Why I Turned Down Apple For A Startup

Sometimes the big fish isn't always the best fish. One entrepreneur who turned down the industry giant on why meaningful work is most important.

Editor's Note: This story contains one of our Best Business Lessons of 2014. Check out the full list here.

Several years ago, I received a fantastic job offer from Apple. After seven interviews, I got the call. Welcome to Apple: solid salary, killer stock, international travel, an awesome team, all while marketing a world-class brand.

At the time, I was consulting for Sparked, a startup that had just asked me to join the company. Suddenly I had to choose: big guy versus little guy, known around the world versus known around the block, secure salary versus insecure future payout.

Ultimately, I turned Apple down.

It wasn’t easy. Career decisions never are, especially with such contrasting options. But Apple’s offer forced me to question and potentially recalibrate my career path. Here are a few things I learned in making the decision.

Ask who you are, then ask again

Where do you want to take your career? Are you on the right path? Forty percent of U.S. professionals reflecting on career success say they aren’t where they want to be in life. Many had envisioned a general level of success, but failed to set and work toward a goal.

When Apple’s offer came, I began re-examining my ideal career destination. My career thus far has been an interesting ride. I’ve founded and worked at startups most of my career. But Apple offered challenges, rapid growth, great colleagues, and a world-class organization. As they assured me the transition would be smooth, I realized that reassessing career assumptions is critical. Perspectives and needs change. It doesn’t mean a redirect is always necessary, but thoughtful, continued calibration is.

Find the X factor

I met my longtime friend and business partner Ben Rigby while we were student tour guides at Stanford. Kindred entrepreneurial spirits, we both ended up starting several companies in our careers. When I moved back to the U.S. in 2010, Ben asked me to consult for Sparked, a crowdsourcing platform where people could answer questions or do small projects for nonprofits around the world.

A good friend, interesting business, and personal comfort level—I call this the X factor. Amid many rational factors, there’s a visceral reaction to any professional opportunity. On Sunday nights, will you dread going back to work on Monday? In three years, will you want to be at the same company? These are all small, but important things. When "work doesn’t seem like work," quality of life soars.

Is there a problem to solve?

Any time you consider a startup, ask yourself one thing: Is there a compelling problem that has created a market demand for this solution? If the answer isn’t yes, look for another startup.

I’m always amazed at how many startup founders describe their company with: "We have this really cool product with features like…" and then mention foosball tables, yoga rooms, and Chief Fun Officers. But when they start with: "Millions of people have a problem that we solve by…" I know they’re starting at the right place. There’s nothing wrong with startup perks, but they’ll be gone when the "cool product" becomes a solution that could never find a problem.

Sparked passed this test, which is why it was so attractive, even considering Apple. Brands were asking if they could use Sparked’s platform to engage customers because they were struggling to do so on most social media sites. Preliminary market demand was clear, and then it got bigger. When Apple called, we weren’t quite ready to build out these solutions, but I saw the writing on the wall and knew Ben was the type of founder focused on spotting problems and building solutions for them.

Be rational and accept complexity

If you choose A over B, it’s easy to later justify your choice by exalting A, while denigrating B. Many would rather not think about how the road not taken may have been just as good—or better—than the road they traveled.

When you make career decisions, the most important thing is to learn from them. If it turns out B would have been better, then you know more when the next career decision comes. Avoid regret. If you made the wrong decision, understand why, and improve your next decision.

I’m absolutely happy with my decision to stay with Sparked. Yes, I "missed out" on a great opportunity with Apple, but I had a better opportunity at the time, and I could only pick one. I’m fine with that.

Go "all in"

My final advice is this: Give everything to the role you're in.

When I was considering Apple, I called my good friend, Assaf Tarnopolsky, a fellow entrepreneur and good friend from business school. He had left the world of startups and quickly became a VP at Sony before heading to Asia with LinkedIn. Assaf chose to go to a large company and never looked back, but he could easily have stayed on the startup path with equal success. Both of us had a tough decision, and while we chose different paths at that moment, we both went "all in."

It’s the same with any career choice. No matter which path you take, second-guessing yourself won’t help you move forward. I used to think about all the money I’d given up due to my decision. The difference in total compensation between Apple and Sparked would have bought a Jacuzzi filled with champagne. But building a startup in San Francisco is hard to beat. Sparked met all the criteria I was looking for and it has delivered. I’m continuing on a meaningful path that fits who I am and where I want to go.

It’s also been fun every step of the way.

