Banking vs. Strategy vs. Startups

10 February 2014

Since graduating college, I have had the chance to work in three very different jobs in three very different industries. Reflecting on the differences between these industries has helped me think about what I value in a job, both for now and the future.

This post consists of some of these observations. Here are the three roles I can compare:

These observations are definitely meant to be generalizations, and may be different between specific firms or groups. Nonetheless, for anybody who is also considering job options between these three industries (especially coming out of college), here is what your job may be like.

(Note that I don't necessarily mean to pass value judgments about what is better or worse - there are definitely pros and cons to any of these points.)

Speed of the company

Startup: The startup experience has definitely felt like the fastest moving on average. We are constantly trying new ideas, re-evaluating our plans, and responding to tests and user feedback. Being at a startup feels like being in a high-speed marathon: not quite breakneck speed all the time, but definitely hustling.

Banking: Certain banking projects need to be executed in a very short amount of time - for example, if there is a last-minute request from a client. In these instances, we would have to really sprint and pour all our energy into meeting the deadline, often by pulling late nights and working weekends. If startups are a high-speed marathon, banking is a series of sprints interspersed with light jogging.

Corpstrat: The corporate role definitely felt the slowest-moving, because we had to build consensus among different teams and work with many involved parties to formulate ideas and execute them. It's not easy to get a humongous company with tens of thousands of employees to change direction quickly.

Company hierarchy and access to senior managers

Startups: Generally startups don't have much hierarchy at all until they are more mature. The startup I work at currently has around 25 people, and management is very open and approachable; this is a necessity at this stage, since the company moves so quickly. Roles are more vague as well, although there is a clearer boundary between business roles and tech / product roles.

Banking: There is definitely a strong hierarchy, with a clearly-timed career progression. Within your group, however, there is probably decent access to senior managers - analysts could work directly with MDs on specific projects.

Corpstrat: There is the most hierarchy out of the three here, and the "org chart" for the company might be much, much messier. My experience suggested that there was limited access to managers more than one level above you - work flowed strictly from you to your manager to his manager, and so on upwards.

Ownership and initiative over projects

Startups: They are definitely high on ownership and initiative, in part because there are fewer people but lots of things that must get done. The level of ownership may even feel a bit shocking - a person just a few years out of college might be given ownership over a hugely important project. This situation could also be very empowering, however, and motivates a lot of creative thinking.

Banking: Analysts might get a decent amount of ownership, although the ownership of a particular project or client is dispersed between different members of that team, most likely one person from each rank in the hierarchy in the group. The level of initiative, however, is lower, mainly because the needs of a particular client are fairly clear.

Corpstrat: There is great dispersion of ownership, with lots of involved parties who need to work together to effect change. There is potential for initiative of ideas, especially in creative (e.g. marketing), research, or strategy roles. Executing on these ideas might be much more difficult.

Company culture and attitude of the employees

Startups: Working under a very relaxed culture, startup employees are likely highly optimistic about the company and the new ideas being tried out, and are also likely the most self-driven.

Banking: Infamous for having poorer cultures and poor work/life balance, banking almost has a culture of collective complaining. But, at the end of the day, employees often have a sense of being part of a team that does something big (financially speaking).

Corpstrat: There is much wider variation in this category in terms of culture and work/life balance. Any employee would have a hard time ignoring the fact that she is a small part in a large, complex machine, however.

Scale of the work

Corpstrat: At a large company like the one I worked at, there was definitely a sense that a lot was going on and that an idea could take on a global scale.

Banking: Deals in banking are often in the range of hundreds-of-millions or billions of dollars, which might make an analyst feel better about the long hours and frustrations over models or slides. Over time, banking may even distort your perception of the size of numbers (how much bigger is a billion than a million, really?).

Startups: Work here is likely at a much smaller scale - a startup will work hard to attract its first few big clients, or a few thousand new users per day. For a consumer-facing startup, reaching the millionth user will feel like a big deal, only eclipsed by the first month the company becomes profitable. The victories will feel no less satisfying, however.

Learning and doing

Banking: There is a well-planned training period before starting on the desk. All investment banking analysts learn the same skillset during this time, and go on to apply it to their respective teams' industries. The work itself came to feel repetitive, although each deal has its nuances, and there are occasionally very unique requests from clients.

Corpstrat: There is less formal training, and more learning on the job. Some times, the only way to know what should be done is to look at an older slide deck to see how the person in your position before you did it. If institutional memory is poor though...that's pretty unlucky.

Startup: All learning is on the job, and the learning curve will feel very steep for a while. However, depending on the work, some projects may feel like "reinventing the wheel" - they are not unsolved problems, but just features that have to be implemented within your own codebase. This is great for personal learning, though.

These are just some high-level observations, and of course many of them are subject to debate. What I found most helpful about writing this post was formalizing my own thoughts about some of the dimensions along which roles can differ - hopefully these thoughts can be helpful for anybody else considering one or more of these types of roles.

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