Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Small is beautiful

My first week on the job at Wang, where I was the senior product manager for their investment-related products, I decided to go on a trip to New York.  I was, after all, the liaison with the group (part of a Wang acquisition) that was the source of the data for our investment related products. Plus, I figured I was going to be doing a lot with the NYC sales team, since most of the customers and prospects for “my” products were on Wall Street.

I came to Wang from a much smaller firm. When I needed to go somewhere – to visit customers, go on sales calls, participate in some event – I pretty much decided on my own, and let my boss know where and when I was going. We had a group (outsourced, as I recall) that made our arrangements. A call to them, and I was on my way.

I figured the same would happen at Wang.

After all, I was a senior product manager, and wouldn’t just be flying around willy-nilly, wasting time and money picking up frequent flyer miles.

Anyway, since my boss wasn’t there to inform – he was off on a business trip the week I started – I mentioned to the group secretary that I was planning on going to New York later in the week.

“Did you get your forms signed yet?” she asked.

“What forms,” I responded.

Well, it seems that, in order to get permission to go on a trip – even a day trip on the shuttle to NYC – you needed a form signed by your boss, his boss, his boss, and his boss – who was an EVP of the organization.

I was stunned.

Horace Tsiang, and EVP of a 30,000 employee company had to sign off on a trip that was going to cost the company about $200?

This being Wang, it got even better.

The travel policy was such that you didn’t learn you had permission (and tickets) to go on your trip until 5 p.m. the night before.

Anyway, this was my first experience in a Big Company, and it quickly reinforced my preconception that, when it comes to the workplace, Small is Beautiful, and Big is U-G-L-Y. (And it ain’t got no alibi.)

This all came to mind when I saw a Q&A in the Career Journal section of the WSJ Online in which someone asked whether it was risky, in terms of future opportunities with big companies, to take a job with smaller firm.

The answer was fine: it shouldn’t hurt you, just make sure the job is what you want, etc.

But it did get me thinking about the differences between small and large firms and why I, almost invariably, come down on the side of small. I also recognize that there are certainly ways in which Bigger is Better.

So here goes my two cents:

Small Is Beautiful:

Less bureaucracy: In smaller companies, there is usually no place for the insane bureaucracy that was in evidence everywhere you looked at a place like Wang. It wasn’t just the travel policy. When I ordered a bookcase and file cabinet for my cubicle, the request was bounced back because I hadn’t filled in the reasons. I entered “book case to put books in,” “file cabinet to put files in” and the request sailed through.   Wang was inordinately bureaucratic and, while I recognize that a larger organization will need to have more processes in place and just more bureaucracy in general, bureaucracies can become monster creatures that can grind a place down and stifle any initiative.

Lots of job latitude: I spent many years at a software company called Softbridge. When I joined – blissfully leaving Wang – the company’s informal motto was “the next billion dollar software company.”  To say that this never happened understates the case by several orders of magnitude. The company waxed and waned in terms of number of employees (from 300 down to 17 – in that order – then up again to 50). We had our ups and downs around how much money we could gull out of our ‘what were they thinking?’ investors in any given month.  (I believe the down-the-drain ended up being about $40M, which looks like nothing now, but this was pre-dot.com run-up). Revenues, the year I left, hovered around $7M).  While the founds may have been thinking big, we were doing small.

What we used to say at Softbridge was “if you can think of it, you better be able to do it.” This translates into what’s best about small companies: you really do get to try on a lot of hats, and there’s not usually anyone to tell you that you can’t. In small companies, there’s generally an awful lot to do, and too few people to get it done. So you get a lot of do-it-yourself opportunities – which definitely expands your résumé, plus helps you figure out what you like to do and what you don’t like to do.

Little room for politics: Let’s face it, wherever two or more employees are gathered, there’s going to be some political action. But with fewer people, you do tend to find that there aren’t as many factions. (At least this was so in the small places I worked, where the unifying theme was the will to survive.)  In my experience, in small companies less time, in general, is spent on politicking, posturing, and trying to undermine the other guys. It’s not that it doesn’t happen. There’s just less of it. (I did consult to one small company, however, where the politics were relentless and extraordinarily backbiting and vicious. That little outfit ending up breaking in to two pieces, which definitely relieved things on the political end. I, of course, went with the good guys…)

When I joined Genuity – other than Wang, the only large company I’ve worked for – I was stunned by the quantity and quality of the politics that played out. I came to believe that, at the Director level, politics was in the job description at 25%; at the VP level, 50%; and at the EVP level, 99.99%.  (This all, of course, got Genuity no further than the largest failed IPO in history and, eventually, dissolution.)

We are family: This may be exactly why some people would hate, hate, hate working in a small firm, but I always enjoyed knowing everyone and a bit about their lives. I liked traditions like Friday Party (Dynamics and Softbridge) at which everyone got together, had a beer or a glass of wine (or a toke – those were the days), munched on junk food, and let the week wind down. (I also have to admit that these work families were always dysfunctional. Small may be beautiful, but it can also be supremely nutty. )

Big Is Better (in some respects)

More resources: While learning how to do everything yourself is a good learning experience, once you’ve done it, well, the charm wears off. What’s nice about a large company is that there are resources to tap. In marketing, that meant I didn’t have to design collateral, stuff envelopes, put up trade show booths and all sorts of other things that weren’t all that interesting.

Better opportunities:  I can actually argue this one either way, since small companies tend to provide excellent opportunities to learn on the job. In some cases, small companies can provide a Build-a-Bear experience, in which you get to create your own job. In a smaller company, it may also be easier to get (ahem) “executive” experience. (A mixed blessing, I assure you.) On balance, however, once you’ve gotten to a certain point in a small company, the opportunities for advancement tend to be fewer, and the only way to get more responsibility, a bigger job, and maybe just a change of scenery often means leaving the company. Plus larger companies are where you’re more apt to find formal mentoring, clear career tracks, etc. 

Stronger network:  I’ve been fortunate to have made life friends at work – many from my years in small companies. But in terms of building a professional network, nothing beats the time I spent at Genuity. Either directly or indirectly, about 90% of my consulting work comes from people I worked with there. Part of this is because my Genuity experience was just prior to my starting out in consulting. With the exception of a brief stint at another firm (where I worked for my former boss at Genuity), I’ve been freelancing since Genu days. But in smaller companies, there were times when I was marketing, so there were just plain fewer people to network with.  And, I’ve got to say, most of the people in my professional network who have provided me with consulting work are also folks that I consider friends. Still, in terms of building a network, there’s obviously more network-building potential where there are more nodes.

Small doesn’t last: God knows I don’t have a good track record with any size company lasting, but for the most part, the rule of thumb “grow or die” turns out to be true. (What is there about rules of thumb that this happens?)

If you’re a small tech company with a good idea, you need to grow or get acquired. Let’s face it, if you have a good = profitable idea, someone else will want in. Small may be beautiful, but – in terms of tech company (other than consulting) it’s just not that sustainable.

Still and all, I’d take small over large any day.

But that’s me.

When I started out, I wouldn’t have accepted any argument that there were benefits to working large.

Now I can appreciate that there are.

Ah, the wisdom of age.

Still, if I had to pick what size company to get marooned on a desert island with, it’d be small. (Although, come to think of it, that large company I scorned might have the capacity to  figure out how to get us off. Hmmmmm….. Still, if we were going to be stuck-stuck there forever – and I had to work – well, it’s hard for me to get by my gut feeling that small is beautiful.)

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