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Taking the red pill: how to adapt to life after Big Tech

Leaving the mothership to work for smaller tech firms can be scary but ultimately rewarding, says Adam Harrison of London fintech firm Weavr

Big Tech has got a whole lot smaller in recent times. Big-name players across this once-unstoppable sector have axed staff in an attempt to adjust to today’s economic landscape and to possibly correct over-exuberant expansion decisions. It’s been seen first-hand here in Ireland, with the likes of Google, Meta and Microsoft all shedding employees.

Across the nation, scores of bright, intelligent and resourceful individuals, some of whom had spent years helping to build our nation’s excellent tech sector, awoke to – in some cases – a thank-you-but-goodbye email or, even worse, a failed login attempt confirming their termination of employment. It was a somewhat jarring end to their journey – a far cry from the warm-and-fuzzies that greeted them on day one as they admired their new swag and surroundings and picked up some muffins from the canteen.

While Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Simon Coveney believes that the worst has now passed, I’m sure there are still more than a few readers worried that Big Tech’s axe may soon fall on them too. Sadly, I’m not here to alleviate those specific concerns. but I do think my story could still offer some hope.

I also once belonged to the land of unlimited coffee, free gym memberships and fully stocked fridges. In fact, the formative years of my career – and waistline expansion – were spent happily climbing up the ranks of many of the companies already mentioned in this article. However, the shiny star dimmed for me as time progressed. I yearned for a life – cliche alert – that was more meaningful. And I got that in spades.

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First things first, let me clarify that this article is not anti-Big Tech. Joining Google in 2004 was the best thing that could happen to me, and Facebook – I’ll never get used to Meta – was similarly transformative, both personally and financially. During my time there, I watched amazing projects go from ideation to game-changing experiences people loved. Big Tech looks so exciting from the outside and, when you’re in it, you see what’s so special first-hand. It’s hard not to feel a buzz when your company builds things that play on the global stage. And you have a ready-made group of friends to hang out with.

It’s enticing, especially for young graduates who want to embark on a career brimming with opportunities and development, surrounding yourself with like-minded, passionate people who share interests and outlooks. Companies across the field provide staff with exceptional training across many aspects of marketing, advertising and more, to fill their employees’ CVs with great experience to help them land their next job. The additional benefit packages are generous but, here’s the secret: you develop benefit-blindness in Big Tech – the appeal of the fruit basket wears off after a while. You’re so busy working you forget it’s all there. Well, okay, maybe not the Michelin-grade restaurant.

Taking a role in a smaller tech company often means much more responsibility and greater exposure to many more aspects of your craft, plus real ownership and accountability to boot. There are fewer ways to really understand the industry you’re in, the challenges and what really matters than working directly with founders. Careful what you wish for, though – the start-up founder can be equal parts inspiring and challenging. Vet them – and the company – well enough on the way in and they’ll take you on a ride wild.

Of course, in most cases the salaries typically can’t compete with those of Big Tech. The trade-off is, in part, the chance that any equity you have will land you a big pay-day down the line. For me, a more immediate pay-off was feeling crucial to the success of the company.

The company’s success depends in a large part on the delivery of how you market it. You have to make it work. You become a practitioner again – there are no chin-scratching roles. Remember when you pushed the buttons and built the campaigns? Those days are back and it takes a certain mindset to adapt and thrive in that context.

As you take your first steps out of Big Tech and into the world of start-ups, there are several eventualities that you must prepare yourself for. You now have to inquire about financials with recruiters. These conversations can be difficult but it’s important to know what the start-up’s runway is, what it has raised, the burn rate and so on. Due to their high failure rate – nine out of 10 start-ups fail in general – you’ll need to get comfortable with vetting companies and their leadership. You have to know who the horse you’re hitching your cart to is and whether this is their first rodeo.

No one’s heard of the start-up in question? Get used to it. Just how important is that Big Tech logo to you? You might not realise it yet, but a sense of pride is a big part of the warm and fuzzy feeling at Big Tech. It was for me. In start-ups, it won’t be as easy to slide into DMs and get a reply. It’s a hustle out there. You have to work much harder to build credibility and cut-through with the audience – be it DMing contacts or designing marketing campaigns.

Smaller firms offer so much opportunity to the inquisitive marketing mind. You get to pair the discipline and rigour of working in Big Tech with a renewed sense of purpose and that can be super-motivating

Fewer meetings, less time managing up and more time doing the do. You will have to roll up your sleeves. You do all the work as you don’t have a full bench of agencies. There will be fewer annual plans and more one- to two-month sprints. Fundamentally, you will have to love the craft just as much as the strategy. The planning’s crucial but start-ups want people who will also muck in, build the LinkedIn campaigns, write the blog and get to grips with the website. How many different roles do those bits in Big Tech? Such skills are instrumental and early-stage companies will demand them even if you’re a VP, senior director or similar. Study up, take courses or fake it ‘til you make it.

Have I put you off yet? That’s not my intention. Big Tech opened a world of opportunity, taught me tonnes, including how to operate as a proper professional.

But smaller firms offer so much opportunity to the inquisitive marketing mind. You get to pair the discipline and rigour of working in Big Tech with a renewed sense of purpose and that can be super-motivating.

Hence, if you get that red-pill mass email or can no longer log in, it’s not the end of the world. It’s still full of possibilities. For one, it might give you a chance to reset and ponder what you actually want out of your career and what you don’t, and just maybe you’ll point yourself in a new direction. If that direction is towards start-up land, you’ll be in demand for sure. Just know where you want to go, get to grips with how you feel about the economics, whether you’re down with rolling those sleeves right up and the extent which you want to feel crucial.

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