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“Should I join Microsoft or a startup?”

As the co-founder of a profitable startup and a former Microsoftie, I hear this question a lot, especially from college students ready to start their careers.

In tech cities like Seattle and San Francisco, we’re quick to jump on the pro-startup bandwagon. Robert Scoble advises: “Join a startup. You will learn more there and have a bigger impact. Later, when you have a family and a mortgage, you can take the safe route.”

But this advice ignores the advantages—like knowledge, confidence, and money—to working for a Microsoft, Google, or Amazon first. Here’s why you should consider the big company over the startup:

You learn how (and how not) to run your own business—on someone else’s dime.

At Microsoft and my next employer, I ran my own teams. I managed people and large budgets and worked closely with sales, marketing, consulting, and support for my products.

I considered my managers my VCs and:

  • Used their “funding” to work on the cool stuff I wanted to learn.
  • Learned how to manage people (and fail at managing people) without having to pay them myself.
  • Traveled and attended conferences to learn about other industries and companies.
  • Made connections I would have never made going cold into the startup space.
  • Shipped big, ambitious software that’s used by millions.
  • Learned how to interview and hire employees, bring on contractors for short term projects, and work with international teams to build and support software.
  • Met amazing mentors with big company and startup experience who continue to provide me with great advice today. I even met my co-founder.

You save money to buy your own equity.

When I went the startup route, I didn’t want to be employee #X with a small share of the company. I wanted to do it right and be in control, which requires funding.

Josh Ledgard

First, I needed to raise enough money to “seed round” my own venture without risking the future of my family. While still employed, I maxed out 401K matching, invested in employee stock purchase programs, and saved my annual bonus checks. And then my wife and I paid off our house so we wouldn’t have a lingering mortgage or other debt.

Working at big companies gave my co-founder and me the financial freedom to own 100 percent of the equity in our company and decide how and when to grow our business.

You can earn a paycheck while starting your own business.

Working for another company doesn’t mean putting your dream on hold. Many companies have moonlighting clauses that allow you to explore side businesses, as long as it’s not competitive and you’re still doing your day job. And I also know people who’ve gotten their initial development funded by Microsoft before spinning out on their own.

You can live your life—now and later.

If you want to eat Ramen noodles while slaving away at a startup and hoping for a big payday, go for it. But if you plan and do it right, you don’t have to put your life on hold to work at a startup.

In my 20s, I wanted more flexibility. I joined Microsoft, worked hard, took vacations, and bought things I didn’t need. I also got married and made many lifelong friends. In my early 30s, I was ready to start a family, and corporate employment gave me the nest egg to do it. Now, in my mid-30s, I’m a proud member of the Founder Dads club and get to see my startup succeed, while spending time with my wife and two kids.

My co-founder and I built our company the boring, methodical, and analytical way using the values each of us learned at larger, more established companies. We’re more mature, and we’ve avoided many classic startup mistakes.

Some people may be naturally gifted at raising money and have an innate understanding of everything that goes into running a business. For everyone else, there’s continuing education available at any number of large companies. Don’t short change it.

Josh Ledgard is the co-founder of KickoffLabs, subscription software for landing pages, online forms, and email marketing, and the author of My Toddler Perfects Your Sales Pitch and Landing Pages 107.  Follow Josh on Twitter @joshaledgard.

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