Leaving Corporate America for a Startup: The Best Decision I Ever Made

January 13, 2016, 9:49 PM UTC
Photo: RUHM Luxury Marketing

A few years ago, I found myself at a giant conference in New Zealand filled with hundreds of educated and well-paid people, cheering at the top of our lungs in celebration of the release of the next world-dominating product. The energy was great and the financial incentives were huge.

Back then, I was a part of Fortune 100 company Pfizer (PFE) (formerly Wyeth) employing nearly 100,000 people worldwide. My position was relatively safe and we were doing good work.

I’ve always loved the corporate hustle: I’ve lived in five countries and worked across nine. I’ve had various roles in government, the corporate sector and non-profits. I thrived on the thrill of watching big organizations get better, so the mood that pervaded that giant conference should have elated me. Instead, it left me wanting. I knew something was missing, I just didn’t know what. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Pfizer, and all of my intelligent colleagues, who worked hard and celebrated success while making the world a better place; yet I felt a call to something different.

Not long after that, I met an inspiring influencer at yet another large business event. He told me a story about risking it all, selling his business and taking his three kids and wife sailing – for over a year.

Entrenched in my role, I couldn’t imagine doing something so drastic. In the middle of that expo hall, surrounded by miles of booths, badly branded chapstick and mini-Snickers bars, I felt tears begin to swell. I realized this life just wasn’t “me.” I wanted more creativity, passion, challenge and adventure in my work. Something had to change.

Eventually, I moved back home to California and took up sailing – a decision inspired by that influencer. I also began looking into more flexible and creative opportunities.

That’s when I discovered a local marketing company named Ruhm that seemed to be doing everything differently. Led by visionary founder Mark Fitzpatrick, they were taking risks and using metrics based more on good instinct and bold intuition, rather than a set of textbook marketing evaluation methods. I was so inspired by their approach that I decided to jump ship from the corporate world and join the startup community for good. A year later, I am loving the adventure and challenge of this still-new company and role. Here are five reasons why I love the entrepreneurial world:

1. Bigger ships aren’t always better

Often, in Fortune 100 companies, the pace is set. The structure is relatively solid, and it’s easy to get comfortable with the way things are. That same predictability makes it difficult for individuals to make a significant difference in the company. At a startup, I can make an impact every day. In any given week it is not unusual for me to make decisions on investments, organizational structure, partnerships and changing business models – things that in a Fortune 100 company often take months, if not years, to decide. Every decision is pivotal, and every moment is crucial.

2. Smaller ships turn faster

It can take well-established companies a long time to change. Not so, at smaller organizations. In the startup world, I don’t have to set an appointment with the Board secretary two weeks out to get an approval on something timely. I can simply pick up the phone, knock on our founder’s already-open door and have a five-minute conversation in order to make a decision. In the first few months of joining my team, we had three new businesses on the table all in the first stages of development using people and resources. One look at our team proved we couldn’t do it all, so in a quick chat with our founder, we were able to make a call on which development to put first and which to pause, announce it to the team and start building it. It saved time, money and morale – and kept us moving forward.

3. Uncharted adventures lead to Blue Oceans
In the startup world, there are a lot of unknowns. We have ideas and strategies that we think might change the market (we are pretty confident they will), but we also have the flexibility to watch the market and respond, reassess and refocus. That sense of agility and quick discovery is thrilling, and our team thrives on this calculated, “try it out and see if it will float” approach.

4. It’s all hands on deck

When I’m standing on the deck of our small, fast little ship, I’m in plain sight of what everyone is doing and I know exactly where I can jump in to help. And there are many roles to fill. Sometimes, they change: I started my journey as director of public relations for our marketing company and quickly transitioned to managing director, as well as CEO of our brand-new sister startup. Sometimes there are long hours, goals and deadlines that seem impossible. Luckily, I’ve been able to work with a flexible team that usually doesn’t take too long to accept change. The doors keep opening for us, ideas keep coming and favor seems to go before our creative team.

5. I go where the wind takes me

Steering a small ship means getting to participate in something bigger than myself. Sure, we need to build digital platforms, produce films, generate content and manage clients, but it is really much more than the day-to-day grind. We’re building a company, and a culture. And like the mystery of a crew coming together for a maiden voyage, it doesn’t happen by the book. Instead, we strengthen our team in late-night meetings, find inspiration the midday impromptu dance sessions and thrive in the day-to-day hard work of examining what we do, and asking how we can do it better. We do this because this company is ours – sink or swim.

And that’s what I call adventure.

Sara Peary is the CEO of Dohr and Managing Director of RUHM Luxury Marketing.