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The Rail and the Road of career

My daughter was watching one of those Kindergarten videos on shapes [YouTube] and at this scene where a car is waiting for the 'Shape Train' to cross the level crossing; I ruminated a conversation between the vehicles where ...
The car wonders to itself  - "I wish I could go as fast as the train!"
The train itself responds "I wish I could roam anywhere like the car does!" [and not be forced to run only where the track goes]
I realized my rumination had a lot of similarity to the differences, perceptions and expectations of 'Corporate' vs. 'Entrepreneur' career paths. Corporate career is like the Railway - you have a defined career path to progress up, if you perform well, play your moves properly (including living with or harnessing office politics and networking), you can reach the top echelons very fast and without much financial risk on yourself.

Entrepreneurship is like driving a car on the road - you have a lot of freedom whether to take the highway, the arterial roads, by lanes and if you like it, just wander off into a cozy small village. It is this aspect that attracts professional most to it - 'independence', 'work on any idea', 'freedom to choose your work hours' etc. - a very rosy side of freelance lifestyle.

The similarities don't end here - in fact the analogy gives us several insights into the norms, habits and paradigms of success in both fields. Few examples:
  • The train must follow rules, signals, stoppages and follow timings strictly to be efficient and reach its destination on time. For the train, the key metric that matters is reaching on time because the rest of the variables are already controlled by the Railroad company.
  • The car, while free to roam exteriors, interiors - whatever - needs self discipline to stay the course. If it lacks its own discipline, it risks just making the journey, but never reaching the destination. On the positive side, that is usually something many people wish for - enjoy the journey, not the outcome.
  • Also, the railway comes with its own amenities - food in pantry (nowadays even Wifi onboard!), while you need to manage your own provisions while riding in a car.
  • There are times when both cars and trains can run at similar speeds - but cars at high speed are much riskier to drive than a train at similar speed. Hence, a good driver is more important in a car ride than a train. 
  • Finally, the train can never be owned by smaller individuals, needs huge capex to set-up and run but lacks maneuverability but cars are nimble, can get 'up-and-running' on any destination fairly quickly but are usually used only for short hauls and run on lower capacities. 
What are lessons from the analogy:

  • If you want to do well in a Corporate career - understand the explicit and tacit 'rules of the game' and follow them strictly; sometimes 'challenging status quo / establishment' may be one of the 'rules of the game'; but either ways - the better you follow the rules, the faster you will grow. When you don't get that promotion you believe you deserved - try to analyze which rules you overlooked and how to follow them in future!
  • Entrepreneurship require self discipline if you want to prosper - else you will be one of those millions of freelancers or 'small businesses' who dwarf out and remain stuck-in-the-middle without any chance of making that million dollar valuation. (It's a different matter if that's what you choose to remain - dont-report-to-anyone-small-biz-boss!)
  • Don't underestimate the importance of scaffolding when planning for Entrepreneurship; from the coffee machine to courier service and office boys, all need money. Unlike 'Intrapreneurship' roles, Entrepreneurship requires that you either take care of the amenities yourself or spend on them (usually more than what big Corporates do on a per head basis). 
  • Never underestimate the importance of having a good team in a Entrepreneurial venture - in a corporate set up, a bad accountant doesn't do much harm, but for a small business venture where margins are low, making mistake of one zero can wipe of profits. Relations are more intertwined in a startup - good cofounder relationship can make or break ventures. 
  • Corporate set-ups are good for established industries requiring large capex (even if they are "new" - like Solar Power or Space travel ventures) but startups are more suited for low capex businesses which need to be agile in changing processes to 'figure out' their business models.

As Steve Blank puts it:
a startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.
Also note that I didn't compare 'Salaried' vs. 'Business' because several Business folk today feel the same 'locked in' feeling of being restricted as several 'Corporate' guys feel; while several 'Salaried' Intrapreneurs exist who have the freedom to work around their passions - some example being professionals like Devdutt Patnaik or Ajit Ranade.

So, if your objective is just to pursue your passion - you need not necessarily embrace the 'Entrepreneur' track; there are ways to pursue passions in Corporate roles as well.

This analogy can be extended much farther, but you get the gist - hope it helps those in the process of deciding to make the shift!


  1. well,
    I think salaried job is definitely slavery disguised as freedom.
    entrepreneurship has somehow acqired lot of fluff.

    for me its simply making something useful in finite/short time.
    also if one hires others as an entrepreneur - does one encourage slavery?
    concept of a company will change - all employees will be co founders.
    slowly but surely.
    Ethereum could trigger all this.


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