So You Want to Leave Corporate Content Marketing for a Startup? Here’s What I Wish I’d Known.
After five-plus years in corporate environments, you are starving for change.
Trends in marketing seem like tectonic plates shifting underneath you, yet you are standing still, right where you were a few years ago. Professionally, you sense the need to join a startup — for its speed and ambitious OKRs, its lessons on culture, its demand for experimentation, its actual customer and user obsession, its every-day-counts mentality.
In your mind, your career depends on these experiences. You feel your career may stall otherwise. But you should know some things before joining.
Feel the Turbulence in Your Bones
In your past jobs at market giants, most days and weeks have felt the same. Save for a historic deal won or lost, a rough week or a rough month shares a similar emotional tenor as a good week or a good month. At the startup, your experience will mimic the dynamism of a concert: euphoric highs mixed with some gut-punching lows.
Most days will be exhilarating, though. They will reaffirm that the job actually can be enjoyable and meaningful and that your work really can have an impact. At the startup, the whole company will applaud your content project over Slack; conversion data on your marketing dashboard will keep changing like a slot machine; and you will see demand for your product and brand like you’ve never seen before. You’ll gain dozens of social followers every few days, hundreds of branded searches every week and thousands of organic visits to your website each month. It will be addictive.
But the rare work day will be borderline demoralizing. Some days, your nervous system will feel like it suffered a power outage. You’ll question your ability to do even the most basic of content marketing tasks. You will wonder whether you really should have been an accountant. Those days — assuming the startup has a fundamentally healthy, supportive culture — aren’t reasons to quit. Don’t despair yet. What you’ll learn is that those days signal just how close your role is to the business’s engine. Go closer. The only way out is in, as they say.
You won’t have the wallet past employers have had. And in the end, that will benefit you. Most likely, you won’t have the budget to buy everything you may want or feel that you need: that pricey keyword, that sponsorship opportunity in a widely read trade publication, that new tool that promises to boost engagement, that block of time from a freelancer with years of industry experience.
Yet in those constraints are the opportunities you left the corporate environment for, the opportunities upon which you can build a differentiated career. Without the limitless credit card or built-in national brand awareness, you’ll have to earn every single outcome. You’ll do it with entertaining and educational content that corporate marketing teams can’t create as nimbly, with brand narratives that can freeze social scrolls and with decisions that are based on business outcomes rather than artistic whims or legacy thinking.
Put Results Above Process
In the corporate world you know well, the process for content marketing projects seems to matter just as much as (or sometimes more than) project outcomes. Projects of any size require briefs. Senior stakeholders must sign off on everything. Campaign concepts must be vetted with the same type of vigilance usually reserved for ads that get displayed in the middle of Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Sometimes, it feels like you’re trying to win internal stakeholders over instead of prospects and customers.
At the startup, the reverse will be true. Process matters (it will provide some stability), but you won’t be celebrated for following the operating procedures perfectly, for precisely crafting every sentence in flawless AP Style or for ensuring that every department has reviewed the article you’re about to publish.
Flawless adherence to process won’t matter. In fact, no one will likely even notice when you do it. What your teammates and your senior leaders will notice is when you advance the organization, hit your numbers and make your teammates’ jobs easier. The article with a few typos that converts 10 percent more visitors than normal is worth more than the article with exquisite mechanics and aesthetics that doesn’t convert at all. As you’ll learn, content is a means to an end. It aims not just to move people but to move the business.
Be in Awe of Your Teammates
In your corporate jobs, you love your coworkers. They impress you with their nuanced industry expertise and their deft ability to build relationships across the business. You joke with them. You grab lunch with them. You celebrate their birthdays and the births of their first children. They are very good people, many of whom you consider friends.
Your teammates at the startup will be different. On those hard days — when you’re caught in the tightening vise of the business’s demands — they won’t just be colleagues you enjoy, they’ll be your lifeline. In the middle of an increasingly dire content project that will determine revenue for the month and your employer’s appeal to investors, they will be (thank goodness) your most respectfully candid but benevolent critics. They will be a mix of marketers hyper-talented in their respective function. And they will be the singular source of the most explosive professional development stretch in your career thus far.
When you talk about them later, after you leave, you will sound like a now-retired teammate talking on old, grainy video footage about your experience on a championship team decades ago. So, in the time that you have at the startup, appreciate your teammates’ talent, their drive, their selflessness, and their authenticity. You never know when you’ll see that combination again.
Take a Breath
The corporate setting often feels like a marathon. The business’s market share, brand awareness and reliable revenue offer a steady, sustainable pace most weeks. Because so much of your work life there seems templated, time management and work-life balance are easier to come by.
The startup will be less predictable. Most days, it will demand the all-out sprint of a 100-meter dash; there’s no settling into a cadence. Whereas patience, tact and diplomacy are valuable soft skills in the corporate world, concentration, communication and “project frugalness” will be valuable in the startup. After all, what you will need to accomplish in a week at the startup would take you a month to accomplish in a corporate role. Without the matrixed environment of a large employer, you can publish almost four times as much — and be expected to. (Those extra reps, though, will make you better.)
As a result, exercise during the day, rest on the weekends, diversion in the evenings and vacations every once in a while will be essential. They are your offseason, so to speak, the time when you can replenish your energy and rest your bleary mind. When you can, resist “just checking” Slack and email while at dinner or on a Saturday morning, because it will never be just a couple-second check. Shut down, recharge and, in the morning, sprint again.