When I started telling people that I’d resigned from Google, the first question they asked was never about where I was heading next or what I was doing. Instead, they wanted to know why I had made this seemingly irrational decision. Their subtle inquisitive tone suggested they were expecting to hear something dramatic: I’d been passed over for a promotion, my manager had made a pass at me, I’d heard the food would no longer be free.
The simple truth, that I had decided to leave because I felt I’d never get the guts to walk out again, let alone start my own company, seemed even less believable in light of the fact that I wasn’t springboarding to a more senior position at another tech company or going to business school, especially when weighed against the lure of Google.
This isn’t unique to leaving Google. We go through life collecting stamps that we hope will reflect our best true self: prestigious universities, coveted fellowships, magic circle law firms, the Goldmans, the McKinseys. The majority of these stamps are yours to keep and brag about the minute you acquire them. For example, we all know Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates went to Harvard, even though neither actually has a degree from there. Mixed with hard work and a sprinkling of luck and interpersonal skills, these stamps can be redeemed every few years for a bigger stamp, one that usually goes hand-in-hand with a more impressive title and a loftier paycheck.
Unfortunately, starting a company doesn’t earn you any stamps in and of itself. It’s building a successful business that does. Weigh that against a company with the allure of Google, and you’ll get used to hearing your decision characterized as "a detour," "a step back," "at best a step sideways." Financially speaking, that’s true, especially in the short term. It’s no small consideration, and it’s one that I agonized over for some time: being under Google’s umbrella gave me a taste of a very comfortable life that I wasn’t always privy to while growing up.
Yet with elite blue chip companies, there are many other (arguably scarier) leaving myths that are informally perpetuated and slowly internalized like folklore. You were lucky to be let in. You’ll never work with such a smart group of people again. You’re ruining your career. Once you leave, the odds of getting back in are equal to those of finding Atlantis, especially if your startup fails. Scariest of all is the myth that your social world and network will shrivel up because your next gig could never have the same cache.
It’s been one year since I left Google, and though I’ve held on to the notion that yes, I was very lucky to be let in, I’m happy to report that most of my other fears did not hold true. In fact, leaving Google has felt like a reinvigoration to my career. My learning curve accelerated at a rate that I could barely keep up with and I picked up both hard and soft skills in the span of a year that would have taken me nearly a decade to get within the framework of a bigger company. Most important, due to the higher signal-to-noise ratio of early-stage companies, I was able to feel the impact of my decisions, and there’s not much that’s more invigorating than that.
My fear of being shunned by the network and social world that I’d temporarily been granted access to while at Google did not materialize; in fact, the opposite happened. I was right in that I’d been categorized and placed in a certain bucket up until the moment I left: namely, I was a manager at Google, a mid-level employee. Sure, I worked on some interesting projects and was ranked highly among my peers, but for the sake of most people’s cognitive shortcuts, I was the executional firepower that was acting on other people’s decisions. When I walked out, I unknowingly recontextualized myself: I became a company founder, an aspiring leader, and I’d taken a risk to test myself and see what I was capable of.
Within the framework of a big company, we are primarily driven by deadlines and quarterly targets, which make it difficult to think about the bigger picture and a corresponding long-term strategy. Oftentimes, and depending on our level, it’s subtly indicated to us that it’s not our job to figure that out—upper management will take care of it. When you start your own company, it’s quite obvious that this changes dramatically. You have a very limited amount of time (and financing, if you’re lucky) to make wise strategic decisions. Thinking a few years ahead and becoming an expert on your competition becomes a learned behavior that you practice every day. As a result, you can no longer afford to be a specialist; the scope of what you need to learn and do broadens massively, while the time in which you need to do it shrinks.
I began to appreciate a great deal about myself in a very short time. Some things pleasantly surprised (I’m a data junkie) and others disappointed me (I don’t have as much patience as I thought). My biggest realization, by a long shot, is that staring your own company boils down to how you relate to people. Within an established company framework, being liked and respected (the two don’t always go hand-in-hand) is important, but there are ways to fudge the system.
Once you’re a founder, the company begins to take on a set of attributes that reflect the value system of its founders, whether that’s transparency, data, design, or frugality. That value system, and your ability to empathize, becomes your primary way of hitting your first milestones: getting the first few employees to join your team, recruiting a handful of customers to try your product, or convincing an investor to take a bet on you. Being smart is necessary but not sufficient. The paradoxical flip side is that you also become much more comfortable with being not liked (though hopefully not seen as a tyrant). Your primary job is to build a successful business so telling others that they’re underperforming or that the thing they’ve spent the past 15 hours on needs to be redone, becomes a daily exercise in how to combine empathy with effective leadership and company management.
Upon walking out of the Googleplex, doors started to open that had previously been shut. While at Google, I would have never dreamed of getting any one-on-one time with some of the tech world’s most revered VPs and C-level execs (even the Google ones), yet once I left, they agreed to meet with me to talk about my ideas. I realized that most of them had once been in the very same shoes that I was now trying on for size, and we now had something in common that previously wasn’t there. Some agreed to meet me out of curiosity for what we were building, others to impart wisdom from mistakes they’d made; a handful invested, some came on board as advisers. Most shook my hand, genuinely wished me good luck with that all-knowing "brace yourself" smile, and introduced me to others that they thought could help.
I still have a long way to go to earn that illustrious we-built-a-successful-business-from-the-ground-up stamp, and there’s a (statistically high) chance that it may never happen. Even in that case, I know I’ll hold no regrets that I took this "detour," and I’ll believe in the myth that says it was my step back that ultimately got me to where I aspired to be. That is until data proves me otherwise.
—Anastasia Leng is the cofounder of Makeably, the custom goods marketplace. She spent five years at Google, working in New Business Development and Product Marketing. She led entrepreneurship efforts in Europe and was responsible for early-stage partnerships for Google Voice, Chrome, and Wallet. Follow her on Twitter at @ponystasia.
[Image: Flickr user Simon & His Camera]