Why Public Firm Alumni Make Bad Start-Up Employees

General Mills just laid off thousands of folks, hundreds in their corporate HQ. This will continue among public CPG firms as these companies are still overstaffed in many functions, especially marketing. And despite the pandemic surge, they’ve returned to stagnancy. 

This Wall Street tale doesn’t concern founders directly, except that many of these folks will still want to trade on their industry resume for another job. And YOU are the only folks hiring in CPG in their hometowns like Minneapolis. 

Marketers, especially, are laid off quickly by BigCo and pose a confusing temptation to you, the founder. After all, marketers focus their careers on growth, on promoting brands through communications and new product launches. As a growing start-up, they sound like they would fit brilliantly into a hyper-growth organization like yours. Not necessarily. 

Marketing organizations in Big CPG firms are charged with promoting brands, offering up innovation concepts to general managers, and monitoring consumer trends. Very few companies do all three well. But that’s beside the point. 

Marketing is one of those business functions, that, inside a Big company, the staff don’t directly do anything they are paid to do. Salespeople execute sales meetings and deals. R&D scientists create new formulations. Finance specialists track EPS growth by division. The HQ janitor cleans the toilets with his own hands. What this means is BigCo marketers don’t execute anything. They are essentially analysts and administrators. They hire specialists to manage (agencies) or hand off product concepts to R&D to execute internally. This is why they have a terrible reputation among non-marketers in public firms as the ‘folks who push PowerPoint for a living.’ 

These folks can be brilliant, but their skills are critical and analytical. They veer towards the pessimistic end of the continuum, especially after 2+ years in low growth, highly political BigCo organizations. Since their jobs are very academic, they are the first to go during layoffs and, as a result,  tend to be very insecure about their careers. They demonstrate an intense focus on managing impressions to keep their jobs. They are politicians. 

Their titles include brand manager, associate brand manager, brand director, anything with ‘marketing’ in it, and of course the most political – the general manager. 

All of this leads to a pretty worthless start-up employee. They lack a sense of urgency. They are trained to react to problems and, therefore to look for problems. They wait for things to happen and then respond. They are NOT proactive about anything. You don’t want this mentality inside your organization at all. 

What you want is someone who did something unique at a prior start-up. A successful performance marketing campaign, for example. It doesn’t matter if they went to a state school. Seriously. They need to be analytical, yes, but primarily jazzed about executing things for you (store demos, field events, ad campaigns). Someone who wears seven hats happily. Not an academic. Not someone who wants to be a full-time analyst. Be careful as these folks flood the start-up job market. They should be joining consulting firms, but for some reason, they rarely do (too much work, I reckon).

Dr. James Richardson

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