It’s pretty standard for entrepreneurs to spend a few years working for a big consultancy or corporate firm before starting their own small company. It’s almost unheard of to spend 13 years working for Morgan Stanley, as an executive director and chief operating officer, then quit to start a small business without knowing what that business would be.
“I get teased for the fact that I’m either very brave or very mad,” Linda Cheung says, over breakfast during a short visit from the UK to Berlin, where she’s speaking as a social media expert at Campus Party Europe. As she puts it, she’s not into doing things part-time. “If I’m working for someone, I’m working for someone – to try and build an idea separate to that wasn’t my ethos.”
After asking businesses what they wanted, Cheung and co-founder Mark Bower, a former lead programme manager at Microsoft and fellow “blue-chip escapee”, set up CubeSocial – a software as a service social media management system, plus social media strategy and consulting for business.
So how does running a small business compare, after so long in the corporate world? “Initially, it felt massively different, like moving countries if not worlds… huge sense of different culture, different scale, different language,” she says.
Now, two years on, the similarities are a little more apparent.
We asked Cheung to share a few thoughts on how her past life is helping her now:
Get a reputation as employer of choice
One of the things I thought Morgan Stanley was very clever at was becoming the “employer of choice”. It was known to not be the best payer in the city. People wouldn’t go work for them because of the money. It was about who they got to work with, who those teams would be, what the attitudes would be and that’s why people chose them.
Startups can be seen as the employer of choice. Rather than thinking “we haven’t got the money, we’re never going to get the best people” – money isn’t the dominant factor.
Think about the perks you can offer
People often talk about, seriously, “don’t you miss the chauffeur-driven cars, the business class flights, the fine dining?” In all honesty, they are all fantastic things. I loved all of that lifestyle when I was there.
But do I miss it, which is a different thing. When I’m asked the question, I would have to say I don’t miss it. Part of it is the life you have to lead in that culture. Tied into that pace of life and environment, it’s what’s demanded from you… Mostly I was chauffeur-driven home because I worked so late, there was no public transport option available. That’s OK, but it’s remembering it’s tied into that…
My favourite exec perk at Morgan Stanley was the exec gym… Everything was there, and obviously afterwards all your toiletries, showers, towels, pigeon holes for our trainers… Ultimately, what I loved most about it was convenience.
The equivalent for startups may be the flexibility, that convenience you can offer your team. Whatever you want it to be. We’ve had morning stand-ups on Skype because one guy’s waiting for the plumber… Rather than think about what the actual item is, think about what it is about that treat, that perk, that people care about.
Confidence is everything
Confidence is a key trait [in the corporate world] – you have a certain confidence to apply for that sort of job that you’ll get through the selection process…
That kind of confidence can be taken into every aspect of what you do. If you’ve not applied, you’ve self-selected out… There are startup programmes that try to encourage and help but you won’t even apply if you don’t have that sense of belief.
Drop the assumptions
I left the corporate world not knowing what my startup would be… We’re teased about that a lot – “oh, you went and asked people what they wanted…”
[But] I had eight roles in my time at Morgan Stanley… As you become more senior, you’re heading up teams where actually they’re the experts. The people you’re in charge of know a lot more than you do, because you’ve just moved into that job. I learned never to make any assumptions. Never. You need to listen.
Strategy is not a dirty word
It could be any element in how you compete. One question that came in the Q&A [at Campus Party Europe], it was a social media-related one, he was trying to copy the content of much bigger firms. When I say copy, it wasn’t plagiarising, he was more saying – “they’ve done a feature on so-and-so so we think we should do a feature on so-and-so, push that content out,” and it doesn’t go anywhere, it doesn’t happen…
He hasn’t really thought about what his objectives are… If someone wants to go to the big firm, they’ll go to the big firm, so why are they going to him?
Don’t be worried about words like strategy. It doesn’t contradict with words like agile… There are great things about being agile, and corporates can learn from it, it’s definitely something that goes the other way, but it is not mutually exclusive with being strategic.