Not all places of business are one in the same, nor is our ability to succeed in said environments. This, of course, is an obvious statement but for reasons verging on inconspicuous.
In business, working for the establishment (the Bigs, Conglomerates, Strategics, etc) versus being in the start-up arena is a constant back and forth consideration for many of us in the medical device industry. This becomes especially true if we find ourselves looking elsewhere for work at which point the phrase “the grass is greener on the other side” has a devilish way of distorting our worldview.
Fun Fact: the phrase ‘”the grass is greener on the other side” traces back to the Greek poet Ovid, circa first century B.C.; Ovid is credited with saying, “The harvest is always richer in another man’s field.” From there the American folk singers Raymond B. Egan and Richard A. Whiting wrote a song called “The Grass Is Always Greener in the Other Fellow’s Yard” in 1924. And there you have it.
Why is this important?
Simply put – we are not original in our thoughts about our present circumstances and opportunities close to us. ‘The grass is always greener’ is really a tale of fantasy, one which often supposes things are naturally better elsewhere just because it doesn’t define our present reality. Herein lies an important question as it relates to you and the medical device industry – what company size are you best suited for and does this environment present greener pastures? Is your current job the right 'grass'?
Working for big business certainly has its perks, there’s no doubt about it. Stability, direction, benefits, work that is defined – you name it. The medical device industry naturally follows this familiar path while also provide other such commonly held benefits like:
This list represents typical benefits which may come with working at a big company, but certainly aren’t guaranteed by any means. As we all know, just because it’s a big company doesn’t denote excellence by any means, which is perhaps the very reason the start-up world exists.
The start-up world can be an exciting place. I’ve experienced this personally for over a decade in my own business as well as supporting dozens of medical device clients who have new and burgeoning places of business. In the start-up environment its common to hear people describe their experiences as:
The world of medical device start-ups can be an alluring place for work. Is it possible the start-up world is where ‘the grass is greener’? The answer to this question comes down to one thing – how you’re conditioned to operate as a professional.
If you are currently looking for a new career it’s vital you truly understand what makes up the medical device start-up world and whether or not you can be successful in that environment BEFORE you jump in to start work. Take a moment to check in with yourself on how you land with these characteristics which commonly can be found in the start-up world:
Start-ups can be exciting places to work because many times the companies and their respective technology are seeking to disrupt the market by bringing new approaches to tired practices. This excitement comes with a twist – funding. The life of a medical device start-up lends itself to a constant and almost never ending process of fund raising to help the company achieve its next milestones. Some start-ups excel in their ability to raise funds, many struggle mightily. Reportedly more than 75% of device start-ups fail, 50% of which fail in the first five years. As a start-up grows and evolves it’s not uncommon for them to also go through waves where they are flush with cash in one season, to find themselves on the brink of going under the next season. Understanding if you are comfortable in an environment which can be viewed as ‘feast or famine’ is crucial to your ability to be successful in the start-up world.
2.Working Outside the Box
When we work for big companies often times our job and daily output is focused on a certain set of tasks, we’re siloed into a niche function. It’s the opposite in the start-up world as often times the mentality of those who are successful in this space is they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done and company moving forward. This includes taking out your own trash! If you’ve ever said “that’s not part of my job description” in response to work that was requested of you I would recommend taking a hard look at whether a start-up or small company is the right move for your career. Job descriptions are incredibly loose in the start-up world, if they even exist in the first place.
Working 8-5 in a large company can be a nice perk. If you’ve done that for any length of time you may have forgotten how nice it is to mentally shut off at 5PM. With medical device start-ups working 8-5 is non-existent. It’s common to work long hours and or be tethered to your phone around the clock. The statement of ‘work life balance’ is blurred beyond recognition in the start-up world. Those that are successful here know and understand that it takes time and effort to create something. How dedicated are you to making that happen and what are you willing to giving up in the process?
Working in a large company doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is clearly defined and outlined yet it is typical that SOPs (standard operating processes) are at the very least available for workers who choose to use them. Different departments exist handling tasks specific to their function in the larger machine. In the start-up world you may find yourself creating these on your own. Take a moment to think how you would feel about being confronted with a daily situation where you are supposed to be working hard, hell – harder than ever before, and there isn’t a lot of direction or support to help you in that effort. If the thought of that excites you than the start-up world may be a breath of fresh air.
This is one of the most overlooked aspects of a start-up in my opinion. Leadership. If you haven’t worked in the start-up world before you may not be aware that people in leadership still do much of the hands on work. In big business this is hardly the case. Neither camp of leaders are necessarily better than one of the other, it’s just a very different environment. In start-ups every person on the team has to give 150% to the cause which means those who don a leadership title still have to get dirty in the day to day work. The reason you want to consider this as a part of your ‘can I make it in the start-up world’ is because leadership ultimately can have a great or very grave impact on the start-up business. Seems a bit obvious but when someone is doing both daily work and in charge of strategic decision making their influence and involvement has a much greater impact. In big business if a company experiences a failure with one of their leaders it typically can be salvaged whereas in the start-up world one or two costly mistakes by leadership will send the company into a grave six feet under.
Start-ups offer an intimate working experience. It’s a necessity. Working in a start-up everyone knows everything about everyone. It’s close quarters with high amounts of communication, partnering and feedback. Collaboration of course exists in big business but not at the intimate level of the start-up. When we work for a big company we are often a part of a team but doing work independently, even at times on our own little island. If you’ve come to enjoy your island and aren’t interested in having neighbors all over your lawn on a daily basis than perhaps staying in big business is the right decision for you.
A career in the medical device start-up arena can indeed be a rewarding and exciting adventure – for the right person. Once you’ve spent some time analyzing what’s most important to you in your career and the type of company which is most suitable to help you achieve success you will better understand how the medical device start-up world fits in with your next steps.
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About the Author
Travis Smith is the founder and managing director of Square-1 Engineering, a life sciences consulting firm, providing end to end technical project services to companies which design, develop and or manufacture products in Southern California. He successfully served the life sciences marketplace in SoCal for over 15 years specializing in engineering services, consulting, project outsourcing and leadership development. In 2019 he was recognized as a ‘40 Under 40’ honoree by the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce as a top leader in Orange County, CA.