Earn Your Way to Entrepreneurship By Leading at a Large Company

Posted: August 11, 2013 by Bob Gilbreath in Culture, Leadership, People, Startup

BobGilbreathAhaI would wager that many readers of this piece are not entrepreneurs, but rather people who work at large companies and dream of starting their own business one day. That’s great—as learning about the world beyond your big firm is a good idea. But a better idea is to begin your entrepreneurial journey by leading change in your current role.

Last week an old friend asked me to speak with his leadership team during an executive retreat. He had recently been brought in to drive change at a large corporation and wanted me to share my lessons of entrepreneurial success to inspire his people to think differently. When I sat back to gather my thoughts on when and where I learned the most, I realized that most lessons came from my time working at a very large company that you might have heard of: Procter & Gamble.

Like many others, I joined P&G for a chance to learn from one of the leading companies of the world. I longed to understand “The Procter Way” and build skills that would power my career for a lifetime. I knew at some point that I wanted to have my own business, and that my time in brand management at this company would be extremely valuable.

While some of my new hire peers focused on checking the boxes and “not screwing up,” I looked at my job as a challenge: Could I personally make a difference in this world-leading marketing giant? I felt that joining a leading company was like someone handing me the keys to a Ferrari for the weekend—if I didn’t get the car up to 100 miles per hour at some point, I wasted the chance of a lifetime.

I worked to turn every assignment into a startup learning opportunity. I worked my way into new product development, sold my management on innovation ideas, led dozens of digital marketing tests, and encouraged my direct reports to do the same. In other words, I got to learn many lessons of how to be a successful entrepreneur without raising investment dollars or losing a salary. In the process, we drove record share on Tide and turned around the Mr. Clean brand. Successes and failures in “big company startups” gave me the skills and confidence to jump into entrepreneurship six years later.

I often speak with people who work at large firms and are curious about starting up a company. I believe it has never been harder to drive change at big companies, and a good number of the best workers in the world are frustrated by corporate bureaucracy. Startups seem like a promising path to escape.

The reality is that entrepreneurship is incredibly hard and the odds of success are long. I wish that more people who are frustrated at big companies or dream to be entrepreneurs would first look within their current roles and commit to driving change. Startups are important for our economy, but driving innovation at the world’s largest employers can have a much bigger impact on businesses and communities. And if you can lead innovation on this large stage, you may earn the knowledge and credibility to take the entrepreneurial path.

  1. Paul Spitz says:

    “I got to learn many lessons of how to be a successful entrepreneur without raising investment dollars or losing a salary.”

    That’s actually pretty much the opposite of entrepreneurship. While not discounting the value of your experience at a multi-billion dollar multinational corporation, it really isn’t entrepreneurship in the true meaning of the word. You worked on Tide and Mr. Clean, two long-established brands created by other people, decades ago. You leveraged the existing resources of P&G — manufacturing, distribution, marketing, sales — but you didn’t create any of these from scratch. You didn’t have to scrounge for money, nor did you have to finance your brand plans with your personal savings or credit cards. P&G provided the financing for your efforts, as it should. Even more importantly, you didn’t really have any risk. Now, if you had foregone salary and benefits for at least a year, maybe two, while working on Tide and Mr. Clean, that would be something. But I gather that P&G continued to provide salary and benefits throughout, and if your efforts hadn’t succeeded, you wouldn’t be out on the street, looking for a new job.

    Entrepreneurship involves putting yourself out there at the end of the diving board, and hoping there is water in the pool. It means coming up with financing, usually from your own savings. It means going for a year, maybe longer, with little or no pay, with no benefits, and often with little support in the form of business resources. It means cleaning the bathroom yourself, not taking any vacations, paid or otherwise, for a year or so, working weekends. It means being your own boss, and making your own decisions, without layers of management above you and around you.

    Many people think entrepreneurship is glamorous. They think of Mark Zuckerberg, or Sergey Brin, private jets, luxury estates in the Bahamas and penthouses in Manhattan, wealth valued in the billions, invitations to Davos and TED. The ugly truth is, that is a very small percentage of entrepreneurs. Very small. You are actually surrounded by entrepreneurs every day. They are the owner of the little restaurant you like going to, the dry cleaner you take your shirts to, the corner grocer, the owner of the yoga studio. They work hard, long hours, usually for very uncertain pay, but they make their own decisions and they take the risks, the real risks.

    I’ve started and run two businesses, and I’m now working on my third. I’ve worked for other companies, much smaller and less-bureacratic than a Fortune 500 corporation, and there is absolutely no similarity between my experiences as an employee and my experiences as an owner and entrepreneur.

    So, while you can learn alot about running various aspects of a business at a large corporation, let’s not confuse the experience with entrepreneurship.

    • Bob Gilbreath says:

      Thanks for the comment, Paul. My message is not that working in a big company is true entrepreneurship–just as a college internship is not the same as working in the real world–but it can be a place to learn skills, build confidence, grow connections, and earn credibility that will help when someone decides to jump. I sold my previous company and am starting another from scratch right now. It is just as tough as you mention!


      • Paul Spitz says:

        Frustration with bureaucracy is definitely one of those things that makes people thing about starting out on their own, where there are no layers of management and you can set things up the way you like. Also, I think everyone pretty much should realize that loyalty is a one-sided street in mid-size to large corporations; the corporation expects you to give it all your time and attention, but will kick you to the street in a minute. The only true job security is when you hold your own fate in your hands. Also, for almost anyone approaching or older than 50, a layoff is in all likelihood going to be permanent. Companies routinely discriminate against older applicants with impunity. So if you are 52 years old, and you are laid off, you can waste 2 years trying to get someone to hire you, or you can start your own business and put your knowledge, experience, and work ethic to good use.

        All that being said, going from a large corporation to a startup environment can be very difficult, This applies whether it’s a tech startup, or a franchise business. Would-be entrepreneurs really need to evaluate whether they have the personality (for lack of a better word) to go from a very structured environment to a very unstructured environment. There won’t be any office space, any corporate bank account, any payroll service, any office equipment, any customers, any product. The entrepreneur has to make all those decisions, set all those things up. That’s not something everyone has the mindset to do, even if they are very accomplished in their particular area of expertise, even if they have risen to a level of leadership within their organization. Once you are bitten by the bug, though, if you do have an affinity for it, you’ll never want to go back to working for someone else!

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