I've always found it interesting that those who are employed by startup companies regularly express their frustration at the turmoil and ask what it is like to be with the big guys. Then I hear from my large pharma contacts who wonder what it is like to swim along in the currents of the fast-paced biotechnology firm.
A few years ago I gave a presentation entitled, "Birkenstocks and White Shirts," which addressed two types of employers and some of their most distinctive differences. I used the informal sandals-and-jeans look of the small biotech company and contrasted it with the formality of the white-shirts-and-ties culture of the pharmaceutical business.
As a headhunter, I've seen plenty of examples of companies that have gone through the "small to large" (or "Birkenstocks to White Shirts") transition quite quickly. A typical biotech startup company, with scientists wearing Birkenstocks as a badge of their informal culture, will change dramatically after the recruitment of a 'white shirt' manager from Merck or Eli Lilly!
These differences between employers will impact certain kinds of people in different ways. Below, I'll provide a general list of traits of each type of company. As in any generalized list, there will be exceptions. (It is entirely possible that a smaller biotech company could have a formal career ladder in place, for example.) But in a general sense, you'll see a trend emerging and you'll know what kind of culture you are in right now.
If you work in a struggling startup company and wonder how long you can handle the ups and downs, read through the White Shirts list and see how many of these items you'll consider an advantage. Perhaps that craziness of your current company isn't as bad as you thought. Alternately, if you've often thought that the rewards of working for a startup organization looked intriguing, read over the Birkenstocks list and see if perhaps that comfy stability you've been experiencing is really something that you'd care to leave behind.
The Birkenstocks Company
The White Shirts Company
How Do These Differences Impact Your Career?
As for why people leave one environment and go to another, I'd have to say that the major reason that people want to leave the small company is that there is a great deal of stress within the biotech industry. It is in the nature of the companies themselves. These forces include the deadlines imposed by tight funding, the difficulty in managing projects that are continually on a fast track, and the relationships that company founders have with their lead investors. So a move to a larger, more secure firm could indeed be a logical option if you are the sort of person who carries this stress home at night.
And yet, some people fly through these stressful times without so much as a goosebump. Generally, it is because they take comfort in the knowledge that their skills will be in demand at any number of companies doing similar work. For a person in a major biotech center like San Francisco or Boston, there are two dozen choices without leaving that zip code.
But how about that person in the larger firm who feels the opposite -- stagnated -- by the lethargic career progress these employees sometimes encounter? They often wonder if their career might be re-invigorated by changing to a biotech company environment. While there are thousands of people from large companies who have found that their skills and abilities can transfer very successfully into biotech, not everyone enjoys the transition. In fact, either of these cross-boundary moves requires considerable attention to what kind of environment you need to do your best work.
Flexibility Is Your Key To Success
In the biotechnology industry, you'll end up working for both "White Shirts" and "Birkenstocks" companies. That's because if you stay in one place long enough, the culture will change and you'll find that young startup employer has become a fully-integrated pharmaceutical company.
There are advantages and disadvantages of both types of companies, large and small. As recruiters, we find that oftentimes the best employees bring experiences with them from the best of both worlds. That's why I believe that being flexible and available to opportunities on either side of this divide can be a very sensible way to manage your career.