Why I swapped startups for a venture studio
Our Content Lead, Amy Jacobowitz, reflects on taking the ambition, focus, and scrappy strategic sensibility from her startup days to where it’s meant to thrive: a venture studio.
Much has been said about the Great Resignation. While this movement has been hyperbolically categorized as a sudden enlightenment from white-collar workers that they can ask for more flexibility, reduced hours, usable perks, and better overall conditions in light of the forced remote flexibility from COVID, we have largely failed to recognize that this was a completely avoidable circumstance.
To put it simply for those of us who work in startups: the modus operandi behind the standard VC-backed startup is no longer sustainable to its workforce.
While I was lucky enough to not suffer from a full Network “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” breakdown, the unsustainability has been simmering under the surface for years. I’ve worked at the pivot-heavy startup from a wunderkind founder; I’ve put in my non-stop 80 hours a week tenure for a disruptor whose priorities shifted 180 degrees before and after every board meeting. Fortunately enough for me, my last go-around was with a stable Series D company, who had built a solid reputation and user base from a decade plus spent having a truly valuable offering. The fact that it wasn’t working for my mindset, career goals, and wellbeing there was telling that it was time to part ways and search for a better environment.
Across startups, from the most stable to the most volatile, I’ve found consistencies in the culture that demand:
- Full allegiance to growth at all costs.
- A fetishization of the hockey-stick over a more measured, long-term vision.
- An unhealthy approach to market competition that nets out as a race to the bottom — not just for the morale of the staff, but the experience for the end user.
This isn’t to diminish the undeniably great elements of working at a startup. I consider myself a glass half-full person, and there’s plenty of good to see in these environments. Namely:
- The pressure-test atmosphere often sparks incredible innovation. When we are forced to operate within intense restrictions, some of the most insightful ideas come into play.
- I’ve worked with the smartest, most driven, most interesting people in my career at the three startups I’ve called home.
- The togetherness. While the circumstances for driving people to form tighter working bonds is problematic (long hours, grueling expectations), the collective feeling of “we’re all in this together” helps foster a purpose underlying the work.
In June 2021, I found myself faced with the dilemmas set forth above. After working in startups for a number of years in nearly every stage of the Series spectrum, I felt spent. I coveted the elements I loved, and I loathed and often felt resentful for the pivots, hyper-growth, and lack of focus. Before startups, I’d worked at a small studio that lacked opportunities for growth. I’d also worked as a consultant on the side, and am acutely aware of the non-stop hustle of drumming up new business that can leave one feeling creatively and intellectually deflated.
Enter the venture studio. The concept was new to me, so I’ll explain it as plainly as I understand it. The venture studio merges the worlds of brand, strategy, and product with new ventures. Studios partner with early stage founders to help test assumptions; validate product; then prototype, brand, and essentially build all of the infrastructure, strategy, and readiness to take the product to investors, and then to market.
The model is growing in popularity, but has most successfully been pioneered by Josephmark, a Brisbane-based studio with satellite offices in the Sunshine Coast and in Los Angeles. So naturally, I started there.
When I joined JM in August, I was met with the marriage of innovation and gumption with practicality, sustainability, and downright friendliness. The venture sensibility and savviness comes to play in all of the projects, but JM has a core value of being regenerative, which means things like hyper-growth at all costs get replaced with sensible business strategies that lead to growth (without sacrificing common sense). And while that sounds well and good, the validation is there. Just ask Clipchamp, who partnered with JM in their early stages of re-envisioning their product. They were acquired last month by Microsoft.
No workplace is perfect; that’s just a fact of the working world. Not every individual is going to feel energized and motivated by every new project that comes through the doors (though my own personal favorites include ALNF which helps preserve Indigenous language and culture, and the People’s Grid, working to dismantle Big Energy on a local level). There are spurts of intense work to meet deadlines where work/life balance tilts heavily towards work (though I should note that these are balanced by “recharge and recover” days at a project’s close). I’d be lying if I didn’t say I sometimes felt creatively blocked or overwhelmed — but for me, when that overwhelm comes in service of language preservation, setting teachers up for success or immersive storytelling, it feels a lot better than “because the board wants to see it.”
I’m learning a lot — both on the job working with clients across a diverse array of sectors, and in discovering what and how the venture studio works. Because here’s the thing: it works. And all those factors that are leading to startup workers like myself resigning in droves? I’m not seeing them here. Certainly people leave; any good company fosters the growth of their workforce, and sometimes that means catalyzing their path to other things. But as a differentiation to those standard startup workforce pain points, I’m seeing happier teams and work that drives true impact, and with it a sense of purpose and belonging.
Interested in working with or at Josephmark? Learn more here.