plumbing). Their vision and passion must grow beyond their craft and be refocused on running a business.

  2. Hi Geoffrey,

    Thanks for your comment.

    You make a lot of good points. I think working for a small start-up company is an option I shouldn’t have left out. It has a lot of the merits of both options, although less resources for training.

    In your post, you refer to Greg’s comment, which is the following:

    “If you are going to bring up Bill Gates to the discussion, you should ask the question ‘should a rich boy get a job or start their own business’ 🙂

    Best thing for a grad – join a small firm. Not a big one, and don’t start your own business. Join a small firm and learn learn learn.”
    – Greg

    I think no matter where they are, “Learn learn learn,” should always be a new grad’s first policy.

    – Ivan

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