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Why the startup world needs more ‘corporate refugees’

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Imagine being excited to jump out of bed on a Monday and feeling like you can’t wait to get back to work after a holiday. That describes the vast majority of the startup founders and employees I know.

While each situation is unique, I can say with certainty that most people who I know that have moved to a startup haven’t regretted the decision. And that’s powerful when you consider the vast majority of Australians are unhappy at work.

According to the latest Gallup global state of the workplace report only 14 per cent of Australian and New Zealand workers are enthused by their job. We’re actually slightly worse than the global average on this measure too.

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Given this, it’s no wonder that so many talented Australian workers have jettisoned their corporate job for a role at a startup. It’s easier to feel engaged with your work when all of your efforts have a visible and tangible impact on the company and that is startup life. I feel working a  startup is a bit like having a child, the highs are high and the lows are low, you have sleepless nights and problems to solve that are completely new but you find a way. Ultimately there is this intangible something that you connect to very deeply and the experience is electric.

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However, if commentary from last week’s StartUp Muster report is to believed, then this trend may be starting to slow and is contributing to that fact that the number of new startups being created in Australia has dropped. It’s a revelation that sent shockwaves through the sector, as the first time it’s happened in the report’s six-year history.

The reasoning is that many budding founders jump ship to startups on the basis that they can always go back to their corporate job if the role goes south. Ongoing uncertainty in corporate Australia has made it harder for workers to hedge their bets, so they’re staying put.

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If you’re in this position then I think you should make the jump. And there are ways you can manage your risk while doing it. My go-to example on this is the story of Kirstin Hunter, the Managing Director of Future Super – the first fossil free Super Fund in Australia.

If you’re ambitious, driven, and wanting to make a difference it would be a shame to see fear hold you back from taking the plunge

Before starting at Future Super, Kirstin was a Case Team Leader at Bain & Company. Her work was engaging, as her clients changed every few months. As you would imagine, the hours at times were incredibly long.

Kirstin wasn’t dissatisfied with her job. But when she met the founders of Future Super, it was love at first skype. They were looking for someone to do some casual advisory work, and in a bid to get involved she asked her employer if they would allow her to work for Future Super a day a week.

They agreed, and after a two months, Kirstin realised that her heart was in her work for Future Super. So in April last year, she made the leap and took on a full-time role initially as the company’s Chief Operating Officer. She says she’s working just as hard as she did in her corporate job, but is more satisfied with her role and is overall happier as a result.

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For me, Kirstin’s story drives home two points.

Firstly, you don’t need to be a founder to work in the startup sector. There’s plenty of challenging roles and jobs that help scale companies. Earlier on in the company’s growth, these roles can also give employees access to equity too.

And secondly, becoming a corporate refugee isn’t as black and white as many think. If your employer allows it, you can scale back your job to try a new role. It’s all about having a candid conversation with your employer when the opportunity presents.

All of this said, startups aren’t for everyone. Corporate roles tend to silo work better than any startup can. Startups can be unpredictable, and more often than not you have to take on multiple jobs and push yourself outside of your comfort zone to make the business work.

I believe startups have the potential to tackle and solve some of the greatest social and environmental problems of our time. So if you’re ambitious, driven, and wanting to make a difference it would be a shame to see fear hold you back from taking the plunge. And an even greater tragedy for this trend to have an impact on the rise of Australia’s startup sector.

Will Richardson is the managing partner of the Giant Leap Fund and head of venture capital for the Impact Investment Group.