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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.