Guest column

Why this Houston entrepreneur stuck with startups over a corporate gig

When Microsoft came knocking on this Houston entrepreneur's door, he realized leaving the startup world was not something he was willing to do. Pexels

Several ago, Microsoft dangled a senior leadership role in front of me, which included a high-compensation offer and the chance to move to Seattle. It was tempting. On the surface, this might seem like an easy choice. This kind of senior management position at Microsoft is something many people only dream of. And Microsoft was making a hard push for me.

Then, while pondering the offer, I imagined how I would change the company's website to capitalize on an urgent market opportunity, and then I thought about the bureaucracy I'd have to go through, which I imagined would have been like trying to get a bill through Congress. I called the hiring manager and asked for an example of his team advocating for such a change, and he confirmed that it would require jumping in slow motion through layers of hoops.

I couldn't get myself to leave the high-flying startup atmosphere where I had the freedom to move the needle in quantum leaps, not increments. It's a big decision to choose to share your talents with a startup versus a large corporation. Both options include benefits and risks. But if you have an entrepreneurial mind-set, you will discover, like I did, that startups can offer huge benefits. Here are what I see as the top four.

1. Fewery barriers of entry

While big corporations often choose to hire the candidates who went to Ivy League schools, are well-connected, or have loads of experience at higher-level positions, startups are interested in something else. They choose to hire people who think creatively, show a willingness to work hard, and demonstrate raw leadership qualities that, once cultivated, can help the company (and the individual) achieve breakthrough success. Startup entrepreneurs are creators, not maintenance workers, and startups need visionaries at every level.

2. Versatility in roles

Most jobs in big companies offer a limited range of authority, meaning no single individual, besides perhaps the CEO, has the ability to influence the entire company in a significant way. When you get hired to fill a role at an established business, that's exactly what they expect you to do: fill that role.

It's rare, if not impossible, to find the freedom to experiment and try your hand at filling different roles within various departments. Most startups don't hire with a set idea of your potential or career path, because the startup is young and undergoing massive change.

Founders may find it hard to predict what the company's needs will be as it grows. This is the perfect environment to try on different hats and find your zone of genius — the area where you work best — then move up quickly from there.

3. Financial rewards

Go to work for a big company, and you'll get a paycheck — a paycheck and a 4 percent annual raise along with a formal review from a manager who dreads delivering it. The potential upside is far greater at startups. And the initial financial rewards might not be too bad either.

Depending on the size and cash flow, a startup may offer a competitive salary right off the bat, or it may start you off with a modest salary with the potential to own a piece of the pie through stock options. The stock options could lead to astronomical compensation later on, if the company is successful. In my opinion, always go for the stock options.

4. Upward mobility

If you have enough drive, it is possible to climb the old guard corporate ladder but be prepared for a slow climb. Incumbent companies are burdened with incumbent mind-sets. Barriers to advancement are high, and opportunities are few. If you have set your sights on making it to the C-suite of a Fortune 500 company, your opportunities are severely limited. Among those companies, there can only be 500 CEO positions, maybe 5,000 in the rest of the C-suite. That means your odds of getting a job in the C-suite of a Fortune 500 company are lower than the odds of being drafted by the National Football League — way lower considering the NFL drafts 224 new players each year,and people tend to linger in the C-suite quite a bit longer than that.

Compare these numbers to the 46,500 startups in the United States, and it's easy to see there are far more executive leadership opportunities at startup companies. If you believe your corporate destiny is to become a leader, you can find a startup with a dynamic, fast-moving environment that values initiative and offers the opportunity to move up quickly.

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Steven Mark Kahan has successfully helped to grow six startup companies from early-stage development to going public or being sold, resulting in more than $3 billion in shareholder value. He is also the author of a the book Be a Startup Superstar.

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Building Houston

 
 

This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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