Over my five years in the professional world, I worked in consulting and I started a company. Both are great experiences, both are challenging, but they are VERY different animals.
My name is Jack Mara, I am a Darden (’15) graduate. I worked on the corporate strategy team at State Street prior to Darden and interned at Deloitte Consulting after my first year. I started a company called 10Thoughts that provides professionals with articles recommended by top business minds across companies and MBA programs.
My hope in this blog is to share some of the key differences I found between consulting and starting a company that were 1) not clear to me before I started 10Thoughts or 2) the extent was not clear before I started 10Thoughts.
1. When work is ready to “show”
In the consulting world, you share work with the senior client team only when it is a fairly finished product, mistake free and highly polished. Essentially, you don’t show your work until you can put your best foot forward. PowerPoint presentations and excel documents are highly buttoned-up and often run through many rounds of iterations. You work to make sure you can answer every question and handle every push-back prior to the big meeting. Work is well vetted by your teammates and intensive feedback is sought from the junior folks on your client team.
In the startup world, I learned it is a waste of time to put your best foot forward with new tests and experiments. I slowly became comfortable with figuring out the fastest way to put out something to test a hypothesis. This “something” is never a polished, best foot forward effort. Most tests and experiments fail, so building a fairly finished product around your test is a complete waste of time.
It was hard to shift my mentality from “only show something that is ready” to “throw out the bare minimum to test.” This is truly a different way of thinking and it sets you up to fail frequently – a concept that is unacceptable when sharing work with clients in the consulting world.
2. Prioritization – how to structure time
In my consulting jobs my roles were very clear. Work flowed from the clients and partners to my managers and down to me. It was important to ask good questions and set clear priorities, but by and large I knew how to allocate my time every day.
In a start-up, there is more to do than one or two founders can possibly handle, so prioritizing is obviously crucial. But there is no one who hired you and no partners or managers telling you what to prioritize – it’s on you. Do I spend my time talking to users? Trying to get 10Thoughts in front of different audiences? Analyzing data? Developing new features? Brainstorming new ideas? Re-designing? Trying to bring on new employees? Every hour I spend doing one thing is an hour I take away from another. Different people focus their feedback and suggestions around different areas of the company. These discussions always challenge my thought process around prioritization. Out of the long list of things that “absolutely need to be done,” we can only focus on a fraction.
3. Experts in Field vs. No Experience
In consulting, I was led by individuals with years of experience that were experts in their fields. They succeeded in numerous prior consulting engagements, know how to navigate the waters and handle any difficult client situation thrown their way. I was confident our teams would not fail because of these experienced leaders. I was confident because I worked for companies with decades of experience.
When you start your own company it is all on you. There is no guiding expert, you aren’t reporting to people with decades of experience in their fields. While I am confident in my ability to learn quickly, this is a new challenge – I have no prior entrepreneurial experience, I need my reps. In consulting, I always knew I would be challenged with tough days, long hours and client push back. But I also knew we would always get through it because – as stated above – I worked for individuals and companies that are experts in their fields. With 10Thoughts, I am pretty confident we have the makings of a great company and that we will continue to learn how to best provide value around our mission. However, there are always moments when doubt creeps into your head and you have to fight it out. In consulting that doubt around failure never entered my mind.
4. Quantifiable Outcomes
In consulting, it is difficult to quantify your impact on the outcome. Say a consulting company delivers a strategy to a client and we look back five years later and decide that strategy was a success. Did the strategy succeed because the consulting firm did great upfront work? Because the execution over five years was really great? Because market forces moved in a way that favored the strategy? Obviously it is a combination of all these factors – but the point is, it is difficult to figure out the actual value of the role played by the consulting firm. Further, I was one person on a team of 10 consultants – what was the value that I personally played? Again, it can really only be quantified qualitatively. This is the beauty of consulting, you work in teams, you rely on your teammates and you succeed as a part of a team. I love this about consulting. But it is very difficult to actually quantify the value you provide.
As a founder, the value you are providing is always quantifiable. You know how many people your company serves or how much money your company generates. You stare at the numbers constantly. I have X idea and executed it in Y way – I instantly see the impact on the number of people reading articles this week. I changed this wording on the landing page – what is our percent hit rate now? In a startup you do not always want to quantify the value you are adding, but you always know…
5. Good days and bad days
In all jobs there are obviously good days and bad days. In consulting there were some projects I loved and other projects that were less exciting. There were times when I felt my work added value and times when I felt like I was just spinning my wheels. However, the good and bad in consulting operated in a relatively narrow ban. The hours are long and the work is demanding – but how I “felt” day to day was pretty steady. How I fell starting a company varies drastically every day. The “bans” are exponentially larger. There are great days when I feel like I am creating a company I am sure will one day be a huge success and change the world. Then there are days I feel like I accomplished nothing despite all the work I put in. These feelings can be triggered by results you see in data, comments you hear from different people, successes of experiments or how many people signed up for your service from 2-4PM on a random Tuesday. The highs are higher and the lows are lower.
At the end of the day I really enjoy both consulting and entrepreneurship. Both are really rewarding, challenging fast pace experiences that accelerate your business learning and developing. I hope this post helped flesh out some of the key differences between the two experiences. Please feel free to reach out with any questions
About the author: Jack Mara is the founder of 10Thoughts – a service providing high quality article content recommended by MBA students and top minds across the business world. Jack can be reached at jackmara@10Thoughts.com