Joseph Pigato is the Managing Director of Sparked, a mobile-first customer engagement platform, where he heads marketing strategy and product development.

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  • Vanessa Vara

    Nice Advice. This can be inspiration for many worker around the world who trapped on their office chairs. I quit from my company then become freelance writer. It was difficult in first but that's make me have quality time for my family. Thanks for share!

  • Rebecca Witt

    Seriously Great Advice! Couldn't have put it better myself. My parents have always said that my success is measured by the amount of money I make... and well... I disagree. I'm a designer by profession and I'm never going to make a serious amount of cash, but I'm happy working for small businesses who want excellence and actually give you the credit you deserve, instead of working in a big company where the person sat next to you is just as likely to ask you out for a pint at the end of the day than they are to stab you in the back when something better comes along. I'm going to post this to the wall of our small office! :)

  • I need to print this out and let all of my business students read this. I always tell them that I do not care what their future plan are - getting into administration, owning a company or becoming an anime cartoonist in Canada (real student) you have to go "all in." Doing what you love will always trump going for the bucks.

  • Jordon Ibe

    Brilliant post! I remember one of my college teachers telling to us students that the journey to your workplace on Monday mornings should feel like you're off to a picnic. One can't help but agree with that thought. I'm very happy for you if you think you've made the right decision in not choosing Apple. Passion and love towards your job can only appear when you're content with your lifestyle and when you think you have enough freedom and flexibility while you're working. Good luck with al your future endeavours Joseph!

  • Jack Horbit

    Hard to turn down Apple! If they liked you before, I'm sure they'd have a spot for you one day if you want to go there.

  • Jean Paul Gaillard

    Follow your instinct. Rationalizing, here, may make you take the wrong decision.

  • Jim Youll

    Gotta say, the company here in San Francisco that mentioned - on every call and communication - the "frequent Nerf wars" sort of seemed less appealing than, well, pretty much any place else. If I'm running complicated systems, and if they wouldn't do it at NASA, I don't really want that around me.

  • Excellent post, I have also chosen this type of road. In the calculation, you have to factor lifestyle and reasoning. For me the freedom to chose projects, control my time, and spend time with my children means no corporate jobs for me. I agree you have to validate the project. For people who have a lot to offer I think startups let you shine more and make a name for yourself. Great post, sharing!

  • Mike Oniel

    What a great story Joe. I agree with you 100% that working for the bug guy is not always the best decision. There are some great upsides to working for the "Big Boys" but ultimately the smaller start-ups tend do give you the most satisfaction and reward. I guess there is something amazing about helping a business grow.

  • Stupid decision. You can always work at a startup but getting a job at Apple is impossible. Why not take it when you have the chance?

    If it doesn't work out or you get bored of it, there are always tons of startups to join whenever you want, their are too many of them anyway. People at startups are always so sanctimonious about "following their passion." It's just a job. You're not saving the world.

  • "It's just a job." Is it? The key point in the post is "On Sunday nights, will you dread going back to work on Monday? In three years, will you want to be at the same company? These are all small, but important things." If you have a job you love, then it's an easy decision. Yes, you can make big bucks--and dread going to work. That's how people burn out, get stressed, are unhappy and look for greener pastures. I prefer enjoying what I do over the stress of big company politics any day, no matter who it is with. Unless the job offered is the best of both worlds - in which case it would be a no brainer. :)

  • But if you work at a great company (even for 3-5 years), you make money that allows you to have more freedom later, and a brand name on your resume that will write your ticket to any startup. Any startup will jump at getting someone from an elite global company on their team.

    So I think you can actually get the best of both worlds this way.

  • Puneet Arora

    I think here is one that makes a difference. I think one should go with the kind of work he is doing or he wants to do, and not do it just for the sake of Job.

  • Joe - First, congratulations for sticking with it and choosing a path you enjoy, while making it a success. In my life, I have started and run several businesses, spent years at corporate and then helped 100's of online start-ups get going on the web (or not if their business model was not validated). I have failed and succeeded as an entrepreneur and have many, many times been offered corporate positions during slow business times; but always went back to running my own business and serving other start-ups. To make these types of decisions is hardest when you have no plan. This is why I have made a mini career if you will about helping others succeed where I have failed i.e. learned. Like you mentioned, have a pro and a con list. Then, I say, really get down to examining your passion, the market demand, the validity of the model and your resources. I am compelled to follow you on Twitter - feel free to do the same and thank you for sharing - Jasmine Sandler