Corporate vs. Start-Up – My Experience

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When I was 17 years old I started a part-time job as an “intern” at a semi-large company (600+ employees at the time I believe). I worked in the advertising department helping out with everything from computer inventory for the advertising network administrator to pre-press work, before the world of digital pre-press. That meant that I was processing four color film slides through a machine to output color proofs that we would then send off to the company that printed our 2000 page catalog every year. This was the 3rd job I had ever had in my life, the first being a bag boy at a grocery store and the second being a warehouse picker at the company my aunt works for.

At 17 years old, I thought this internship was the greatest job in the world. I didn’t have a cubicle, we had our own separate room in the back of the building due to the size of the equipment we needed, I was being paid $10 an hour which was extremely generous for a high school kid back in 1999, and I worked with some amazing people.

Little did I know that I would end up staying at that same company for the next 14 years. I would work summers and college breaks, until I eventually transferred back home to go to school in Chicago, at which point I would work any time I wasn’t in school. My days would go from 6:30 am until about 11:30pm consisting of either classes in the morning and work at night or work in the morning and classes at night. I wasn’t really a “school person”, so I wanted to be done as quickly as possible, so I worked my ass off and graduated with honors.

When I finally graduated in 2004, one of the women in our department was leaving and I jumped on the opportunity to learn her job and take over for her, thus solidifying myself a full-time position with the company. At that point we had moved from a physical film processing pre-press workflow to an all digital workflow, which lead to a few people being laid off, and no need for me to help out with the pre-press stuff anymore, so thankfully this woman was in the e-commerce database side of things, but still within my original department.

I caught on to her job extremely fast and discovered that there were a lot of things that she was doing manually that I could automate with a little help from the database manager. I’m not super well versed in SQL scripting, and I didn’t want to break anything, so him and I sat down one day and hashed out a new process that basically made the majority of her work automated and made my life a lot easier.

In doing this I almost eliminated my job, so I had to come up with other things that I could do in order to continue to prove my worth. Since I was basically managing all 40,000 product descriptions and images on the website, and they needed constant updating, I turned my attention there and got gung-ho about making sure everything was updated and correct. With so many products on the website this would keep me busy for years.

About 10 years after I started, the company went through a few big changes. A new President was brought in to bring the company from a national company to a global company, and in doing so there was a lot of restructuring throughout the various departments. A few of my really good friends were let go and instead of hiring people that may have been cheaper, they just dumped the work load off on to other people, me being one of them. Just because I enjoy photography in my free time, doesn’t mean that I want to be doing product photography while I’m at work… but unfortunately that’s what fell into my lap, on top of all the other stuff that had come up over the years that I was now doing.

And while the company did hire some new people, I think one of them was doing stuff that a laid off person was doing, and the other people were doing new things that we had never really done before, so that didn’t sit quite right with me… from a company standpoint. Don’t get me wrong, I love the guys they brought in, most of whom left the company shortly after I did, but we still see each other every so often and all talk about once a week, at least, so I thank the company for bringing those guys in, it was just from my perspective it didn’t take anything off of my plate that was given to me over the years after other people had gotten let go.

At this point the company had grown to over 1000 employees with all of the focus on how much money we could make the next year. Prior to this new President it was always a family run company, with the core values being rooted in the idea of family, but now all of a sudden it was purely about the money. And I get that it’s a business, but to go from actually kind of enjoying going to work to absolutely dreading it, was terrible.

I had basically just given up doing actual work because there was absolutely no incentive to do better. I rarely got recognition for anything that I did, if I had an opinion about something it was usually overlooked because people were so set in their ways over there that nobody wanted to change anything. There was no where for me to move up in terms of a promotion or anything within my department, I was stuck and had zero motivation anymore. The only thing that I enjoyed about coming to work was that I liked the people I worked with and the open office environment we had setup made for a pleasant experience for me. Other than that, I honestly could have cared less about the company as a whole and, despite what they would tell us, we were just numbers at that point, not family.

I believe it was summer of 2013 that a good friend from college reached out to me and offered me a position working with him at the company he had started a few years prior. He wasn’t able to match the salary that I was making at my current job, but he promised me that the company was growing and that within a year he’d be able to bump me up to at least that. I trust this guy with my life, so without hesitation, I took a $5,000 pay cut and uprooted from the company I had been at since I was 17 years old.

It would seem like a risky move to go from a corporate company w/ health insurance and 401k, to a smaller company with no health insurance (we do get it through my wife now), and no 401k, but from my perspective anyone in that company could be let go at any time for whatever reason… based on what I had witnessed, so I didn’t see much risk in leaving.

I have now been working for him for just over 2 years and have never been happier, however it was a huge change going from not caring and just going through the motions, to actually having to work and get things done. And that took a bit of time to to get used to. And honestly, I’m still working through it a little bit.

When I first started working for Capacitr I brought with me some of my bad habits that had grown over the years at the larger company. There were times where I would get lazy and just not respond to emails, or just not do some of the small things that I thought were dumb, because I figured they’d get lost in the shuffle and people would forget about them, since that’s what would happen at my previous company… and then I didn’t have to do any work I thought was pointless. But at a small company with only, now, 3 employees, if someone’s not pulling their weight, it’s noticeable, and it affects the company as whole. If I missed a deadline or “forgot” to do something before, it was no big deal, nobody would notice, but if that happens now, it just puts more stress on all of us because then we’re scrambling to get something done at the last minute when the client notices that it was never done in the first place.

Obviously this doesn’t happen much anymore, there are still a few rare cases where things fall through the cracks, but over the last 2-years I’ve regained my excitement to actually work and make sure that our clients are the happiest they can be. Hell, I’m even talking to clients and taking meetings on the phone myself these days where as before I rarely answered my phone and either called people back if they left a message or waited for them to email me if it was important… I truly just lost all ability to care at the end because that company just sucked the life out of me.

Working for a small company has made me realize how bad my work ethic had gotten over there and how I had completely lost the passion for what I was doing, it was just a job at that point. And while my job now is still a job, I actually like it, and I like the things we’re doing, and I know that the harder I work the more it benefits the company, which will then trickle down to me in terms of promotions or raises or whatever. And honestly, I’m not the type of person that cares about the money. As long as I can live comfortably and put food on the table and a roof over my family’s head, I don’t care if I’m not making as much as the next guy. And if the company runs into a bad period and we lose a few clients and maybe there needs to be some cutbacks or something, I’m ok with taking a bit of a pay cut to get us back on track, because I actually believe in this company, and I believe in my boss, and I know he will do whatever it takes to make sure that the core group within this company always has their jobs and always has money to put food on the table.

When I first started at my old company way back in 1999, I had that same feeling, that feeling that the company was more of a family than a business, but by the time I left, that feeling had totally vanished… I met some great people during my time there whom I will probably talk to, in some capacity, for the rest of my life, so I have no regrets about ever working there. I was taught photoshop and product photography, database management, and corporate workflow which are all things that have helped me in my current position. So while things may have gone south at the end of my tenure there, there’s no denying that I wouldn’t be where I am right now without having worked for the company.


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