What to expect when taking the leap from big brand to startup

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I spend a lot of time supporting people from the biggest food & drink players as they take a career leap towards startups. These NAMs, category managers, demand planners and more feel they can use their incredible training and knowledge to make a difference in an emerging brand.

And they really can. Startup food & drink brands are often founded by inspiring entrepreneurs with no prior experience in the industry, so if you can inject your knowhow, such as building JBPs or purchasing media, it can rocket the startup. But it isn’t that easy - the startup world is different and you’ve got to be prepared for a culture shock. I’d guide the right person with the following advice:

Expect a love for the product like never before. Complaints cause genuine upset and kind social media posts go on the office walls. Their product defines them so make sure you love it too!

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Expect an ambiguous job role - your brief will be a lot fuzzier, along the lines of: ‘get our brand into as many baskets as possible’. If you do have a job role, expect it to change quickly and regularly. You’ll be working in an all-hands-on-deck environment where ‘business as usual’ hasn’t yet been defined - be prepared for that.

Expect to use gut feelings over insight. Real data comes at a cost that can’t be justified by most startups, meaning most decisions come from gut feeling. Remember things move quickly too, so there will be a lot of these decisions, daily.

Expect little or no budget, and remember that it will constantly change with the liquidity of the business. For example, if a key customer fails to pay an invoice on time, there may be no budget for marketing that month. Expect product swapping, favours and sampling instead.

Expect wildly ambitious targets such as: ‘win listings with Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons and Costco in 2018. Also, please get us into all of Compass and we’d like to launch into airlines, on-trade, Germany and ideally UAE’. Do your best, keeping in mind that if targets are not ambitious, the business won’t survive.

Expect a heavy focus on culture fit during the hiring process: if there’s only five of you, they’ll want to be confident that you all get along well.

If this all sounds like something you’d thrive on, why not start the conversations? Only then will you find your rocket…

Thea Alexander is founder of Young Foodies 

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Adrian Mooney

    Great article Thea.

    This brilliantly reflects the change in culture required when stepping away from the corporate bosom.

    As a director from FMCG who went to run a start-up, also expect to be pitching for funding with investment funds, angels and crowdfunding.

    Experience of presenting to a Tesco buyer stands you in good stead here, but nothing prepares you for the thrill of it being your own business, rather than your new listing

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  • Alexis Poole

    Fantastic article! Outlines how exciting, albeit challenging, working in a startup is.

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  • Excellent article Thea.
    So many of the senior people I deal with see the "start up" or SME as the "romantic" option. It can certainly be a wonderfully liberating experience from the perceived shackles of a more corporate environment - but it is also about being able to adapt ones mindset. Your point about data is a prime example - often when push comes to shove, people fail to adapt to the rough edges of a smaller business and realise how reliant they have become on lots of structure and processes.

    in my view, recruiters and hiring companies should be super rigorous when hiring individuals as much as the candidate needs to be as clear as possible on their motivations for making such a move - at the same time as taking all the well made points above into account.

    If both parties do their homework then it can often be a very happy and rewarding marriage. Without it, it can turn into an expensive mistake that small business can rarely afford.

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