The Professional Life Matrix

The Professional Life Matrix

In April of 2013, Professor James Gentry (aka Jimmy), professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism, asked if I would come speak to his Entrepreneurship for Communicators class about the differences between working at a corporation and working at a startup. I’m a Jayhawk through and through who loves KU and Lawrence, so I of course said yes.

I prepared a presentation and set out to tell my story. However, on the drive from Kansas City to Larryville, a thought came to me which included the professional life matrix. So, as entrepreneurs so often do, I abandoned much of my prepared talk in lieu of testing out the idea of the matrix on the students. It worked out pretty well, and earlier this week professor Gentry invited me back to KU to give the presentation again. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the professional life matrix.

What does it mean to choose entrepreneurism over employment? To choose the startup environment over the corporate world? There have been a several articles and blog posts written about corporate vs startup life over the years, including this one by Ryan Farley of LawnStarter. But what can entrepreneurial minded people expect when working at a corporation? What about employee minded people working at a startup? This is the purpose of the professional life matrix.

The matrix starts with two axes. On the X axis, we have Corporation on the left side and Startup on the right. I generically define a corporation and startup as follows:

  • Corporation: an existing business
  • Startup: a new(ish) business

On the Y axis we have Employee on the bottom and Entrepreneur at the top. Not to say one is actually better than the other, but the positioning of each makes sense in the matrix. Google defines employee and entrepreneur as follows:

  • Employee: a person employed for wages or salary, especially at non-executive level.
  • Entrepreneur: a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so.

I think the RISK line speaks for itself. It’s certainly more risky personally and professionally to work at a startup then at a long-standing corporation. The meat of the matrix is found within each quadrant.

If you’re an employee working at a corporation, I consider you to be a Doer, defined as:

  • Doer: listens to instructions and does the job.

This is an ideal match for those who don’t like taking risks, prefer set working hours and appreciate well-defined organizational hierarchies. I started my professional career as a Doer, but quickly discovered that it wasn’t the right lifestyle for me. I naturally gravitated towards the Corporation / Entrepreneur quadrant and found myself becoming an unsolicited Intrapreneur.

  • Intrapreneur: an employee within a company who is assigned a special idea or project, and is instructed to develop the project like an entrepreneur would.

This quadrant is a great place to be for those wanting more stability yet also want to branch out and try new things. You might not have as many freedoms and liberties as working in a startup, but you also have much less risk at stake.

One of the most important areas of the matrix and the reason professor Gentry asked that I speak to his class is the Startup / Employee quadrant. This is home to what I call the Shaper, and they are the bread and butter of any startup.

  • Shaper: understands the mission and wears many hats.

Many entrepreneurial minded millennials think that if they want to get into the startup game, they need to have an idea and start their own company. Not true! Existing startups great and small MUST have a solid team of Shapers to accomplish their mission and goals. Whether you’re a marketer, coder or designer, there are a number of existing startups that would LOVE to have you on their team (especially in Kansas City). It’s the team that makes a startup great. This is the reason for redundancy when it comes to the five things investors consider before investing into a startup:

  1. Team
  2. Team
  3. Team
  4. Market
  5. Idea

A startup with an OK idea led by a sound team of leaders and shapers has a better chance of achieving success than an OK team with an amazing idea. Success is 1% idea and 99% execution.

Last but not least we have the Startup / Entrepreneur quadrant, full of Hipsters, Hackers and Hustlers:

  • Hipster: Creative genius
  • Hacker: Programmer extraordinaire
  • Hustler: Business all-star

It is here you will find those passionate, competitive, self-starting individuals who enjoy thinking outside the box and never give up. They sprinkle risk on their cereal and eat it for breakfast. They feel the need to chase their dreams and start companies from scratch. Jase Wilson of Neighbor.ly, Callie England of Rawxies, Kyle Rogers of Knoda … each of them sit squarely inside this quadrant.

It’s important to note that no quadrant is better than any other. Furthermore, like me, you might find yourself moving from quadrant to quadrant throughout your professional journey. No matter where you position yourself on the matrix, it’s the right place to be if your gut and intuition and YOU are happy.

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