By Alex Bates
My last day as senior director of a public company was November 9, 2018.
I didn’t earn that title by climbing some corporate ladder. I was there on a two-year contract as a result of selling my company Mtell for $37 million. Terms of the additional retention stock package required my co-founder and me to stay on for two years during the transition process. On the first day I was allowed to leave without risking my vested stock, I left.
This wasn’t because there was something wrong with the acquiring company. The entire acquisition process was actually incredibly smooth, and we were surrounded by smart, talented people every step of the way.
The problem was that corporate life isn’t for me. I’ve known it ever since I quit my first job in 2004 to start Mtell. I’m not wired for conventional office work, and that’s exactly what this new job called for.
Founders who sell their companies face a high likelihood of having to stay on as an employee for some period of time. If you find yourself in that situation, you’re going to be far away from startup life. Don’t hear that as any criticism of the company that acquired us—it’s just the reality of doing business as a large organization. The bigger you get, the more complexity you have to tolerate.
If you get acquired and have to prepare for your first day in a new role, here are some pointers to help you survive.
From decision-maker to influencer
The first change you’ll notice is you’re suddenly no longer the chief decision-maker. Sure, your words still have weight and people respect your opinions. But you’re not the final person to make a decision anymore.
I’m used to walking into a meeting, describing what we need to do from a technology perspective, and having people ready to work on it. After the acquisition, I tended to hear things like, “Thanks for your input.”
You’re no longer top dog. You’re an employee of a larger company with a full management team and multiple department heads.
Welcome to the email fire hose
I fell behind on email from day one. There were hundreds of emails pouring in every day from different people in the organization. It was exciting to see we had so much interest in expanding machine learning to other areas, but overall I feel like I spent much of those two years buried in my inbox, answering emails.
Our startup was a close-knit team of 10 full-time employees, so we didn’t require extensive email threads to communicate. When you join a bigger organization with offices in multiple locations, the flow of communication changes, and email is the go-to solution.
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Prepare for lots of meetings
There were so many meetings (and so many people in those meetings) that it felt impossible to keep track of what we were trying to do in the first place.
As a founder, I always believed it was important to solicit feedback from people on my team. But I also believed that it was sometimes best to apply a lean approach, make small decisions, test them out, and adapt. Too much discussion and debate leads to decision paralysis.
In larger organizations, it’s just a reality there will be more meetings with more people attending. Prepare yourself for it!
Get used to sharing resources
When we were an independent company, our resources were our own and they were dedicated to our one product. We were laser-focused on building something that delivered massive value to our customers.
But we found our resources split between different product teams in the organization after the acquisition. A bigger company is certainly going to have multiple products and more than one mission. But after getting so accustomed to how we did things as a nimble startup, this was a difficult change.
I take the valuable lessons learned as a startup founder and combine them with the lessons I learned while working in corporate and apply them to my new role as an investor, backing startups leveraging artificial intelligence.
I don’t especially miss that “senior director” job title, but I had the opportunity to see how a large organization operates, and it was a great learning experience. I still act as a consultant for the company, and am deeply grateful for the opportunity they gave us—but now I’m back to doing my own thing!
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