Since I have left my tech days in the dust (at least for now) and am following my soul back into the nonprofit world, I find myself constantly comparing the two. Not only the money (I know, for the millionth time — I was rolling in dough!) but the culture, the benefits, and the work-life balance are worlds apart.
I still don’t doubt that leaving the tech industry was the right move FOR ME (although I think some people think I was a lunatic for leaving) but here are some ways to compare the two and figure out what is right for you.
The money. I was making bank as an “office manager” — which at a startup, really meant that I got to do all kinds of cool stuff. Social media, videos, work on cool events, along with not-so-cool stuff. Deal with people’s benefits, payroll, run the office, deal with IT problems, you name it. Stock options were also part of the deal.
The job: Like I said, I got to do all kinds of things. Much more than my title. In a sense, I got to create my own job.
The prestige: If you are ever working for a startup that could MAYBE be “hot”, you start to get treated differently by people. You are looked at as a source for money. Potential people wanting jobs, realtors wanting to find you office space, furniture people wanting to sell you furniture, etc. You are a cash cow money train that people want to get on. In that sense, you have power.
No red tape: it was fun working at a place that didn’t have a lot of red tape and that throwing money at it could fix the problem. You need the newest copy of Final Cut Pro? Boom. It’s there. And there is never any issue of budget, or whatnot.
The Possibilities: I used to dream that as Employee Number 6 I would one day be overseeing hundreds of people, not unlike Marissa Mayer’s time at Google. The allure of being among the first hires at a brand new startup is incredible.
No Real Boss: That’s right. I didn’t really have a boss (well, at first). It was great to be able to dictate my own schedule, hours, and projects.
And finally: the free lunches. Yep. That was awesome. Although I should have known what was coming…
As much fun as working at a startup can be, there can also be some soul-sucking experiences, too. Among them:
Risk and Change: I made a mistake getting too comfortable, and thinking that the inevitable changes would only be good ones. Our startup ended up running out of money the first year and we were forced to go through a really difficult merger. The new parent company ended up being really different culturally. I got a new boss (a real boss!) that I thought could be a great mentor to me but who actually ended up being really toxic. Most of the original staff quit. There are no guarantees.
Competitive culture: When you are surrounded by a group of people who stand to make a lot of money in a relatively short amount of time, it creates a culture of competition that can be really unhealthy. It causes people to not take vacations, or to work weekends, or to try to push other people out of their jobs. Some people thrive in this enviro, but for me, it wasn’t a fit.
Work-life balance: vacation? What vacation. See above.
What really matters is profits: It’s a business. So the bottom line is being profitable. If that doesn’t happen, your startup dies. End of story. Also reflects the general culture of the place.
In the end I am glad I left startup life…..because I believe that my true passions in life don’t lie in business and technology (although I am pretty technical for a non-programmer). If I was a true geek at heart, I may have stuck around. But, being the artsy, creative, free spirit that I am, I made a conscious decision to follow my passions….and face the difficulties of a career change and a pay cut.
People are nice to each other: I found a completely new world in nonprofits…one where community and relationships are valued over business. Funding is important, but the overall goal is not to make money. The competitive culture goes away, and is replaced by something else.
If You’re Not A Programmer You Are Still Valued: There are a variety of skills that people can bring to a nonprofit that can be appreciated.
Work-Life Balance: There is a much better line in the sand between work and home. No more working on weekends, working from home before coming in, emergency calls and texts after hours, no skype, and no electronic leash. Also, I have a life outside of work again, and time. Time to take classes, time to hang out with friends, my boyfriend, work on my side hustle and of course, my career counselor. (Yep, I have one! It’s all part of the puzzle to financial freedom!)
Feeling fulfilled spiritually: I know this will sound hippie-dippie, but working for a place that I believe in really makes a difference. I enjoy being there and coming in every day. It’s a pleasure. (Well, most of the time
Stability: I know my work won’t be going anywhere. I don’t anticipate a major shakeup, a new boss, a corporate merger or any kind of life-altering change. I enjoy that for the place in my life that I am at.
Benefits: I get better and cheaper health care than I did at the startup. There is also a nice policy for pregnancy leave and more leeway and sympathy for family illnesses and crises. I think the nonprofit world caters a bit better to moms and people with families.
The money: Another no-brainer. Making the lifestyle adjustment was HARD, no doubt about that. All kinds of things happen to your self-esteem when you take a big paycut. You start to feel a bit like you sold yourself short, or that you’re a slacker, or that you are only worth as much money as you are making. As much as I try to combat these feelings with thoughts that this is just a starting point and that it’s a career change, it is still sometimes there when I am not looking at the bigger picture.
The Loss of Being a Rockstar: You are no longer working for a sexy company. The rocketship is gone. This is more like a slow cruise ship from the 80′s. But it’s a safe cruise ship, one that won’t sink or crash. People no longer kiss up to you, or treat you like you’re onto something. You’re ordinary again.
Red Tape: Back into it. You can do all the creative projects you want, but if you want funding for them, forget it. Nonprofits try to do everything at a minimal cost. The good news is that it lets you try new things (for example — you get to be the photographer for the event because they don’t want to spend the $$ hiring a professional to do it). But the bad news is that sometimes this leads to disappointment (no funding for extra conferences, classes, raises, etc.)
So there you have it. A breakdown of the plusses and minuses of startups and nonprofits. What’s your experience? Does one industry fit you better than the other?
Edited to add: I wouldn’t take back my startup experience for anything. I think everyone at some point in their career should work at one. Was it high-paced, stressful, creative, exhilarating, and at times terrifying? Hell yes. Was it sustainable for the long-term for MY career? Hell no.