Andrew Roth pivoted from his own venture-building mission to help corporates compete with the nimble start-up scene. His experience holds lessons for anyone contemplating a career jump.
Changing lanes mid-career is no small decision: it’s still an unconventional, even risky move. When I sold my second start-up and joined consulting firm McKinsey & Company, many were surprised by my decision to “go corporate”. But to me, the shift made perfect sense.
Currently, I’m involved with Leap by McKinsey, a consulting practice which works with a wide range of clients – from telco to banking, real estate, and insurance – to co-create new businesses. But I don’t see myself as “corporate”. At heart, I’m still an entrepreneur. I’m just taking this time to learn things that will make me a better venture builder in the long term, with a much-improved skillset in strategy, leadership, and knowledge base.
Whatever business you’re in, fresh perspectives make you more effective – and the experience you’ve gained in your current career can only benefit your future enterprises.
In search of a new kind of problem
I started out in Hawaii, where I handled e-commerce and online marketing for several companies. Back in 2007, a friend sent me a link about Groupon and said: let’s start this in Hawaii. We launched Play Hawaii, which captured the attention of investors. We wound up raising money to start my next company, Perx, a lifestyle marketing platform based in Singapore.
After five years at Perx, I was eager to explore new arenas. In startup life, with its daily ups and downs, you have to be passionate about the problem you’re solving; at that time, there was no urgent issue that really called to me. Supporting a growing family on a start-up salary was also becoming more of a challenge, and the stability of a consulting career was attractive. It felt like the right time to round off some skillsets.
I thought—okay, I know a bit about digital and marketing and product management; what else can I learn to become a more holistic entrepreneur? I was eager to hone my management and strategy skills.
I first got a taste of consulting at Accenture, where I ran the innovation practice. I saw how corporates approach business building, innovation and problem solving. At the time, a lot of start-ups were hiring ex-McKinsey people to run them, so I was curious to see what the company was all about. I got recruited to build up Leap, which offered opportunities to interact directly with CEOs and Boards.
Humility and a drive to learn: antidotes to imposter syndrome
Sure, a mid-career switch can be anxiety inducing, with all the uncertainty and potential culture shock of a new work environment. I was lucky in that I avoided the dreaded “imposter syndrome”: I viewed the process as an opportunity to grow, learn, and become a more complete entrepreneur. This mindset meant I wasn’t intimidated by the recruitment process.
One of the best pieces of advice I got around this time was, “don’t conflate your expertise from the past with apprenticeship.” I’ve seen people make this mistake, particularly entrepreneurs entering a new field: as professionals with experience and credibility, they can feel that an apprenticeship period is beneath them. That kind of attitude can create resentment among colleagues who’ve been there for a while, and undermine trust, which is so important.
If I felt a touch of this coming in, reality soon hit me: consulting was different to what I’d ever experienced before. In terms of intensity and standards of analysis, collaboration, communication, the bar was much higher. Initially, McKinsey asks you to apprentice as an associate for a month; I actually chose to do it for four. I wanted to build trust and make sure I learned the ropes, “the McKinsey Toolkit”, while finding strategic opportunities to assert my expertise.
So I was there in the trenches with the teams, owning a workstream, problem solving with the team, presenting to clients – the basics. It was beneficial to go through all that again. It helped me understand new work processes, and by apprenticing longer, I forged better relationships with clients and leadership.
It was a humbling experience, no doubt, with late nights falling asleep on the laptop with the hotel lights on ... that happened a few times! I had to be willing to let go of my ego. It’s important that your motivation to make the career switch comes from within – external, ego-driven motives, like money, titles, or status, can get in the way of growth.
Bring your unique expertise to the new role
While past experience can’t replace apprenticeship, it can give you an edge. My life as an entrepreneur has given me precious insights that I apply every day in my current job.
Play Hawaii, for example, set the framework for how I view business building, which is: don’t overthink it. Instead of dreaming up a brand-new model, at Play we saw the opportunity to localize. You can save yourself months, if not years, by simply observing: how does this existing product or service work? What’s the essence of the value proposition, and how might that work in Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore? Do the work to understand how to adapt it for your local market.
I’ve also retained an instinct to go directly to the customer. Don’t be afraid to get outside the office! At Perx, we would hand out flyers, test ideas with people on the street … it doesn’t take a long time to talk to five customers about a concept. Having that entrepreneurial mindset in a corporate environment means we don’t spend months on focus groups and surveys.
Another insight is around growth and marketing. You need to have a great product, but also the right go-to-market strategy – getting in front of the right people, finding opportunities to scale up. At Play Hawaii, we signed up 50 restaurants before we wrote a single line of code. During my lunchbreak I’d make a bunch of calls, and if someone was interested, I’d sign them up straight away. It’s that mentality again: with entrepreneurship, you don’t wait around. Months before a launch, you can start creating content, creating community.
The world of business building requires a certain level of ease with uncertainty – which most corporate incumbents lack. You’re introducing things that don’t yet exist. You have to be comfortable with launching an enterprise without first trying to make it perfect. My experience in the world of start-ups certainly prepared me for this role.
In my first year at McKinsey, my ability to adapt entrepreneurial talent to the consultancy space was soon tested. I was on a team helping a client launch a new telco business. We stress-tested the value proposition by directly observing customer behavior, using social media ads and one-on-one interviews. This led to some heated discussions, as the client was emotionally invested in the previous value proposition; but eventually, we earned their confidence and accelerated the business.
As an entrepreneur in charge of my own business, I could take that kind of decision unilaterally. But as a consultant, I have to play more of a coaching role – and actually explain to the client, empathetically, what we were doing and why. The learning curve was steep, but the rewards for both me and my client were palpable.
Taking a leap of faith – and enjoying the gains
I find what I do really exciting. It’s not the traditional consulting path. In addition to giving strategy recommendations, we’re building stuff, we’re launching things; clients are getting opportunities to get that hands-on operating experience. People have the perception that consulting is a cut-throat industry, but my experience has been the opposite. What inspires me is how colleagues lock arms and solve problems. It’s very collaborative.
If you’re already an entrepreneur, joining a consultancy is an amazing way to round off your skills, build teams and attract investment. You’re only going to get better at what you do. And if you’re more on the corporate side of things, there’s no better way to get a look at different verticals and industries and problems, and to find inspiration for the future.
I wouldn’t have had these realizations, or gains, if I hadn’t made a leap of faith and “gone corporate”. Whatever your field, making a mid-career shift doesn’t have to be the end of one road and the start of another—in my view, it’s all part of the same journey.